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With help from Cuba, Greek cigar sales rise

Greek households are cutting expenses and spending less time at restaurants or hair salons. But one local luxury is defying the downturn: cigars.

Business is good at Domenico Cigars, a tiny factory in central Greece that got its cigar seeds and secrets from Cuba.

Greece's unlikely cigar industry started five years ago in a valley 185 miles northwest of Athens, where conditions are ideally hot and damp. Last year set a record for output - still a modest 70,000 cigars.

Andreas Haralambous, head of the Agriculture Ministry's regional tobacco department, said conditions at Domenico are similar to Cuba's famed Pinar Del Rio region, where the strong-flavored Partagas tobacco is grown.

"Cuban tobacco varieties responded well in this area. The leaves are thin, they burn well and have a good aroma - all good characteristics," he said. "The climate is damp and the soil is also similar, reddish."

Lazaros Tsouvelakidis, in charge of blends at Domenico, said buyers are lured initially by curiosity and the relatively low price. The cigars cost $5 each, about the same as machine-made imports and about half the price of Cuba's hand-rolled cigars.

Tsouvelakidis and local Greek officials traveled to Cuba in 2003, after farmers grew tired of a price slump in cigarette tobacco. They went on tours of cigar-rolling factories and tobacco plantations.

"No one showed us anything," Tsouvelakidis said, remembering one tour where visitors were banned from taking notes. "We weren't allowed to take notes, so we wrote them up on notepads at night at our hotel. We wrote everything down."

Then came years of trial and error to tackle the elaborate task of hand-rolling cigars.

Wooden molds and cigar-presses had to be found or made from scratch, along with humidifying cabinets, a barn to dry or cure hanging leaves, and vats for the lengthy fermentation process. Tsouvelakidis experimented with blends, sending test samples to any Greek cigar lover willing to provide feedback.

Learning to roll was the hardest part.

At Domenico Cigars' two-room factory, four workers sit around a plywood table, quietly rolling cigars as a tiny transistor radio plays music in the background. Ioulia Navrouzidou rolls a wrapper leaf onto the cigar, the final stage of the process that requires the most skill and attention.

"This was very difficult for us to learn, because we knew nothing. But we slowly learned from the guys who went (to Cuba)," she said, chuckling. "We tried it out everyday and in the end we made it. It took us about a year."

Navrouzidou said she'd like to visit Cuba but considers the trip too expensive.

Domenico now employs 35 people. It produces several sizes of cigar, including the small cigarillos, the stocky robustos and the largest cigar known as the Churchill.

In a fashionable part of central Athens, cigar store owner Apostolos Polyzos lights up a Domenico while tending to a constant stream of customers. He said Greek cigars are selling well but considers Cuban quality impossible to match.

"(Domenicos) are Cuban seed, but we have different soil so it has a different flavor. The quality is very good ... but still needs some improvement in the rolling and the presentation. This can get better," he said. "People try these cigars because they're Greek but keep buying because they like them."

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Source: San Francisco Chronicle

With help from Cuba, Greek cigar sales rise