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Kearny Mesa comes close to being our cigar district

I never inhale

Double-bladed, surgical steel guillotine cutter in hand, a fellow in a Hawaiian shirt slices off a little less than a quarter of an inch, and the cap falls to the floor. It’s a clean, decisive cut; the operation is a success, and the patient — Arturo Fuente, by name — is ready to go up in smoke, courtesy of a 2000-degree torch lighter. It’s 1:30 p.m. Tuesday in the lounge at Liberty Tobacco, a shelter for “battered men,” of sorts — a place where gents take refuge from wives and work, hiding out amid glorious shrouds that emanate from robustos, perfectos, and countless other configurations. But (almost) no one ever inhales.

Smoking even a small cigar to the nub takes time; moreover, it’s not always easy to find a copacetic place — hell, even a passable venue — to light up in San Diego. What with outdoor smoking bans and petulant spouses, there’s a bit of planning involved.

But Draconian laws and social opprobrium are no deterrent — cigar lovers are a determined, feisty lot, hard to “snuff out.” I must confess to bias: I love cigars and will continue to smoke them, the surgeon general be damned. Cigar smoking is not my only vice, but if I were inclined to hide any of my “bad” habits, it would be the most difficult to conceal, a difficulty understood by anyone who’s ever fired one up. Thus, in a generally cigar-unfriendly society (with San Diego probably as unfriendly as any large American city save for Salt Lake City), a key question arises: Where the hell can one relax, openly and without shame, with others who share this “vice”?

San Diego doesn’t have a “garment district” or a “jewelry district.” It doesn’t really have a “cigar district” either — few if any American cities do — but Kearny Mesa probably comes as close as any part of town. Drab and prosaic as it may be, far off any well-beaten tourist path, this landscape of mini-malls and gas stations has just about all the components of the USDA-prescribed (or is that “proscribed”?) “vice pyramid.” It’s got strip clubs, porno book stores, and greasy burger joints (an Original Tommy’s, no less) — as well as two full-on, no-excuses smoke shops replete with lounges. If San Diego has a “Stogie Central,” this neighborhood might be it, but, in truth, the local cigar scene is wherever a guy (or rarely, a gal) sits, stands, or reclines in smoky repose, nursing a rolled bunch of dried, aged leaves.

The cigar lounge is a relatively new fixture in San Diego County; it’s a venue that benefits from both governmental and spousal forces. California laws and local ordinances (banning smoking in bars, restaurants, and even beaches) — in conjunction with wives who’d rather smell a cloying scented candle (or a decomposing cat, for that matter) than the olfactory ambrosia that is a good cigar — make lounges a viable hideaway. One might describe the typical cigar lounge as a “men’s club”; while women are not prohibited from entering — and indeed, antidiscrimination laws would kick in something fierce if that were to occur — there aren’t a lot of broads around.

I chatted with Sam Gabriel, the hospitable owner of Cigars Vera Cruz, a smoke shop/lounge in San Marcos, whose mall location — near a Nordstrom Rack and other distaff magnets — gives cigar smokers a pleasurable interlude while avoiding the painful tedium of watching their wives try on clothes. Sam told me most of his customers are indeed men, skewed toward the age 25–45 cohort with “good incomes.” When I asked him what draws smokers to the lounge, he replied that — beyond escaping wifely censure and the weather-related vagaries of outdoor smoking — “a lot of guys come here for the social aspect.” The place is reminiscent of an old-style steakhouse, a lot of dark wood and leather; there’s espresso brewing and a wine and beer license awaiting approval by state bureaucrats. Sam told me that his goal was to create an ultracomfortable, luxurious spot where cigar smokers could relax. But the lounge is more than an adjunct to the shop — it’s vital to keeping the whole operation afloat even as cigar smokers turn increasingly to the Internet.

Back at Liberty, owner Charlie Hennegan, regarded in many (smoke-filled) circles as one of San Diego’s certified cigar mega-mavens, is guiding a novice smoker in the at first daunting business of selecting a good stick. Regulars filter in and out — Charlie knows them all by name. In the lounge, five or six guys, who range from perhaps 30 to 60 in age, tend to their favorite smokes in front of a wide-screen TV with the news on.

This is a lazy-afternoon type of place — no booze or food, just cigars and casual banter. Charlie says it’s his version of the “old-fashioned East Coast neighborhood smoke shop.”

I asked him about Liberty’s location, which, being next door to an Ethan Allen furniture store, seems to parallel that of Cigars Vera Cruz. Charlie says it’s copacetic. “Tell your wife, ‘Here’s the credit card, honey — see you in six or eight hours.’ ” The juxtaposition is amusing: just a few feet from the lazy cloud-drift of burnt tobacco, a predominately distaff clientele salivates over high-priced bedroom sets and tasteful couches, never contemplating that — should their vigilance flag — the coveted woods and precious fabrics might someday be permeated with spent cigar smoke.

In an industry buffeted by the whims of fashion — booms and busts — as well as the unrelenting fiscal assaults by bureaucrats, Charlie is a stalwart and a stayer; he’s been selling cigars for a long time. He knows a lot about these rolled-up leaves, and if you ask, he can tell you everything you’d want to know about cigars. Like any veteran tobacconist, he’s adept at explaining arcane terms like “ring gauge” (the way a cigar’s diameter is measured, in 1/64th-inch increments), ligero (the type of leaf that gives a cigar most of its kick), and so on.

The typical Liberty smoker is a man, somewhere north or south of middle aged — no surprises there; but gender and age aside, cigar smokers are a quirky, iconoclastic bunch, and in any smoke-shop gathering, one is likely to find a maverick or two. One of the more distinctive I’ve met is “Cabbie Chris,” a Liberty regular. Chris, a 40ish fellow with a long, blond ponytail, drives a taxi for a local company and smokes cigars (Cuban when he can) at a prodigious rate. If you shoot the breeze with him long enough, he may confess that someday (triggering event unknown), he plans to move to Cuba. Apparently, he has a 16-year-old girlfriend there, but more importantly, in Fidel’s steamy “worker’s paradise,” Chris will be able to smoke all the Cubans he wants, on the cheap and without fear of U.S. Customs confiscation.

Just down the road from Charlie’s domain, Excalibur Cigar and Wine Lounge, though junior by many years (and somewhat bereft of warmth), attempts to compete by offering wine, beer, and a lot more luxury. From the outside, it doesn’t look like much, but, belying its Clairemont Mesa Boulevard setting, it’s upscale in feel. Owner Tom Kalasho, a curt Middle Easterner, has gone all out to fill it with overstuffed leather chairs and dark wood, nicely appointed in a “man-fort” way. It also claims San Diego’s largest walk-in humidor (an attribute of no small import to cigar buyers) where 10,000 or so smokes wait in pleasantly damp, Spanish cedar–lined repose.

No matter the setting, Tom, Charlie, Sam, and every other tobacconist worth his maduro wrapper wants you to know that while cigars aren’t without hazard (certainly, the risk of oral cancer goes up), moderate cigar smoking (we’re talking non-inhalers here) isn’t particularly harmful. It’s also damn relaxing. And, for what it’s worth, San Diego’s cigar lounges count among their frequent guests a surprising number of physicians, not to mention a scattering of professional athletes. Still, an inevitable question hangs in the air like the sweet smell of a Cohiba Siglo III: Is cigar smoking compatible with the sort of super-fit lifestyle many San Diegans profess to lead?

I asked a handful of local puffers — perhaps a representative sample, perhaps not: Can one enjoy cigars even as one leads a genuinely healthy, even athletic existence? Do the protestations of “public health” types — the killjoys who constantly issue fatwas against everything from meat to fast driving — have any merit? Getting down to specifics, will cigars (again, not inhaled, mind you) “cut your wind,” rendering each step of a mundane 5K run progressively slower until one comes to a standstill? As it turns out, there are a surprising number of serious runners and other accomplished exercise devotees who dig these hand-rolled bundles; I spoke to several men whose athletic prowess seems to dispel (or at least cast doubt on) the nasty notion that cigars — whatever their other drawbacks — might inhibit cardiovascular health or performance in sports.

Unless he told you while strapped to a polygraph machine, you’d never know that Marty Twite was a cigar man; I mean, for God’s sake, here’s a guy who has run a 10K race in 36 minutes, a time that placed him a lot closer to the top than the bottom in his age group.

At 50, he swims 3000 yards a day. Twite, an engineer with several patents to his credit, is lean, tanned, and lithe — every bit the picture of a SoCal endurance athlete — hardly the classic portrait of the portly, sedentary fat-cat stogie-chomper sitting at the dark end of a saloon. But smoke cigars he does, albeit only occasionally. He says, emphatically, that cigars have never hindered his performance; “It’s just not an issue.”

As I nosed around San Diego’s cigar lounges, I also spoke with several accomplished tennis players, a competitive bodybuilder, and even a fair-to-middling triathlete. Largely white-collar types, 25–50 years old, they all told me that they take fitness seriously but see no reason not to enjoy cigars. The triathlete, who, for obvious “image” reasons prefers to remain anonymous, laughed when I asked if he’d ever smoked a cigar before an event. “That’s a little over the top, but hey, after the race, I deserve a cigar and a six-pack. Just don’t tell the other guys.”

If cigar smoking doesn’t exclude the healthy, does it by chance exclude the less than wealthy? Thumbing through the slick pages of Cigar Aficionado, one might think so. “CA,” as it’s known — the best-known and certainly most opulent (some would say, most pretentious) media showcase for cigars — speaks reverently of a cigar “lifestyle,” replete with Ferraris, $15,000 tourbillion watches, $500 designer ashtrays, and museum-piece cigar cutters. But does this “lifestyle” exist — or is it just a fatuous notion, an advertiser’s pipe dream?

For most of the San Diego cigar smokers I encountered, the touted accoutrements, even those labeled “indispensable,” are just as remote and unattainable as they would be for the average cigarette smoker — laughably unrealistic. Sure, the cigar-smoking denizens of Rancho Santa Fe and La Jolla are more likely to own a walk-in humidor than the folks in, say, Clairemont, but even the most plebeian of locals can afford a good five-dollar cigar now and then. Many smokers at Liberty (the savviest and most value-conscious of San Diego cigar smokers with whom I spoke) pay less. Willing to overlook tiny, cosmetic blemishes that often trip up big-name smokes in quality-control drills, they find “seconds,” like the ones made by H. Upmann and others, more than adequate at around two bucks a stick.

Even if outlandish accompaniments aren’t commonplace, it seems that San Diego’s cigar buffs aren’t reluctant to shell out cash for high-end cigars, a fact borne out at Cigars Vera Cruz, which sells a surprising number of expensive handmades. When I asked Sam what his best sellers were, he answered, without hesitation, “Padron Series 1926 and 1964, especially the #9.” I’d never before associated San Marcos with the “high life” (save Miller, perhaps), but the popularity of these Nicaraguan Padron puros (single-country-origin tobacco), at $12–$25 a pop, gave me pause.

The pleasures of small luxuries aside, one is not likely to encounter the ultra-wealthy at any San Diego County cigar smoke shop/lounge. Unless you’re downtown, at Seaport Village, or maybe Del Mar or La Jolla — it’s just a bunch of local guys — disposable incomes aside — attempting in some inchoate fashion to reconstruct a few of the social connections severed by the new “connectivities” of our times.

Part of the sociability of the cigar scene derives from the sense that cigars, as they’re marketed, are an indulgence that — while available to all — are meant to appeal to folks who appreciate the “finer things in life.” There seems to be some truth behind this construct; while not in any real sense an “elite” group, San Diego’s cigar smokers would appear to be discernibly different from their distant, desultory cousins, the cigarette fiends. One man’s take was emblematic.

Dave G. was first “turned on” (he hesitated to use the term “hooked”) a few years back during the mid-’90s boom. His first cigar was a Cuban Montecristo #4, in cigar-speak, a corona (six inches long with a 46–ring gauge diameter) supplied by a fellow financial planner at a backyard gathering. “I’d never smoked tobacco before,” he told me. He’d always regarded cigarettes as the province of white trash, the uneducated and unsophisticated, the corpulent

Wal-Mart shoppers who didn’t give a shit about their health. He mused, “You know, when I bought my first box of cigars, I thought, ‘Here I am, a guy with a couple of advanced degrees, from a family of physicians, no less; I’d been warned about the dangers of tobacco for decades. Could I really enjoy these things? Yes, I thought, hell yes!’ ” Nevertheless, his wife and kids still give him grief, which is why — when he tires of the stale solitude of his garage — he heads for a cigar lounge or cigar dinner.

Even if your wife doesn’t condemn cigars — doesn’t require that you undergo a full-body skin transplant before you step inside the bedroom and tolerates breath that smells like the lobby of a downtown flophouse — there are more than enough politicians (including some who actually smoke them) who’d like to tax cigars out of existence. If Charlie Hennegan has a nemesis, and his supremely mild manner would suggest few enemies, it’s the tax man.

Charlie’s first cigar, a very mild Macanudo, did not portend a future as a tobacconist, much less a pro-cigar activist. “I was in college at Loyola of Baltimore on a double date, and the four of us went down to Georgetown in Washington, D.C., to party. I wanted to show my date that I was a bon vivant, I guess — a “man of the world” — so I lit up a cigar and proceeded to get very sick.” But after learning how to smoke without inhaling, he discovered the joys of the leaf and began the smoky trail that would take him from “green” novice to standout retailer and champion of cigar smokers.

I first met Charlie Hennegan in 1997 at a book-signing event at the Borders bookstore in Carmel Mountain; he was there in conjunction with Dale Scott, who’d penned a quirky little volume, How to Select and Enjoy Premium Cigars. By then, he’d owned Liberty (where he started as a customer) for a dozen years. Not long after that, as I became a Liberty “regular” (well, not as regular as some), I realized that Hennegan and Scott had something in common beyond cigar “aficionado” status — a live-and-let-live libertarianism that not only recognizes but celebrates the sort of visceral pleasure one derives from good food, drink, and smoke. But Charlie does more than extol the virtues of a well-made cigar; he’s actually a political activist, of sorts. Beyond his informal role as a cigar “goodwill ambassador,” he’s an advocate for an industry that he feels has been unfairly singled out for criticism and abused by outrageous taxation.

Soft-spoken, low-key, and downright courtly, Charlie doesn’t seem like a guy who’d carry a grudge; but if he has one, it might be directed at Rob Reiner and his fellow Hollywood types who’ve (successfully) urged California to impose, in recent years, some of America’s most onerous tobacco taxes. As vice president of CART, the California Association of Retail Tobacconists — a 350-store trade group he helped found a decade ago — Charlie has long battled sanctimonious politicos. “Over the years,” he tells me, “I’ve expended a lot of energy fighting [California ballot initiatives] Propositions 10 and 86.”

Few things in life make Charlie fume (and he’s hard to vex) like the blowhard bureaucrat who’d like nothing better than to tax cigars right out of existence — or at least make them available only to their well-heeled benefactors. Charlie also bridles at the refusal of politicians and others who, atop the high horse of “public health,” willfully fail to distinguish between cigars and cigarettes. In a peculiar way, Liberty Tobacco — with its humorous cartoons and articles posted on walls, counters, and cabinets — reminds me of an “activist” bookstore or record shop with a patriotic (but libertarian) slant, all of it filtered through a pleasant haze of burning leaves.

Second on the “most wanted” list of any tobacconist is the online seller, typified by giants like Cigar International and Thompson Cigar. Huge volume, the lack of state sales tax, efficient shipping, and most of all, avoidance of California’s massive tobacco tax have enabled Internet smoke shops to cut into the locals’ territory. But unlike some small businesses — San Diego’s nearly extinct local record stores come to mind — “brick and mortar” smoke shops survive, even thrive. I asked Charlie why his customers prefer (at least some of the time) to battle traffic to get to his shop, where, by his own admission, he can’t match the online sellers’ prices on brands they both sell.

Having spent more than a few hours browsing the Liberty humidor myself, I already knew the answer, which might be described as a “filler” of good products, held together with a “binder” of cigar experts, and covered with a “wrapper” of warmth and bonhomie.

Theoretically, for those who prefer to “buy local” — customers who need to pinch, sniff, and fondle before whipping out the cash — cigars can be bought in a variety of places, including a number of grocery, drug, and liquor stores, as well as the occasional convenience mart or gas station; even the gift shop at the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club will sell you an overpriced, dried-out specimen if you’re desperate. But for an acceptable selection of decent-quality, hand-rolled cigars — sticks worthy of and requiring a humidor and that have been thusly stored — one must seek out a specialist, a retailer specifically in the cigar business (pipe tobacco is OK). That’s how most local smoke shops survive, along with the lure of the lounge.

Of course, it’s not just locals who buy cigars at brick-and-mortar stores; there’s a brisk tourist trade as well, as exemplified by the patrons at Captain Hunt Tobacconist in Seaport Village. Seaport Village is — let’s face it — a tourist trap, the kind of place few locals admit to visiting, much less liking. But it’s an ideal place to sell expensive handmades to affluent tourists, and it’s a good thing they’re affluent because rent’s pretty steep at this faux–New England fishing settlement.

The “Captain” is Harry Hunt, a veteran cigar seller who does in fact hail from New England. The Cap’n’s place, though tiny at 420 square feet, is a legit, first-class smoke shop — with walk-in humidor, top brands, and most importantly, a knowledgeable owner.

Hunt tells me that about 95 percent of his patrons are tourists, a mix of foreigners (mostly Europeans), as well as Americans from the Northeast and (in the summer) Arizona. Their taste in cigars runs to high-end offerings like the Fuente “Opus X” and the Perdomo “Presidente.”

When I asked him whether the economy was hurting business these days, he replied that the tourists, notably travelers from England, Germany, and Scandinavia, are still coming in numbers. “They’re here on vacation, out to have a good time. They don’t think anything of spending 20, even 30 bucks for a cigar; for them, it’s part of the relaxing San Diego experience. Summer is ‘high season’ around here, and we expect to be busy as usual.” But can you smoke on the merry-go-round?

Like Charlie Hennegan and Harry Hunt, Sam Gabriel agreed that the Internet is a big problem for local tobacconists. Sam says that his business would be “three times” greater without the competitive disadvantages faced by California smoke shops. He explained that, courtesy of Sacramento politicians, he is forced to pay $45.13 in taxes for every $100 of tobacco he buys. This punitive tax — in conjunction with the (better-known) absence of Internet sales tax, as well as the realities of economy of scale — renders it impossible for local shops to compete on price. So the neighborhood tobacconist must rely on personalized service and ambience to create customer loyalty that, built over years, trumps price often enough to keep the shop in business.

Most San Diego–area smoke shops sell the top, nationally distributed brands, typified by high-end players like Padron 1926 and 1964, Arturo Fuente Opus X, Davidoff, and other “special occasion” sticks — many of which retail for $12–$25 a pop. Every smoke shop also offers good-quality — albeit, less-sought-after — handmade cigars for as little as $2 each. There are variations in selection, but most smokers I met say that a good smoke can be had at a number of stores, which means that competing retailers, most of whom know each other, must take other, non-tobacco measures to differentiate themselves.

“Liberty is king,” says John Davidson of Churchill Cigar Lounge in Old Town. But that doesn’t mean Churchill can’t compete. Although it’s a small shop (800 square feet) without a walk-in humidor, Davidson says it does a booming business because of its close-knit cadre of regulars, its outdoor smoking patio, and perhaps most notably, its extraordinary selection of prestigious wine and beer. Davidson says that on Thursday and Friday nights, it’s “standing room only” as the guys, all of whom know one another, gather to watch the “eye candy” strolling by the patio — comely tourist women in Old Town for trinkets and margaritas but never cigars. That’s the incongruous thing about Churchill: while located in the heart of the reconstituted, prepackaged remnants of Old San Diego, it draws few out-of-towners.

While no slouch in the premium cigar department, Churchill, according to Davidson, differs from other local cigar joints because it focuses on wine and beer connoisseurs, who stop by even if they’re ambivalent about cigars. Davidson hints that wine — there are 650 bottles in the cooler — might just subsidize smoke here. With audible enthusiasm, he points to offerings like Sea Smoke pinot noir, which he says is “snapped up” at $125 a bottle as soon as word gets out that it’s in stock. As for beer, Churchill boasts four Belgian ales on tap, said to be quite unusual in San Diego.

As vital as cigar lounges are to San Diego’s cigar scene, a lot of smoking still takes place out of doors, sometimes out of choice; many cigar smokers crave the added relaxation that comes with solitude and, as odd as it may sound, would rather not inhale secondhand smoke, even their own. Some repair to the back yard, but often as not, the neighborhood soundtrack of screaming kids, yapping dogs, and lawn mowers make quiet reflection a joke.

In San Diego proper, and in other local municipalities, local political hacks — not content with Draconian drinking bans — have made most of the traditional outside cigar settings (beaches, parks, golf courses, and sports stadiums) off limits. Even where enforcement is spotty, there are always officious intermeddlers ready to rat out scofflaws; nonetheless, I spoke to a number of guys who said, in effect, “I’ll smoke where I damn well please.” On the other hand, there are still a few scenic venues, like Torrey Pines State Beach, where you can fire up a Lonsdale or Churchill without fear of Orwellian consequences — but you’ll still have to fight the wind and perhaps a few dirty looks.

What about smoking while eating? The cigar dinner is another way that San Diegans take in their smoke, albeit not as frequently as during the boom days of the 1990s. (Only restaurants with outside seating areas can host them now.) Although most of the cigar smokers with whom I spoke enjoy smoking in a variety of settings (the golf course, backyard barbecue, racetrack, and so on), there seems to be a general consensus that well-matched food and drink enhance the experience. There’s also the queasiness factor; smoking a full-bodied cigar (or a couple of middleweights) on an empty stomach can turn even veteran smokers green. A number of area restaurants hold cigar dinners, among them gastronomic heavyweight Mille Fleurs and (not unexpectedly) steakhouses like Morton’s and the Butcher Shop.

I spoke with Jim Barrasso, owner of Firefly Grill and Wine Bar in Encinitas, whose cigar dinners are held on an outdoor patio that seats 28. As it happens, one of his principal suppliers is Cigars Vera Cruz, which suggests copacetic cigars for Firefly’s sophisticated cuisine. The format is created for foodies who take their cigars (as well as their food and wine) seriously; although red meat — the traditional “manly” staple of cigar dinners — figures large, Firefly’s chef, Aaron Daily, employs a light touch.

The opening round is a light-bodied stick accompanied by appetizers and mixed drinks, a mojito or a cuba libre — trendy, rum-based cocktails whose Caribbean origins mesh well with cigar culture. Next, it’s a first course — grilled “jerk” prawns or seared “day boat” scallops — accompanied by another, more robust cigar and paired with a white wine (a local Chardonnay or perhaps a more esoteric bottle, like a Spanish Albarino). For the main course, it’s on to a grilled steak — Latin-style skirt steak or flat iron — paired with a robust red such as a Zinfandel or an Argentinean Malbec. Finally, it’s all capped off with the strongest cigar of the evening, puffed between sips of port or cognac and bites of tiramisu or mascarpone cheesecake. In jest, I asked Jim if he had a “cigar corkage fee.” He said, “No, but there are people who bring their own. Some of these guys are crazy — three aren’t enough.”

Wherever you smoke a hand-rolled cigar in San Diego, it’s most likely a product manufactured in a large factory in the tropics, typically the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Nicaragua, or (barring counterfeits) Cuba. Aside from Connecticut shade-grown wrapper, the leaves themselves hail almost exclusively from those banana republics, as well as from Brazil, Cameroon, the Canary Islands, Ecuador, Indonesia, and Mexico. But, for those who seek a smoke straight from the roller’s table — and can’t afford the tariff or hassle of trekking to Esteli, Nicaragua, or Santiago in the Dominican Republic — San Diego offers a surprising option.

Not many American cities of any size have their own chinchal, but San Diego does — downtown’s Cuban Cigar Factory, which bills itself as the largest manufacturer of hand-rolled cigars on the West Coast. “Largest” is relative, of course; chinchal is a Cuban term for “small factory,” apparently slightly disparaging at one time but viewed by old-timers and revivalists alike as the mark of a tradition that refuses to die. San Diego would seem an unlikely place for a chinchal.

There were thousands of chinchales — or “buckeyes,” as they were known in some parts — in the America of 1900; eventually, though, the independent cigar makers fell by the wayside, persisting only in places like Miami’s Little Havana, Tampa’s Ybor City, and Union City, New Jersey. Although the cigar boom of the early to mid-’90s spurred a modest renewal of the neighborhood cigar-roller, the subsequent cigar “bust” has restricted the chinchales largely to locales where Cubans have emigrated en masse — and San Diego isn’t one of them. So it seemed incongruous when the Cuban Cigar Factory opened its doors in the early 1990s, joining the Gran Havana Cigar factory across the street.

At one time, Cuban Cigar had eight rollers, largely Cuban exiles from cigar-rolling families. But the cigar business is a volatile one; even with the demise of Gran Havana — which was later bulldozed out of existence by the City of San Diego’s eminent domain–powered “redevelopment” assault — the place has become a one-man chinchal. According to Chrissie Avery, long-time manager, customers have increasingly sought name brands; perhaps, concomitantly, the novelty of smoking specimens “fresh off the table” has declined.

Nowadays, there’s just Julio, a veritable one-man rolling machine, a Dominican who can roll a cigar in 13 seconds (they’ve timed him) and who’s been known to pump out up to 1000 sticks a day (the industry average is around 300). He’s been rolling his own for decades now — using over 100 different wooden molds to help shape the leaves. As many cigar-makers do, he strives to recapture the taste of pre-Castro Cuba — the stuff of legend that, in the years between the Spanish-American War and the Bay of Pigs, shouted, “¡Cuba libre!” to much of the world.

As is the case with most chinchales, wherever located, Cuban Cigar’s smokes are mostly (save for a “vintage” line aged three to five years) “fresh” — unaged, awaiting purchase straight off the roller’s table. So, I asked — notwithstanding the modest price range of $3–$7: Why would I buy San Diego–made cigars instead of the myriad well-aged products available at local shops? Avery replied that the moist, vegetal (more “plant-like”) sticks were an “interesting experience” and tend to have a better draw than their aged counterparts. However, she did admit that 45 days in one’s humidor might enhance them a bit.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Cuban Cigar isn’t its role as a chinchal but the fact that one of its mainstays is a woman in an unabashedly male business. Chrissie smokes what she sells — two to four sticks a month. She also told me that 35 percent of her customers are women, and while perhaps half of them are buying gifts for husbands or boyfriends, quite a few are (gasp!) purchasing for their own enjoyment. True, many of these cigars are small, flavored numbers — but they’re still cigars.

I asked smoky San Diegans: What does it take to be considered a “hard-core” cigar smoker? As is the case with drinking — the “heavy” indulger is often characterized as one who “partakes” more than you do. Still, as I interviewed local cigar store owners and smoke shop/lounge patrons, I uncovered a rough consensus as to what it might take to be deemed a truly dedicated cigar buff. First, there’s the matter of inhalation: very few people inhale cigars, and those who do are considered weird (not to mention strong candidates for pulmonary disease). Churchill’s John Davidson told me that, in all his years in the business, he’d encountered probably “just a handful” of inhalers and that (in so many words) they were “nuts.” Charlie Hennegan said he couldn’t think of anyone who’d do it voluntarily and added, “It’s your choice, but I know if I inhaled, I wouldn’t feel very good.”

Then there’s quantity. Charlie opines that two to three or more every day might put you in the hard-core category; Harry Hunt puts the daily threshold at four. In Davidson’s view, five or more cigars a day makes one “hard core”; while Tom Gabriel says you’ve got to fire up at least six to eight. Chrissie Avery (recalling the prodigious puffing of “Ivan,” a former Cuban Cigar employee) puts the figure at ten. Tom Kalasho says that ten sticks a day are the minimum entrance requirement for the hard-core stogie society.

All San Diego cigar buffs seem to agree, though — ultimately, tallying the number of smokes per day is as peripheral to enjoyment as is precisely measuring the length of ash hanging from a burning cigar. It’s all about relaxation and repose, perhaps with a bit of simpatico interaction thrown into the blend, in a setting far from wives and politicians, where one is free to smoke, smoke, smoke — but (almost) never inhale.

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Double-bladed, surgical steel guillotine cutter in hand, a fellow in a Hawaiian shirt slices off a little less than a quarter of an inch, and the cap falls to the floor. It’s a clean, decisive cut; the operation is a success, and the patient — Arturo Fuente, by name — is ready to go up in smoke, courtesy of a 2000-degree torch lighter. It’s 1:30 p.m. Tuesday in the lounge at Liberty Tobacco, a shelter for “battered men,” of sorts — a place where gents take refuge from wives and work, hiding out amid glorious shrouds that emanate from robustos, perfectos, and countless other configurations. But (almost) no one ever inhales.

Smoking even a small cigar to the nub takes time; moreover, it’s not always easy to find a copacetic place — hell, even a passable venue — to light up in San Diego. What with outdoor smoking bans and petulant spouses, there’s a bit of planning involved.

But Draconian laws and social opprobrium are no deterrent — cigar lovers are a determined, feisty lot, hard to “snuff out.” I must confess to bias: I love cigars and will continue to smoke them, the surgeon general be damned. Cigar smoking is not my only vice, but if I were inclined to hide any of my “bad” habits, it would be the most difficult to conceal, a difficulty understood by anyone who’s ever fired one up. Thus, in a generally cigar-unfriendly society (with San Diego probably as unfriendly as any large American city save for Salt Lake City), a key question arises: Where the hell can one relax, openly and without shame, with others who share this “vice”?

San Diego doesn’t have a “garment district” or a “jewelry district.” It doesn’t really have a “cigar district” either — few if any American cities do — but Kearny Mesa probably comes as close as any part of town. Drab and prosaic as it may be, far off any well-beaten tourist path, this landscape of mini-malls and gas stations has just about all the components of the USDA-prescribed (or is that “proscribed”?) “vice pyramid.” It’s got strip clubs, porno book stores, and greasy burger joints (an Original Tommy’s, no less) — as well as two full-on, no-excuses smoke shops replete with lounges. If San Diego has a “Stogie Central,” this neighborhood might be it, but, in truth, the local cigar scene is wherever a guy (or rarely, a gal) sits, stands, or reclines in smoky repose, nursing a rolled bunch of dried, aged leaves.

The cigar lounge is a relatively new fixture in San Diego County; it’s a venue that benefits from both governmental and spousal forces. California laws and local ordinances (banning smoking in bars, restaurants, and even beaches) — in conjunction with wives who’d rather smell a cloying scented candle (or a decomposing cat, for that matter) than the olfactory ambrosia that is a good cigar — make lounges a viable hideaway. One might describe the typical cigar lounge as a “men’s club”; while women are not prohibited from entering — and indeed, antidiscrimination laws would kick in something fierce if that were to occur — there aren’t a lot of broads around.

I chatted with Sam Gabriel, the hospitable owner of Cigars Vera Cruz, a smoke shop/lounge in San Marcos, whose mall location — near a Nordstrom Rack and other distaff magnets — gives cigar smokers a pleasurable interlude while avoiding the painful tedium of watching their wives try on clothes. Sam told me most of his customers are indeed men, skewed toward the age 25–45 cohort with “good incomes.” When I asked him what draws smokers to the lounge, he replied that — beyond escaping wifely censure and the weather-related vagaries of outdoor smoking — “a lot of guys come here for the social aspect.” The place is reminiscent of an old-style steakhouse, a lot of dark wood and leather; there’s espresso brewing and a wine and beer license awaiting approval by state bureaucrats. Sam told me that his goal was to create an ultracomfortable, luxurious spot where cigar smokers could relax. But the lounge is more than an adjunct to the shop — it’s vital to keeping the whole operation afloat even as cigar smokers turn increasingly to the Internet.

Back at Liberty, owner Charlie Hennegan, regarded in many (smoke-filled) circles as one of San Diego’s certified cigar mega-mavens, is guiding a novice smoker in the at first daunting business of selecting a good stick. Regulars filter in and out — Charlie knows them all by name. In the lounge, five or six guys, who range from perhaps 30 to 60 in age, tend to their favorite smokes in front of a wide-screen TV with the news on.

This is a lazy-afternoon type of place — no booze or food, just cigars and casual banter. Charlie says it’s his version of the “old-fashioned East Coast neighborhood smoke shop.”

I asked him about Liberty’s location, which, being next door to an Ethan Allen furniture store, seems to parallel that of Cigars Vera Cruz. Charlie says it’s copacetic. “Tell your wife, ‘Here’s the credit card, honey — see you in six or eight hours.’ ” The juxtaposition is amusing: just a few feet from the lazy cloud-drift of burnt tobacco, a predominately distaff clientele salivates over high-priced bedroom sets and tasteful couches, never contemplating that — should their vigilance flag — the coveted woods and precious fabrics might someday be permeated with spent cigar smoke.

In an industry buffeted by the whims of fashion — booms and busts — as well as the unrelenting fiscal assaults by bureaucrats, Charlie is a stalwart and a stayer; he’s been selling cigars for a long time. He knows a lot about these rolled-up leaves, and if you ask, he can tell you everything you’d want to know about cigars. Like any veteran tobacconist, he’s adept at explaining arcane terms like “ring gauge” (the way a cigar’s diameter is measured, in 1/64th-inch increments), ligero (the type of leaf that gives a cigar most of its kick), and so on.

The typical Liberty smoker is a man, somewhere north or south of middle aged — no surprises there; but gender and age aside, cigar smokers are a quirky, iconoclastic bunch, and in any smoke-shop gathering, one is likely to find a maverick or two. One of the more distinctive I’ve met is “Cabbie Chris,” a Liberty regular. Chris, a 40ish fellow with a long, blond ponytail, drives a taxi for a local company and smokes cigars (Cuban when he can) at a prodigious rate. If you shoot the breeze with him long enough, he may confess that someday (triggering event unknown), he plans to move to Cuba. Apparently, he has a 16-year-old girlfriend there, but more importantly, in Fidel’s steamy “worker’s paradise,” Chris will be able to smoke all the Cubans he wants, on the cheap and without fear of U.S. Customs confiscation.

Just down the road from Charlie’s domain, Excalibur Cigar and Wine Lounge, though junior by many years (and somewhat bereft of warmth), attempts to compete by offering wine, beer, and a lot more luxury. From the outside, it doesn’t look like much, but, belying its Clairemont Mesa Boulevard setting, it’s upscale in feel. Owner Tom Kalasho, a curt Middle Easterner, has gone all out to fill it with overstuffed leather chairs and dark wood, nicely appointed in a “man-fort” way. It also claims San Diego’s largest walk-in humidor (an attribute of no small import to cigar buyers) where 10,000 or so smokes wait in pleasantly damp, Spanish cedar–lined repose.

No matter the setting, Tom, Charlie, Sam, and every other tobacconist worth his maduro wrapper wants you to know that while cigars aren’t without hazard (certainly, the risk of oral cancer goes up), moderate cigar smoking (we’re talking non-inhalers here) isn’t particularly harmful. It’s also damn relaxing. And, for what it’s worth, San Diego’s cigar lounges count among their frequent guests a surprising number of physicians, not to mention a scattering of professional athletes. Still, an inevitable question hangs in the air like the sweet smell of a Cohiba Siglo III: Is cigar smoking compatible with the sort of super-fit lifestyle many San Diegans profess to lead?

I asked a handful of local puffers — perhaps a representative sample, perhaps not: Can one enjoy cigars even as one leads a genuinely healthy, even athletic existence? Do the protestations of “public health” types — the killjoys who constantly issue fatwas against everything from meat to fast driving — have any merit? Getting down to specifics, will cigars (again, not inhaled, mind you) “cut your wind,” rendering each step of a mundane 5K run progressively slower until one comes to a standstill? As it turns out, there are a surprising number of serious runners and other accomplished exercise devotees who dig these hand-rolled bundles; I spoke to several men whose athletic prowess seems to dispel (or at least cast doubt on) the nasty notion that cigars — whatever their other drawbacks — might inhibit cardiovascular health or performance in sports.

Unless he told you while strapped to a polygraph machine, you’d never know that Marty Twite was a cigar man; I mean, for God’s sake, here’s a guy who has run a 10K race in 36 minutes, a time that placed him a lot closer to the top than the bottom in his age group.

At 50, he swims 3000 yards a day. Twite, an engineer with several patents to his credit, is lean, tanned, and lithe — every bit the picture of a SoCal endurance athlete — hardly the classic portrait of the portly, sedentary fat-cat stogie-chomper sitting at the dark end of a saloon. But smoke cigars he does, albeit only occasionally. He says, emphatically, that cigars have never hindered his performance; “It’s just not an issue.”

As I nosed around San Diego’s cigar lounges, I also spoke with several accomplished tennis players, a competitive bodybuilder, and even a fair-to-middling triathlete. Largely white-collar types, 25–50 years old, they all told me that they take fitness seriously but see no reason not to enjoy cigars. The triathlete, who, for obvious “image” reasons prefers to remain anonymous, laughed when I asked if he’d ever smoked a cigar before an event. “That’s a little over the top, but hey, after the race, I deserve a cigar and a six-pack. Just don’t tell the other guys.”

If cigar smoking doesn’t exclude the healthy, does it by chance exclude the less than wealthy? Thumbing through the slick pages of Cigar Aficionado, one might think so. “CA,” as it’s known — the best-known and certainly most opulent (some would say, most pretentious) media showcase for cigars — speaks reverently of a cigar “lifestyle,” replete with Ferraris, $15,000 tourbillion watches, $500 designer ashtrays, and museum-piece cigar cutters. But does this “lifestyle” exist — or is it just a fatuous notion, an advertiser’s pipe dream?

For most of the San Diego cigar smokers I encountered, the touted accoutrements, even those labeled “indispensable,” are just as remote and unattainable as they would be for the average cigarette smoker — laughably unrealistic. Sure, the cigar-smoking denizens of Rancho Santa Fe and La Jolla are more likely to own a walk-in humidor than the folks in, say, Clairemont, but even the most plebeian of locals can afford a good five-dollar cigar now and then. Many smokers at Liberty (the savviest and most value-conscious of San Diego cigar smokers with whom I spoke) pay less. Willing to overlook tiny, cosmetic blemishes that often trip up big-name smokes in quality-control drills, they find “seconds,” like the ones made by H. Upmann and others, more than adequate at around two bucks a stick.

Even if outlandish accompaniments aren’t commonplace, it seems that San Diego’s cigar buffs aren’t reluctant to shell out cash for high-end cigars, a fact borne out at Cigars Vera Cruz, which sells a surprising number of expensive handmades. When I asked Sam what his best sellers were, he answered, without hesitation, “Padron Series 1926 and 1964, especially the #9.” I’d never before associated San Marcos with the “high life” (save Miller, perhaps), but the popularity of these Nicaraguan Padron puros (single-country-origin tobacco), at $12–$25 a pop, gave me pause.

The pleasures of small luxuries aside, one is not likely to encounter the ultra-wealthy at any San Diego County cigar smoke shop/lounge. Unless you’re downtown, at Seaport Village, or maybe Del Mar or La Jolla — it’s just a bunch of local guys — disposable incomes aside — attempting in some inchoate fashion to reconstruct a few of the social connections severed by the new “connectivities” of our times.

Part of the sociability of the cigar scene derives from the sense that cigars, as they’re marketed, are an indulgence that — while available to all — are meant to appeal to folks who appreciate the “finer things in life.” There seems to be some truth behind this construct; while not in any real sense an “elite” group, San Diego’s cigar smokers would appear to be discernibly different from their distant, desultory cousins, the cigarette fiends. One man’s take was emblematic.

Dave G. was first “turned on” (he hesitated to use the term “hooked”) a few years back during the mid-’90s boom. His first cigar was a Cuban Montecristo #4, in cigar-speak, a corona (six inches long with a 46–ring gauge diameter) supplied by a fellow financial planner at a backyard gathering. “I’d never smoked tobacco before,” he told me. He’d always regarded cigarettes as the province of white trash, the uneducated and unsophisticated, the corpulent

Wal-Mart shoppers who didn’t give a shit about their health. He mused, “You know, when I bought my first box of cigars, I thought, ‘Here I am, a guy with a couple of advanced degrees, from a family of physicians, no less; I’d been warned about the dangers of tobacco for decades. Could I really enjoy these things? Yes, I thought, hell yes!’ ” Nevertheless, his wife and kids still give him grief, which is why — when he tires of the stale solitude of his garage — he heads for a cigar lounge or cigar dinner.

Even if your wife doesn’t condemn cigars — doesn’t require that you undergo a full-body skin transplant before you step inside the bedroom and tolerates breath that smells like the lobby of a downtown flophouse — there are more than enough politicians (including some who actually smoke them) who’d like to tax cigars out of existence. If Charlie Hennegan has a nemesis, and his supremely mild manner would suggest few enemies, it’s the tax man.

Charlie’s first cigar, a very mild Macanudo, did not portend a future as a tobacconist, much less a pro-cigar activist. “I was in college at Loyola of Baltimore on a double date, and the four of us went down to Georgetown in Washington, D.C., to party. I wanted to show my date that I was a bon vivant, I guess — a “man of the world” — so I lit up a cigar and proceeded to get very sick.” But after learning how to smoke without inhaling, he discovered the joys of the leaf and began the smoky trail that would take him from “green” novice to standout retailer and champion of cigar smokers.

I first met Charlie Hennegan in 1997 at a book-signing event at the Borders bookstore in Carmel Mountain; he was there in conjunction with Dale Scott, who’d penned a quirky little volume, How to Select and Enjoy Premium Cigars. By then, he’d owned Liberty (where he started as a customer) for a dozen years. Not long after that, as I became a Liberty “regular” (well, not as regular as some), I realized that Hennegan and Scott had something in common beyond cigar “aficionado” status — a live-and-let-live libertarianism that not only recognizes but celebrates the sort of visceral pleasure one derives from good food, drink, and smoke. But Charlie does more than extol the virtues of a well-made cigar; he’s actually a political activist, of sorts. Beyond his informal role as a cigar “goodwill ambassador,” he’s an advocate for an industry that he feels has been unfairly singled out for criticism and abused by outrageous taxation.

Soft-spoken, low-key, and downright courtly, Charlie doesn’t seem like a guy who’d carry a grudge; but if he has one, it might be directed at Rob Reiner and his fellow Hollywood types who’ve (successfully) urged California to impose, in recent years, some of America’s most onerous tobacco taxes. As vice president of CART, the California Association of Retail Tobacconists — a 350-store trade group he helped found a decade ago — Charlie has long battled sanctimonious politicos. “Over the years,” he tells me, “I’ve expended a lot of energy fighting [California ballot initiatives] Propositions 10 and 86.”

Few things in life make Charlie fume (and he’s hard to vex) like the blowhard bureaucrat who’d like nothing better than to tax cigars right out of existence — or at least make them available only to their well-heeled benefactors. Charlie also bridles at the refusal of politicians and others who, atop the high horse of “public health,” willfully fail to distinguish between cigars and cigarettes. In a peculiar way, Liberty Tobacco — with its humorous cartoons and articles posted on walls, counters, and cabinets — reminds me of an “activist” bookstore or record shop with a patriotic (but libertarian) slant, all of it filtered through a pleasant haze of burning leaves.

Second on the “most wanted” list of any tobacconist is the online seller, typified by giants like Cigar International and Thompson Cigar. Huge volume, the lack of state sales tax, efficient shipping, and most of all, avoidance of California’s massive tobacco tax have enabled Internet smoke shops to cut into the locals’ territory. But unlike some small businesses — San Diego’s nearly extinct local record stores come to mind — “brick and mortar” smoke shops survive, even thrive. I asked Charlie why his customers prefer (at least some of the time) to battle traffic to get to his shop, where, by his own admission, he can’t match the online sellers’ prices on brands they both sell.

Having spent more than a few hours browsing the Liberty humidor myself, I already knew the answer, which might be described as a “filler” of good products, held together with a “binder” of cigar experts, and covered with a “wrapper” of warmth and bonhomie.

Theoretically, for those who prefer to “buy local” — customers who need to pinch, sniff, and fondle before whipping out the cash — cigars can be bought in a variety of places, including a number of grocery, drug, and liquor stores, as well as the occasional convenience mart or gas station; even the gift shop at the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club will sell you an overpriced, dried-out specimen if you’re desperate. But for an acceptable selection of decent-quality, hand-rolled cigars — sticks worthy of and requiring a humidor and that have been thusly stored — one must seek out a specialist, a retailer specifically in the cigar business (pipe tobacco is OK). That’s how most local smoke shops survive, along with the lure of the lounge.

Of course, it’s not just locals who buy cigars at brick-and-mortar stores; there’s a brisk tourist trade as well, as exemplified by the patrons at Captain Hunt Tobacconist in Seaport Village. Seaport Village is — let’s face it — a tourist trap, the kind of place few locals admit to visiting, much less liking. But it’s an ideal place to sell expensive handmades to affluent tourists, and it’s a good thing they’re affluent because rent’s pretty steep at this faux–New England fishing settlement.

The “Captain” is Harry Hunt, a veteran cigar seller who does in fact hail from New England. The Cap’n’s place, though tiny at 420 square feet, is a legit, first-class smoke shop — with walk-in humidor, top brands, and most importantly, a knowledgeable owner.

Hunt tells me that about 95 percent of his patrons are tourists, a mix of foreigners (mostly Europeans), as well as Americans from the Northeast and (in the summer) Arizona. Their taste in cigars runs to high-end offerings like the Fuente “Opus X” and the Perdomo “Presidente.”

When I asked him whether the economy was hurting business these days, he replied that the tourists, notably travelers from England, Germany, and Scandinavia, are still coming in numbers. “They’re here on vacation, out to have a good time. They don’t think anything of spending 20, even 30 bucks for a cigar; for them, it’s part of the relaxing San Diego experience. Summer is ‘high season’ around here, and we expect to be busy as usual.” But can you smoke on the merry-go-round?

Like Charlie Hennegan and Harry Hunt, Sam Gabriel agreed that the Internet is a big problem for local tobacconists. Sam says that his business would be “three times” greater without the competitive disadvantages faced by California smoke shops. He explained that, courtesy of Sacramento politicians, he is forced to pay $45.13 in taxes for every $100 of tobacco he buys. This punitive tax — in conjunction with the (better-known) absence of Internet sales tax, as well as the realities of economy of scale — renders it impossible for local shops to compete on price. So the neighborhood tobacconist must rely on personalized service and ambience to create customer loyalty that, built over years, trumps price often enough to keep the shop in business.

Most San Diego–area smoke shops sell the top, nationally distributed brands, typified by high-end players like Padron 1926 and 1964, Arturo Fuente Opus X, Davidoff, and other “special occasion” sticks — many of which retail for $12–$25 a pop. Every smoke shop also offers good-quality — albeit, less-sought-after — handmade cigars for as little as $2 each. There are variations in selection, but most smokers I met say that a good smoke can be had at a number of stores, which means that competing retailers, most of whom know each other, must take other, non-tobacco measures to differentiate themselves.

“Liberty is king,” says John Davidson of Churchill Cigar Lounge in Old Town. But that doesn’t mean Churchill can’t compete. Although it’s a small shop (800 square feet) without a walk-in humidor, Davidson says it does a booming business because of its close-knit cadre of regulars, its outdoor smoking patio, and perhaps most notably, its extraordinary selection of prestigious wine and beer. Davidson says that on Thursday and Friday nights, it’s “standing room only” as the guys, all of whom know one another, gather to watch the “eye candy” strolling by the patio — comely tourist women in Old Town for trinkets and margaritas but never cigars. That’s the incongruous thing about Churchill: while located in the heart of the reconstituted, prepackaged remnants of Old San Diego, it draws few out-of-towners.

While no slouch in the premium cigar department, Churchill, according to Davidson, differs from other local cigar joints because it focuses on wine and beer connoisseurs, who stop by even if they’re ambivalent about cigars. Davidson hints that wine — there are 650 bottles in the cooler — might just subsidize smoke here. With audible enthusiasm, he points to offerings like Sea Smoke pinot noir, which he says is “snapped up” at $125 a bottle as soon as word gets out that it’s in stock. As for beer, Churchill boasts four Belgian ales on tap, said to be quite unusual in San Diego.

As vital as cigar lounges are to San Diego’s cigar scene, a lot of smoking still takes place out of doors, sometimes out of choice; many cigar smokers crave the added relaxation that comes with solitude and, as odd as it may sound, would rather not inhale secondhand smoke, even their own. Some repair to the back yard, but often as not, the neighborhood soundtrack of screaming kids, yapping dogs, and lawn mowers make quiet reflection a joke.

In San Diego proper, and in other local municipalities, local political hacks — not content with Draconian drinking bans — have made most of the traditional outside cigar settings (beaches, parks, golf courses, and sports stadiums) off limits. Even where enforcement is spotty, there are always officious intermeddlers ready to rat out scofflaws; nonetheless, I spoke to a number of guys who said, in effect, “I’ll smoke where I damn well please.” On the other hand, there are still a few scenic venues, like Torrey Pines State Beach, where you can fire up a Lonsdale or Churchill without fear of Orwellian consequences — but you’ll still have to fight the wind and perhaps a few dirty looks.

What about smoking while eating? The cigar dinner is another way that San Diegans take in their smoke, albeit not as frequently as during the boom days of the 1990s. (Only restaurants with outside seating areas can host them now.) Although most of the cigar smokers with whom I spoke enjoy smoking in a variety of settings (the golf course, backyard barbecue, racetrack, and so on), there seems to be a general consensus that well-matched food and drink enhance the experience. There’s also the queasiness factor; smoking a full-bodied cigar (or a couple of middleweights) on an empty stomach can turn even veteran smokers green. A number of area restaurants hold cigar dinners, among them gastronomic heavyweight Mille Fleurs and (not unexpectedly) steakhouses like Morton’s and the Butcher Shop.

I spoke with Jim Barrasso, owner of Firefly Grill and Wine Bar in Encinitas, whose cigar dinners are held on an outdoor patio that seats 28. As it happens, one of his principal suppliers is Cigars Vera Cruz, which suggests copacetic cigars for Firefly’s sophisticated cuisine. The format is created for foodies who take their cigars (as well as their food and wine) seriously; although red meat — the traditional “manly” staple of cigar dinners — figures large, Firefly’s chef, Aaron Daily, employs a light touch.

The opening round is a light-bodied stick accompanied by appetizers and mixed drinks, a mojito or a cuba libre — trendy, rum-based cocktails whose Caribbean origins mesh well with cigar culture. Next, it’s a first course — grilled “jerk” prawns or seared “day boat” scallops — accompanied by another, more robust cigar and paired with a white wine (a local Chardonnay or perhaps a more esoteric bottle, like a Spanish Albarino). For the main course, it’s on to a grilled steak — Latin-style skirt steak or flat iron — paired with a robust red such as a Zinfandel or an Argentinean Malbec. Finally, it’s all capped off with the strongest cigar of the evening, puffed between sips of port or cognac and bites of tiramisu or mascarpone cheesecake. In jest, I asked Jim if he had a “cigar corkage fee.” He said, “No, but there are people who bring their own. Some of these guys are crazy — three aren’t enough.”

Wherever you smoke a hand-rolled cigar in San Diego, it’s most likely a product manufactured in a large factory in the tropics, typically the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Nicaragua, or (barring counterfeits) Cuba. Aside from Connecticut shade-grown wrapper, the leaves themselves hail almost exclusively from those banana republics, as well as from Brazil, Cameroon, the Canary Islands, Ecuador, Indonesia, and Mexico. But, for those who seek a smoke straight from the roller’s table — and can’t afford the tariff or hassle of trekking to Esteli, Nicaragua, or Santiago in the Dominican Republic — San Diego offers a surprising option.

Not many American cities of any size have their own chinchal, but San Diego does — downtown’s Cuban Cigar Factory, which bills itself as the largest manufacturer of hand-rolled cigars on the West Coast. “Largest” is relative, of course; chinchal is a Cuban term for “small factory,” apparently slightly disparaging at one time but viewed by old-timers and revivalists alike as the mark of a tradition that refuses to die. San Diego would seem an unlikely place for a chinchal.

There were thousands of chinchales — or “buckeyes,” as they were known in some parts — in the America of 1900; eventually, though, the independent cigar makers fell by the wayside, persisting only in places like Miami’s Little Havana, Tampa’s Ybor City, and Union City, New Jersey. Although the cigar boom of the early to mid-’90s spurred a modest renewal of the neighborhood cigar-roller, the subsequent cigar “bust” has restricted the chinchales largely to locales where Cubans have emigrated en masse — and San Diego isn’t one of them. So it seemed incongruous when the Cuban Cigar Factory opened its doors in the early 1990s, joining the Gran Havana Cigar factory across the street.

At one time, Cuban Cigar had eight rollers, largely Cuban exiles from cigar-rolling families. But the cigar business is a volatile one; even with the demise of Gran Havana — which was later bulldozed out of existence by the City of San Diego’s eminent domain–powered “redevelopment” assault — the place has become a one-man chinchal. According to Chrissie Avery, long-time manager, customers have increasingly sought name brands; perhaps, concomitantly, the novelty of smoking specimens “fresh off the table” has declined.

Nowadays, there’s just Julio, a veritable one-man rolling machine, a Dominican who can roll a cigar in 13 seconds (they’ve timed him) and who’s been known to pump out up to 1000 sticks a day (the industry average is around 300). He’s been rolling his own for decades now — using over 100 different wooden molds to help shape the leaves. As many cigar-makers do, he strives to recapture the taste of pre-Castro Cuba — the stuff of legend that, in the years between the Spanish-American War and the Bay of Pigs, shouted, “¡Cuba libre!” to much of the world.

As is the case with most chinchales, wherever located, Cuban Cigar’s smokes are mostly (save for a “vintage” line aged three to five years) “fresh” — unaged, awaiting purchase straight off the roller’s table. So, I asked — notwithstanding the modest price range of $3–$7: Why would I buy San Diego–made cigars instead of the myriad well-aged products available at local shops? Avery replied that the moist, vegetal (more “plant-like”) sticks were an “interesting experience” and tend to have a better draw than their aged counterparts. However, she did admit that 45 days in one’s humidor might enhance them a bit.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Cuban Cigar isn’t its role as a chinchal but the fact that one of its mainstays is a woman in an unabashedly male business. Chrissie smokes what she sells — two to four sticks a month. She also told me that 35 percent of her customers are women, and while perhaps half of them are buying gifts for husbands or boyfriends, quite a few are (gasp!) purchasing for their own enjoyment. True, many of these cigars are small, flavored numbers — but they’re still cigars.

I asked smoky San Diegans: What does it take to be considered a “hard-core” cigar smoker? As is the case with drinking — the “heavy” indulger is often characterized as one who “partakes” more than you do. Still, as I interviewed local cigar store owners and smoke shop/lounge patrons, I uncovered a rough consensus as to what it might take to be deemed a truly dedicated cigar buff. First, there’s the matter of inhalation: very few people inhale cigars, and those who do are considered weird (not to mention strong candidates for pulmonary disease). Churchill’s John Davidson told me that, in all his years in the business, he’d encountered probably “just a handful” of inhalers and that (in so many words) they were “nuts.” Charlie Hennegan said he couldn’t think of anyone who’d do it voluntarily and added, “It’s your choice, but I know if I inhaled, I wouldn’t feel very good.”

Then there’s quantity. Charlie opines that two to three or more every day might put you in the hard-core category; Harry Hunt puts the daily threshold at four. In Davidson’s view, five or more cigars a day makes one “hard core”; while Tom Gabriel says you’ve got to fire up at least six to eight. Chrissie Avery (recalling the prodigious puffing of “Ivan,” a former Cuban Cigar employee) puts the figure at ten. Tom Kalasho says that ten sticks a day are the minimum entrance requirement for the hard-core stogie society.

All San Diego cigar buffs seem to agree, though — ultimately, tallying the number of smokes per day is as peripheral to enjoyment as is precisely measuring the length of ash hanging from a burning cigar. It’s all about relaxation and repose, perhaps with a bit of simpatico interaction thrown into the blend, in a setting far from wives and politicians, where one is free to smoke, smoke, smoke — but (almost) never inhale.

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What a great article, it is nice for the cigar smoking community to get some informative and positive press. However, it would be a great disservice to San Diego tourists and the local cigar aficionado not to mention Excalibur Cigar Lounge & Wine Bar - Miramar. I subscribe to their email newsletter and decided to attend a recent Rocky Patel event. When I got there I was blown away by the newly constructed walk-in humidor and expanded lounge. I saw some pictures of their new humidor beforehand on their website www.excaliburcigarclub.com but the images do not do the place any justice. You have to see it in person. Anyway, I agree with this article that there are some nice cigar shops scattered all around San Diego, but if you have never been, I highly recommend Excalibur, Miramar. They are doing good things over there.

Oct. 1, 2008

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