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Published: Sunday, April 3, 1994
Page: B6

By Antonio A. Prado / Inland Valley Daily Bulletin

For cigar connoisseurs, their favorite vice is far more than just a smoke. It's the basis of an entire culture and way of living, all centered around the good life and friends.

From time to time, cigar lovers get together for ``smokers,'' an evening of smoking, good food and fine wines.

Recently, 74 men and one woman were on hand at the Sycamore Inn to do - what else? - smoke cigars.

The woman, Kathleen Chula, mingled among the mainly professional crowd of young to middle-aged men.

``Would you like me to light your cigar?'' she asked a fellow smoker, as she passed out Veracruz cigars from Mexico. She was representing the company that distributes the brand.

Like a wine-tasting event, there were samplings of various types and brands of cigars, as well as demonstrations on how they are hand rolled.

Premium hand-rolled cigars cost from $2 to $7 each, but vintage or special blends of tobacco, or hard-to-find brands such as Cubans, can cost $20 each or more.

Sampling fine cigars and spending time away from work or life's troubles are what draws aficionados.

``You get a little fellowship and a little camaraderie,'' said Reggie Sellas, owner of the Sycamore Inn, who stages the event four times a year. ``That's what this is all about.''

A growing trend, smoker nights began catching on after the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Boston started holding them regularly about seven years ago.

At Laguna Niguel's Ritz-Carlton, it costs $250 to get into its black-tie affair and there is a three-year waiting list for invitations.

Sycamore Inn's event was less formal and more modest at $100 per person. Guests received a bag with about a dozen cigars and a cutter. The event also included a full-course meal and wines.

``I go to as many as I can,'' said Dennis Martin of Santa Ana. ``It's the only opportunity to go out and have a smoke without having daggers thrown at you.''

The trend has also helped boost sales of premium cigars, which totaled about $730 million last year, said Norman Sharp of the Washington, D.C.-based Cigar Association of America.

The industry has grown about 24 percent since 1989, due in part to a grass-roots movement among cigar lovers who have promoted their pastime by word of mouth and at smoker nights, Sharp said.

While the industry is growing steadily, Sharp stressed that it doesn't compare to the $46 billion-a-year cigarette market.

Among cigar lovers today are late-night talk show host David Letterman, President Bill Clinton, actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, comedians Whoopi Goldberg and Bill Cosby.

With doctors, attorneys, businessmen and entrepreneurs on hand at these events, they are more than just a place to sample fine tobacco.

Cigar smokers use the opportunity to network and forge friendships that could someday lead to business deals or other ventures.

``You see a lot of CEOs here,'' said Edward Quinn, Sycamore Inn general manager.

The highlight of the evening was the smoking of a priceless, 40-year-old Cuban Partagas, which had been preserved in a humidor since before a U.S. trade embargo against the island nation cut off supplies of the world-famous tobaccos more than 30 years ago.

Taking several minutes to carefully undo its cellophane wrapper, Oscar J. Franck, whose company imports Veracruz cigars, had guests watching in awe as he prepared it for smoking.

After taking a few minutes to warm the cigar lightly with a small flame, carefully turning it to evenly light its tobacco, it was passed around for a much coveted drag on this rare vintage.

Said Roger Imuriani of Palm Springs, after taking a puff: ``Now, that's a cigar.''


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