Alejandro Robaina, Cuba’s most revered tobacco grower, whose leaves wrap the country’s finest Habano cigars, died Saturday at his home near San Luis. He was 91.
Habanos S.A., the state company that distributes and markets Cuban cigars, announced on its Web site, habanos.com, that he had died after a long illness.
Mr. Robaina (pronounced roe-BYE-nuh) began working on his family’s tobacco fields in western Cuba when he was 10, a year after he smoked his first cigar. He went on to achieve cult status among cigar smokers worldwide for the silken leaves that he produced on his 40-acre plantation, Finca la Piña in Cuchillas de Barbacoa. Their quality could be appreciated in top-of-the-line cigars like Cohiba Espléndidos and Hoyo de Monterrey Double Coronas, renowned for their smoothness and richness.
As his reputation grew, he became a roving ambassador for Cuban cigars, traveling around the world to represent Cuba’s most admired export. When old age made travel inconvenient, he stayed put and the world came to him. Cigar lovers by the hundreds beat a path to tour the plantation, hoping to catch a glimpse of the old man or, perhaps, have him autograph a box of Vegas Robaina cigars, a brand created in his honor.
In later years his tobacco operation was largely run by his grandson, Hiroshi, who survives him, as do four children, nine other grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.
Mr. Robaina was born in Alquízar on March 20, 1919, to a family that had been growing tobacco since 1845 in the Vuelta Abajo region, the cigar world’s equivalent of Bordeaux or Burgundy.
He remained an independent grower after Fidel Castro came to power.
“He wanted me to join a cooperative, and I told him no — I would not do it and that I would remain working with my family,” he told Cigar Aficionado magazine in 2006. “At the end he has understood to the point that a lot of the land is now in the hands of small farmers.”
In the mid-1990s, when the Cuban government named him the country’s best tobacco grower, Mr. Castro himself handed out the award. In 1997, Habanos, a joint venture between the Cuban government and Britain’s Imperial Tobacco Group, created Vegas Robaina, making him the only Cuban grower to have a brand of cigars named after him. In Cuban Spanish, a vega is a tobacco field.
It is a somewhat curious honor, since experts find it hard to detect the presence of Robaina leaves in the product. “Not only does it look rough, it smokes rough, too,” wrote James Suckling, a writer for Cigar Aficionado who visited Mr. Robaina many times over the years. About three million Vegas Robainas are produced annually, packaged in a box whose lid shows Mr. Robaina holding a cigar, with his tobacco fields and a curing barn in the background.
Mr. Robaina discreetly sidestepped questions about his namesake product. At times he seemed mystified by it. But he remained confident about his leaves.
“I have made sure I have passed on my experience to my family so nothing strange will happen,” he said. “Everything will remain the same. So I can leave any minute. I am happy.”
By WILLIAM GRIMES, nytimes
April 19, 2010