Zino Davidoff wrote in The Connoisseur’s Book of the Cigar, originally published in 1967 in French and later in five other languages. “I owe it everything: my deepest pleasure and my anguish, the joys in my work as well as my leisure time.”
Zino, a cigar retailer, influential pioneer, and charismatic ambassador in the world of cigars, saw his very name become synonymous for “pleasure” and “lifestyle,” having elevated his own passion for cigars into a philosophy: “Smoke less, but better and longer - make a cult of it, a philosophy!” was his credo.
March 11, 2006 marked the 100th anniversary of Davidoff’s birth, and the company he founded - Davidoff of Geneva - turned back the clock in remembering the man who dedicated his life to cigars with a gala celebration in Geneva, held at the Batiment des Force Motrices, a converted Beaux-Arts water plant perched in the middle of the sparkling Rhone River. The evening officially marked the launch of a pair of special edition anniversary perfectos, the likes of which haven’t been seen since the days when his cigars were manufactured in Cuba; a short movie on DVD; a new Zino biography by German author Diether Wirtz; and many recollections of a man who so eloquently chronicled the art of smoking.
A Tobacco Calling
|A global brand began as a family shop that Zino redefined with his passion for fine cigars.
Zino was literally surrounded by tobacco from the time of his birth in Kiev, Ukraine in 1906, where first his family rolled Turkish-blend cigarettes by hand inside a small cigar and tobacco shop. By age five, the Davidoffs fled czarist Russia and eventually settled in Geneva, Switzerland, where they again opened a tobacco shop. From an early age, Zino’s father taught him to create tobacco blends for cigarettes and pipes. But by the age of 19, yearning for adventure, he set out to explore tobacco operations in South and Central America where he discovered his true passion - black, or cigar, tobacco, in the fields of Bahia, Brazil. He was advised to seek the legendary ‘puros’ of Cuba by an elder farmer who could clearly recognize Zino’s calling. He spent two years there, learning all there was to know about Havanas, initiated into the age-old rituals of harvesting, gathering, drying, curing, fermenting, sorting, and rolling. He questioned old-timers and enriched his own understanding from their collective experiences, learning to discern subtleties well beyond his young age.
“Very quickly I learned that, just as no two great wines are the same, no two cigars are either, even from the same location,” he once recalled in a poignant analogy that years later would help him launch a whole new side to his career.
Returning to Switzerland, Zino’s mission was to dedicate himself to the Havana puro, reinventing the experience in Europe by installing an environmentally-controlled storage room in the family’s shop - the first in the world and the forerunner of today’s humidor. Zino’s family had considerable doubts, but Zino never regretted his pursuit, as his store slowly earned the reputation as the premier site for Havana cigars.
Zino’s fate crossed a new threshold when he teamed up with a Zurich-based distributor to market Cuban cigars he elected to name after the Grand Cru wines of Bordeaux. The resulting Hoyo de Monterrey Château series, launched in 1946, was Zino’s brilliant answer to Cuba’s desire to conquer the European market, dominated at the time by German, Dutch, and Swiss manufacturers. The first line was named after legendary Grand Cru appellations Château Haut-Brion, Château Lafite, Château Latour, Château Margaux, and Château d’Yquem. “To enjoy a cigar,” Zino believed, “is part of a lifestyle, of savoir-vivre.” Zino’s influence as a result of the widespread success of these cigars garnered him considerable status in Cuba, and by 1969 Cuban cigar officials offered to manufacture a line of cigars bearing his name, starting with the eponymous Davidoff No. 1, Davidoff No. 2, and Ambassadrice.
By 1970, Zino felt that he had achieved all that he wanted, and put his tobacco shop for sale. At the same time, Dr. Ernst Schneider, a longtime friend and owner/managing director of Basel, Switzerland-based Oettinger Group, was searching for new opportunities in response to recent bad business experiences. As an importer in Switzerland, Schneider had successfully introduced a number of products into the market there, including Dutch-made Agio filter tip cigarillos, only to have the product lines pulled away by the manufacturers once they were established. Furious, Schneider vowed he’d never let his hard work slip away again. In Davidoff, he saw not only a retail store, but a brand name with global potential, one he could nurture, grow, and - most importantly - own. Having paid several million dollars for the shop, Schneider’s competitors considered him crazy: Zino himself felt he was at the top of his career. “But I saw it in another way,” Schneider recalled while in Geneva for the gala anniversary celebration in March. “I said, for this name I can really introduce the Davidoff name worldwide,” building upon an already solid base in France and Switzerland. At the time, Davidoff cigars were only available for purchase at the Geneva shop.
While Zino was no longer owner, he became Schneider’s best promoter of the brand, and remained its public face as the goal of building international markets was pursued. “People believed in him. He had a special charm in welcoming people with open arms,” Schneider recalls of Zino’s efforts, “and it was coming from the heart. This was his job. This was his success.” Schneider, who today serves as chairman of the company, is proud to point out that Zino remained happy: By contract, he was obligated to stay with Oettinger for only three years, but in fact he stayed the rest of his life, traveling with Schneider throughout the world as the brand’s ambassador.
|Reverence for cigars, passion for life.
Years later, Zino would also help with the brand’s biggest challenge ever: transition of production from Cuba to company-owned operations in the Dominican Republic in 1991 and the launch of an entire new range of Davidoff cigars. The move startled the industry, and failure was widely predicted, but the brand continued to thrive. “Cuban cigars are always strong,” explains Schneider of the opportunity that Dominican production afforded the brand. “But there are many smokers that like a lighter cigar, and this was our chance. We can [now] make from the lightest cigar to the strongest cigar, and we can offer to each smoker what he likes.” The opportunity to create blends drawing from many different tobaccos became a key strength for the brand. Just as importantly, Oettinger Davidoff Group was now able to retain complete manufacturing control of its products.
Over the years, Dr. Schneider has fought to protect the trademark and the brand name - engaging in 32 legal actions by his count. This has forced the company to diversify its product lines, but also has established absolute protection of the brand name. “If you don’t sell in the different classes of product,” explains Schneider, “you are not protected.”
Zino passed away in Geneva in 1994 at age 88, having been remembered as a bon vivant with a highly developed appreciation for the finer things in life. It’s only fitting that a 100th anniversary Davidoff cigar recalling Zino would hearken back to his breakthrough years in Cuban cigars. Both of the limited edition Dominican-made cigars are double-tapered perfectos, and are both unbanded. Blends are undisclosed, although Schneider revealed that some of the tobaccos are over 10 years old, drawing from reserves of a special 1993 harvest. The Diademas is a monster of a cigar, measuring 9 1/8 in. x 55 rg and sold only in 50-count cabinets at a budget-breaking pricetag and in extremely limited quantities. The Diademas Finas is infinitely more approachable, measuring 6 3/4 in. x 50 rg and sold in boxes of ten, and more widely available.