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The Vice That Binds : Cigar sales are on the upswing as more men share a passion for premium smokes. They're lighting up at private dinners and clubs in the Valley.

August 12, 1994|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

All day Saturday, the men come and go, happily sucking on their Partagases and Macanudos.

On Saturdays, the Cigar Warehouse in Sherman Oaks is as much a hangout as a source for high-end cigars. Men of every age wander the discount cigar shop, lovingly examining the burnt sienna offerings in their sweet-smelling cedar boxes and querying owner Larry Wagner about spiciness, draw and ring gauge--some of the elements that make for a superior smoke.

Welcome to the cigar renaissance, San Fernando Valley-style. From Westlake Village to Glendale, aficionados are gathering to share their passion for premium cigars. They have found a way to circumvent the laws that bar smoking in local restaurants and are signing up for cigar dinners in which superior stogies accompany every course. A private cigar club with annual dues of $500 will open soon in Sherman Oaks. And the entire community of puffers is gearing up for the Los Angeles-area Big Smoke, sponsored by Cigar Aficionado magazine, to be held Oct. 11 in Beverly Hills.

Part of a national trend since the mid-1980s, local cigar dinners are evenings full of smoke and camaraderie. Vendome Wines & Spirits of Studio City and North Hollywood recently held one of its bimonthly events at the Smokehouse in Burbank. Seated on the patio, where the smoke mingled seamlessly with the smog, 50 enthusiasts sat as attentively as schoolboys as a representative of the General Cigar Co. reported on the current state of the premium cigar trade, which survived Castro's revolution and now thrives in diaspora in the Dominican Republic, Honduras and Jamaica.

Such evenings of fellowship are especially dear to people who are routinely treated by non-cigar smokers as if they had just burped in church.

"I used to smoke about five cigars a day, but now I'm down to one because I'm so limited in where I can smoke," said 57-year-old Ken Draper of North Hollywood. Like many of the other attendees, all but three of them men, he has never been a cigarette smoker. "The quality of the tobacco is really different," he said, with a moue of distaste. "They take shavings off the floor and sell them as cigarettes."

At a nearby table, the new generation of cigar smokers was represented by four pals from UCLA. So committed a conservative that he carries a picture of Richard Nixon in his wallet, 21-year-old Grady Bourn of Van Nuys said he began smoking stogies to emulate talk-show host Rush Limbaugh.

Friend Geoffrey Repo, 24, of Encino laughed as he recalled his maiden cigar. "When I was 11 years old, my parents caught me smoking and, in order to punish me, my father made me inhale a cigar."

Repo and his friends said they figured that the Burbank smoker, which included a meal, complimentary cigars and a post-dinner drink of 25-year-old Remy Martin cognac, all for $25, was just too good a deal to pass up.

"It's a wonderful vice," says Richard Carleton Hacker, a 40-something resident of Sherman Oaks who is the author of "The Ultimate Cigar Book" (Autumngold Publishing, 1993), a guide for the smoking perplexed that has earned him the nickname "the cigar czar."

Often asked to speak at smokers, Hacker offers enthusiasts the specific information they hunger for. In selecting a fine cigar, he counsels, inspect the outer leaf, or wrapper, for cracks or worm holes. A cigar with a fissured wrapper won't draw properly and "will be like smoking a piccolo." Never, never store a good cigar in the refrigerator. Ideal conditions for storage are 70% humidity and 70 degrees Fahrenheit, like those of the walk-in humidors in cigar shops. Besides, cigars are porous, and a refrigerated one "can start tasting like your chicken salad or your pizza."

Hacker also answers the burning question of whether you should take the cigar band off your Cohiba or not. Removing it, he says, "is like ripping the emblem off a Mercedes. Why would you want to do that?"

As to the burgeoning cigar mystique, Hacker believes that when you put a premium cigar between your lips, "you immediately look like you've made it or you're going to make it." In addition to creating an upscale aura, good cigars offer a predictable pleasure in a puritanical world. "It's getting harder and harder to find a way to enjoy yourself in an increasingly restrictive society," Hacker says.

Marvin R. Shanken, whose Cigar Aficionado is the bible of the new cigar smoker, agrees. There are 50 reasons for the current cult of the cigar, Shanken says, but the bottom line is, "It just feels good."

Cigar lovers insist that their favorite smoke presents less of a health risk than cigarettes because cigars are made without additives and are not inhaled. Some also believe that a cigar's ability to reduce stress compensates for the dangers associated with exposure to tobacco. "George Burns smokes 25 cigars a day and he's 98," Hacker says. But even Hacker wouldn't chew on cigars all day. "I preach moderation."

To give local devotees a place to relax and indulge themselves, Gus' Smoke Shop in Sherman Oaks will open a private cigar club next door to its Ventura Boulevard store. According to owner Jim Hurwitz, the 800-square-foot facility will include such amenities as cable sports, a pool table, card tables and a putting machine. Membership will cost $500 a year, and Hurwitz expects to be sold out before the mid-September opening.

The club will be called the Back Room. Hurwitz considered, and rejected, calling it the Testoste-room.

Communal cigar smoking is so hot that Cigar Warehouse has two dinners coming up, one Tuesday at Canyon in Studio City and another Aug. 24 at Le Cafe in Sherman Oaks. Shop owner Wagner agrees with others that male bonding seems to be an integral part of the phenomenon that is boosting the sales of luxury cigars by 24% a year.

*

Only three of Wagner's regular customers are women. If he had to make a living from his female clientele, he says, "I would be selling shoes."

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