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Cigar aficionados puff into Ybor

The Cigar Heritage Festival unites the fat, the thin, the sweet, the robust with people who have a taste for them.

By JAY CRIDLIN
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 3, 2002


TAMPA -- Brian Bird took a puff from a 7 1/2-inch Sonador cigar and passed it down the line.

"Draws like a champ," he said, wisps of gray smoke drifting from his lips.

This was the scene at Saturday's sixth annual Tampa Cigar Heritage Festival in Ybor City, where cigar aficionados smoked 'em if they had 'em, and swiped 'em from friends if they didn't.

Like many others, Bird, a sales representative, shared his smoke with his fellow connoisseurs from Thompson Cigar Co. in the spirit of Cigar Fest.

"When somebody has a good smoke and they want somebody else to try it, it's very common to hand it down and say, "Here, try it, see what you think,' " Bird said. "It's a way to get everybody interested in a certain cigar."

There was plenty of curiosity at the festival, where dozens of vendors converged to swap stories and sling stogies with thousands of cigar-chomping locals.

Robert Spoden, the president and chief executive officer of Bucanero Cigars, said it makes you think about the days when Cuban immigrants rolled each cigar by hand.

"There's so many cigars out there, if you take the band off, there's no distinguishing traits from one to the other," said Spoden, whose company specializes in hand-rolled cigars.

Frank Smith, the owner of Edward's Pipe & Tobacco Shop in Tampa, has set up a booth at each of Ybor's Cigar Heritage Festivals.

"Cigar Dave over there?" Smith said, gesturing to a booth where "Cigar Dave" Zeplowitz was broadcasting his nationally syndicated radio show, Smoke This! live. "We're the ones that started him in the radio business. We were his first advertisers."

Bill Temple of Whiting, N.J., has been smoking cigars since 1982. This is his first time at the festival, but he said he knows all about Ybor City's heritage.

"I look around, I can still see some of the buildings that had the signs on them that said "cigar making,' " he said.

Temple is 68 years old, but it wasn't just fogies with stogies who packed Centennial Park. Luke Grode, all of 19, has been smoking cigars for four years and came out for the day's good prices.

"Cigars really do it for me," Grode said. "I figure if I'm going to smoke tobacco, you might as well smoke something that tastes good."

And lest passers-by mistake Ybor's smoke-filled streets with the smoke-filled back room of a boys-only club, women walked around carrying bags of cigars. Some even sparked them up.

"I've found that the bigger the cigar, the stranger the looks you get," said Melissa Maniscalco, her two daughters by her side. "I enjoy it for the same reason the guys do. It's relaxing, and I enjoy the flavor.

"This is natural, it's smooth, it's relaxing, it's enjoyable. I really like it."

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