Note: I had the pleasure of attending Nick Melilo’s presentation at the PCA 2024 Convention & Trade Show. I did my best to transcribe his words and gather the images used during the slide show, although I wasn’t able to procure all of them. Some images are substitutes and not the exact originals showcased, however they communicate the same content as the originals.

I just want to tell a quick story, you know, of where we have our office at Dunn and Foster Farm. I met John Foster in 2003 in a warehouse in the north of Nicaragua. I was walking to a meeting, I think he was walking to a meeting, and it was the two of us meeting in the middle of a tobacco warehouse filled with fermentation piles. And he looks at me, “Where you from?” “Connecticut.” “Where are you from?” “Connecticut.” And that was the beginning of our relationship, and that was one of the first time seeing Connecticut Broadleaf. I had been in Nicaragua almost a year and a half without being home, and it was the first time that a part of my home was there in the north of Nicaragua in a warehouse. I’m looking at tobacco from mi tierra, “from my lands”, and there it was in the north of Nicaragua. That started the journey for me and it’s a great honor to be here. I hope I didn’t ramble too much. I’d love to open the floor to questions if we can get some microphones. You guys enjoy it? (applause) I hope it waan’t too much. 

“Hey Nick, my name is Mo.”

Hey, what’s going on Mo. 

“Good. Two questions, are you willing to share your slides? I thought they were phenomenal, great, and educational. That would be great.”

That is a great question. We will have a talk.

“OK, secondly, will you be giving tours?” 

We plan on doing small tours, Mo, unfortunately, we’ve been so busy. You know, I started Foundation, it was me and one other coworker at the time out of the back of my house, it was actually a post and beam cabin I built, and we’ve been off to the races, and we’re not quite there yet to open up the office to the public just because we haven’t set up the staff yet in order to handle visitors. We’re hoping, you know, next year that we could start going. I think the plan is to open it up to retailers, cigar shops, and have cigar shops come. So, hopefully one day, we can see you up there. Thanks Mo.

“First of all, thank you for this presentation, wonderful research.”

My pleasure, this is the first time I’ve given this presentation so I appreciate you guys bearing with me.

“It’s fantastic, thank you so much. My name is Brandon, of the Lounge Lizards Podcast. First of all, as a group of cigar smokers from the Northeast, concertedly commiserate with the fickleness and frustrations of Northeast weather, there’s a lot of reasons why we’re here and happy to be in the Vegas sun. Connecticut shade, where do you see the growth from the grower-manufacturer perspective and also the end smoker palate? Where do you see the palate maturing in the next 5-10, 15 years? Where does it place in this large plethora of strong rich Nicaraguan tobacco?”

To my knowledge, Connecticut shade is one of the top-selling cigars by volume. It’s interesting that this changeover from Connecticut-grown Connecticut shade to Ecuador, the market didn’t really buck up too much from the changeover. Connecticut shade is a much thinner leaf, it’s got a thinner cellular structure of the leaf, the vein structure is much thinner, and I’m talking in general now, it’s much more of a neutral lighter flavor profile. So, when this change started happening to Ecuador, there wasn’t, from my opinion, there wasn’t a lot of people that stopped smoking Connecticut shade cigars. Most of you guys are retailers in here, I don’t know if you would agree with me, but I would say that that is the case. Connecticut shade, I think, is really strong in Ecuador. It’s actually being grown in Nicaragua. I’m not as familiar with the Dominican, I would imagine there’s Connecticut shade varieties growing there. I don’t think Cuba would tell you this, but you can read old articles from the 90s and 80s that the Cubans have definitely used Connecticut shade to hybridize with their wrapper tobaccos. If you could see, sometimes, to me, some of these Cuban wrappers almost look Connecticut shades, you can see them, they’re very light. Brandon, I don’t know if I’m answering your question, what was the last part of the question?

“Where do you see the growth?” 

I think the majority of the cigar smokers, and I’d love to hear this from the shops… Connecticut shade is one of the top-selling cigars. I think it’s different for us in the cigar community; we’re all hardcore cigar people, so, you know, a lot of us like the heavier, you know, the rich Nicaraguan fillers, the darker wrappers sometimes. But I think there’s still a huge consumer base, I think they’re very important for new cigar smokers. New cigar smokers, it’s so important to get them the right cigar when they’re starting off in cigars. I wouldn’t give them a Connecticut Broadleaf with a lot of heavy Nicaraguan fillers to start, I would put them on Connecticut shade. So, I think it’s very important, the seed variety, for people that like smoother, lighter, you know, less potent cigar blends. I think it’s really important. We are experimenting a lot in the valley with trying to work with the Connecticut shade seed, different hybridizations, to work on a solution for solving this loss of Connecticut shade growth of this wrapper. If you notice, Connecticut Broadleaf and the Cuban seed, because of the nature of those seednvarieties, they cannot be replicated the same way as Connecticut shade, in my opinion. Broadleaf is grown in Pennsylvania, it’s being grown in the Caribbean, it’s being grown in Honduras, Nicaragua, but you can’t replace this 15,000 years of glacier history that has produced the perfect soil for growing those two seed varieties, right? They’re much heavier, they’re much thicker, that, in my opinion, can’t be changed. Are these other seed varieties and broadleafs grown in other countries bad or worse? I don’t see it that way. I don’t see tobacco that way, you know, one’s better or worse, they just have different characteristics. For me, nothing can replace that really natural, sweet, earthy Connecticut Broadleaf, and the same with the Cuban seed; it has, you know, it has its own spice and natural sweetness to it. I think they’re very unique compared to any tobaccos grown in any other region of the world.

“Ben Lee from the Cigar Coop Coalition. With the divide of generational family farms all over the U.S. how do you see the future of tobacco growing in the Connecticut River Valley and do you see a revival of Connecticut shade there? 

I think that this is important, education is important, we need everyone’s support. If everybody is keeps smoking Connecticut tobaccos, then they’re going to continue to be produced. So, that’s why I think it’s vital, you know, for cigar shops to really learn the challenges that we’re facing because we are facing a lot of challenges, and we really want to see, US-grown tobaccos stay alive and continue into the future. I’ve dedicated my life to it since I was 18, working with a lot of great farmers. John Foster is working with tons of farmers in the valley, so it’s really in your guys’ hands. If you continue to purchase and support Connecticut tobaccos and Connecticut cigars, we’ll keep going Ben Lee. We’ll try. Shout out to John, it is his 40th birthday today and his first time at the PCA, big up John. Thank you very much. 

Special appreciation goes out to Nick Melilo for delivering an exceptional presentation, and heartfelt gratitude to the PCA Convention & Trade Show for offering the platform for Nick to impart his valuable insights.

Alex Mesrobian

Alex Mesrobian is a writer, stand-up comic and scratch DJ who resides in his birthplace, Los Angeles, CA. He has performed at colleges as well as several venues and festivals including the Comedy Store, Hollywood Improv, Ice House, Steve Allen Theater and others. He is currently a writer for the Emmy award-winning animation studio Klasky Csupo Inc.