Illusione – Dion Giolito Interview

June 2, 2010

Dion giolito’s first published interview that was featured in the Winter 2008 issue of Cigar Press Magazine.

CP – How did you first get into cigars?

Dion G – I remember my first cigar, rum soaked Crooks.  I would go into 7Eleven when I was 14 and buy those rum soaked Crooks.  For some reason I really dug them.  That’s really when I got into cigars.  After that I went to college and a couple of my teachers smoked.  I Majored in Music education, but before that I was theory and composition, I wanted to be a  film score composer.

CP – Specifically music for movies?

Dion G- Yeah, I wanted to be the next John Williams.  I was really into it.  They had a degree in Oklahoma for it.  I got a full ride for playing music, the saxophone. I also played the drums but, it was more of an outlet for me.  A lot of the stuff I played at school I didn’t like.  So I played drums mostly in Punk rock bands, even in high-school. After a couple of years being in Oklahoma, I wanted to get back to Nevada.

CP – Are you from Nevada originally?

Dion G – Yeah, I grew up in Las Vegas.  However I didn’t want to go to UNLV.  I grew up in Vegas my whole life and didn’t like what they had to offer so, I took an offer in Oklahoma. After a couple of years, I looked into University of Nevada and they said they would give me the same scholarship, the same amount of money but they didn’t have a theory composition degree, so I had to enroll in their college of education for teachers.  Senior year I started student teaching.  I was teaching middle school math, history, and I couldn’t stand it, I hated it.

CP – And cigars were a hobby this whole time?

Dion G – Not necessarily a hobby.  Actually all through college I had a part time job at the Tinder Box here in Reno.  In 1988 is when I made the transfer from Oklahoma to Reno.  Right around ‘89 or ‘90 I got a part time job.  It was a great part time job with flexible hours, perfect while I was finishing school.  That’s really what got me into the culture, before the online forums or any of that.  Before that I worked part time at a CD store that mostly sold Classical music.  Tinder Box is still around here in Reno, they are actually one of the oldest in the US.  Very old school, steins, trolls, knickknacks, things like that.  I worked there for almost 12 years.  It flew by.  I wound up dropping out of school with about 17 credits left.  I just hated teaching.

CP – That’s only one more fully loaded semester.

Dion G -I said screw it.  It’s not for me and I’ll never go back.  I’d rather dig ditches.  At that time I was playing in a group, a neo-billy, rock-a-billy, kinda punk rock band.  The Atomiks.  We were ready to go on tour and did 26 cities east to west coast.  Packed up the van and left.  I think we rolled into Chicago with 8 dollars between the three of us.  We played the Fireside bowl.  Since we were the headliners we earned about 200 bucks, and that got us enough money for food and gas to get down to Savannah Georgia.  We toured all over the place.  I always had a job at the Tinder Box.  I came back and they offered me a full time position.  Then a couple of years I got benefits.  It was really convenient.  It was a great way to make money doing almost nothing.  Maybe you’ll dust or vacuum, make sure the boxes are straight and stocked in the humidor.  That is where I spun my wheels for about 10 years or so.  My dad was encouraging me to start my own business.  I looked at Tinder Box as the 700 pound gorilla.  I wouldn’t really have anything different to offer than Tinder Box.  I started thinking more and more and after a couple of years I thought I could do something a little different if I got a Davidoff White Label account.  So I pitched it to my rep, and my rep pitched it to the Swiss and they gave me a white label account site unseen without walking through the doors.  It was great right away.  I started making a few bucks.  I wasn’t swimming in money, I had loans to pay off etc.  But having Davidoff as the spearhead  brought in a lot of people, and I really captured that market here in Reno.  I had relationships with other key guys I wanted.  But going in I saw a formula that Davidoff has that worked very well. The Tinder Box philosophy here in Reno is don’t fix what isn’t broken.  But there were so many  things out there that I wanted to try.  Things like Tatuaje.  My boss was very old-Guard, wait a couple years until it is tried and true, then we’ll take it in.  Every new thing that came into Tinder Box that was new or unique, was brought in through me.  If it wasn’t General Cigars or Altadis, it wasn’t getting ordered for the most part.  By opening my own store, I could really do my own thing and cater to what I wanted to carry.  And I don’t turn my nose up to anything in my humidor.  Everything I carry in my humidor I would smoke.

CP –  So you usually go with the boutique stuff.

Dion G – Speaking from a retailer’s point of view, it’s really good to get in on the ground level.  That way we can get a relatively unknown product and create a market for it.  There will be little or no competition for that product in town.  It’s always about doing the research and learning what is out there.  More times than not I’ve sank a few grand into a product that has gone nowhere, and did nothing.  That’s the risk though, in order to be progressive.

CP – How long was it from the time you opened your own shop to playing around with your own cigar?

Dion G – It was pretty quick, about a year after.   I opened my shop in 2004.  Pete Johnson actually had a cigar from a guy by the name of Paul Palmer and sent them to me.  At the time they were Tropical Cigar.  I smoked them and they were fucking tasty.  No bullshit.  Clean Nicaraguan tobacco.  I wound up buying all that Pete had. Shortly after, Pete had ordered 50 more boxes for me as a house brand, and that was what became the “88,” my first cigar which is a robusto At the time I had been down to Miami a few times with Pete and hanging out at El Rey de Los Habanos, which is when he ultimately introduced me to Paul Palmer. 1988 was a real pivotal point in my life.  That cigar is really my homage to Avo.  He came out with the 22.  The number 22 had great significance for Avo.  He was 22 when he came to the US, it, his birthday is on the 22nd – came to America when he was 22 etc. The number 22 played a big role in his life.  I thought to myself, that if I didn’t make the move to Reno in 1988 my life would have been drastically different.  I probably would have been teaching somewhere.  I probably would have been holed-up, scribbling on staff paper trying to write music.  That was a huge year.  I took the same idea as Avo.  His packaging was pretty sparse with a 22 on the box/tube.  I did the same thing, instead of putting 1988, I just put 88.  It is my tribute to Avo.  He was one of the influential people in my life along with Paul Garmirian.  Of course Zino as well.

CP – That settles all theorist’s ideas for your names – it seems like people think there is some sort of code or message behind all of your names and logos.

Dion G – I just don’t get it and, I could really care less about all that shit.

CP – No deeper meaning behind the names?

Dion G – All the names have “de-coded,” on my website.

CP – How do you choose the names of your other cigars?  Do they all have personal meaning behind them?

Dion G – Some are personal.  Some dive into my faith a little bit, others delve into conspiracy a little bit.  I just played around with a bunch of different ideas.  CIA, MJ12 type stuff, Area 51, Indiana Jones, All that really got me when I was younger.  Like the Holy Grail, it was a trip.  Then someone introduced me to the book “Holy Blood Holy Grail,” that really blew me away too.  I was like wow, it’s not a chalice, it’s a woman’s womb, a bloodline.   That played in a little bit into my cigar line.  If you look at my M7, woman from Magdala, and if you look at the shape, it’s a Salamone and can look pregnant.  It’s just crazy stuff. The only thing that it has any relevance to is me.  I didn’t want to call it my robusto, or lancero.  The packaging and identity separated it from everything else out there.  I already knew I had good tobacco.  I already knew the cigars were phenomenal.  But there are so many great cigars out there that don’t get the recognition they deserve.  It’s not really because of the packaging per say. If there was a little mystery built up around my brand because of the clichés, my ads, or stories, then so be it.  Everything was my idea, they are cigars that I blended myself.  If I was going to do this – I wanted to do it for myself.  It was an indulgence for my self and myself only – stroking my ego.  I didn’t care if it ever took off.  Looking back you can ask, what’s CG4? Corona Gorda, four horsemen of the apocalypse?! Where the hell was that ever going to go?  This isn’t your standard fare in cigar culture or market.  When it did take off, I shit myself.

CP – Then you have the online community.  Some seem set and cracking the mystery with all sorts of weird theories, it’s really nuts.

Dion G – There are a lot of guys who hate on a lot of things and a lot of people.  But there is a really good community out there that is very supportive.  Boards like cigarpass, clubstogie, and cigarlive…  They are great people because the bulk of them are just looking for knowledge and information and camaraderie in the cigar culture.  They aren’t there to tear brands down and be haters.  You’re going to have the haters, who seem to move in packs.  They go into different boards and poison them after a while.  They stir the shit.  By and large though, the forums are really where my cigars were born.  Born and bread on the forums.  When I started experimenting with different blends I would send some of the people on the boards samples to try. They would either validate my opinion, or say something different.  What it comes down to is listening to yourself, your gut instinct.  It’s all about what you like to smoke.  You can’t chase the tale.  You can’t try to be something that you’re not, because you’re reaching for something that you can’t grab.

CP – A lot of eyebrows were raised with some of your marketing and ads.  It created a ton of buzz at the same time.

Dion G – That’s the whole thing.  People got fucking pissed off about the Jim Jones ad, but then you got guys like Bill O’Riley, Sean Hannady, Anderson Cooper and all of these other guys who use the term “he’s just drinking the Kool-Aid” and it’s okay.  But then you throw up an image insinuating drinking (or not) to drink the Kool-Aid, it completely evokes a different reaction.  The one thing that always fascinated me with any cult is the control that they had over the people.  I mean I don’t get it, maybe it was hypnosis, or whether it’s depriving them of sleep or putting them on a specific diet, or interpreting the word of God the way they see it and then manipulating them, and also manipulating them through sex and all sorts of stuff.  Just the power they wield over people is just fascinating.  There’s a woman living here in Reno now who was in San Francisco when Jim Jones had the Peoples Temple.  The story she told was that she walked in with her mom to the church, and the people were freaked out.  The whole vibe was like a false euphoric feeling.  They had food everywhere, and the first thing her mom told her was “don’t eat the food.”

CP – Producing small batch cigars, do you foresee any problems expanding production?  And would there be enough of the same quality tobacco to keep your product consistent?

Dion G – I’ve actually spoken about that with various people in the business, and to be honest there is enough.  It ‘s easy to make a small batch cigar and it to keep it consistent.  If you’re making roughly half a million cigars a year, it’s easy.  You are able to be more hands on.  With the tobacco you get for half a million cigars you can do it with relative consistency and assurance that the cigar will always be the same.  The problem is when guys get really big and then they say they need to make more than a half million cigars.  That is where the consistency may falter a little bit.  You will start with the tobacco that you chose, then you may run out of a certain component and substitute it with something else.  When it gets to the end of production, it’s going to relatively be the same, but there will be a much wider quality and comfort zone upwards of 25% for an acceptance level.  With my brands on the other hand, I have about a 5% degree of acceptance of what I expect and want.

CP – Do you find that the higher-grade tobaccos usually come in smaller quantities?

Dion G – Not necessarily.  There could be a great crop like this year.  Normally they throw away the sand leaf (first set of leaves closest to the ground), These leaves get a lot of abuse from the dirt and rain.  I smoked some last month in Nicaragua, and this and no shit, some of that tobacco and it was phenomenal.  I couldn’t believe it.  Usually that part of the plant isn’t even considered.  This year for some reason it was exceptional and, they might find a use for it.  It really depends on the year, the climate, the moisture, the health of the soil.  It really all just depends.  I don’t know if I answered your question here specifically. Let me know if you want an alternative answer. You can really find some exceptional tobacco that doesn’t yield a high quantity – yes.

CP –  Cruzado is a fairly new line.  How did that line come to be?

Dion G – I really wanted to do something with a cross.  My nephew Dante’s middle name is Crucificio, which translates to cross.  I was checking out names and Cruzado (which also means cross) was a dead mark, so I grabbed it.

CP – How is the Cruzado blend different than Illusione?

Dion G – It’s different in that Illusione is predominantly a Corojo blend with one component of Criollo.  Both cigars are all Nicaraguan.  In Illusione you get more of an earthy sweetness and more complexity through the nose.  Cruzado on the other hand is predominantly a Criollo blend, with one component of Corojo.  The flavors are more leathery, spicy, and more upfront on the palate than through the nose.  They are really two different types and styles of cigars.

CP – How do you come up with the creative for your brands, and the images and packaging behind them?

Dion G – It came from playing in punk rock bands.  The posters on telephone poles.  Really lo-fi, raunchy style of art.  A lot of people will tell me that that the images will be pixilated in the ads and artwork, and that it won’t turn out right – but I tell them no, it’s perfect.  That is exactly the way it is suppose to be. It’s what I grew up on.  That media and that genre is what I’m familiar with.  Total cut and paste.  Scissors and glue sticks.  Most people in marketing and ad design like fashion, and even in this industry feel that the picture needs to be perfect and look nice.  The oils on the cigar and the sheen have to be just right – but not too much so it looks like it was hosed down before the shoot.  Screw that.  The ads that get me the most are the really rough ads, more punk rock, dirty, raunchy.  Smears and disorder.  The Exploited, Sex Pistols  type of shit.

CP – It’s different and gets people talking about it, which is the whole point in the first place.  I’m glad to see such an influx of non-traditional type of people making cigars right next to the traditional companies.

Dion G –  Jonathan Drew was one of the guys who really spearheaded the whole alternative thought and approach to cigars.  He really has done a lot for our industry.  Whatever you think, if you’re a purist and don’t like infused cigars, that’s fine, but he really has brought a different light into the culture that wasn’t there before.  What was it before?  Tradition.  Old men standing in a tobacco field holding the leaf up to the sun, or in a tobacco barn, or going through bales of tobacco.  Don’t get me wrong – what I do is steeped heavily in tradition, the whole back end process of it.  How it’s made, the components, the physical product.  But you need to put something of yourself behind it to set it apart and speak to people.  I’ve had discussions with various people about this.  Do they expect me to be another guy in a guyabara shirt standing in a tobacco field with a panama hat on?  That’s not me.  I got my Vans that wear and that’s how it’s been since jr. high.  Jeans and gym shoes.  That’s how it’s going to stay.  I was smoking cigars and skateboarding when I was 14.   Even though I rarely ever skateboard anymore I still smoke cigars.  A lot of guys who are around my age are into a lot of the same things I was back then.  Why change your makeup or your identity just because you are in the cigar culture?  Put on a man-blouse and carry around my travel humidor? I mean come on, it’s just not me.

CP – Are you going to make a cigar for 2012?

Dion G – I’ve actually thought about it.  There are so many theories about 2012.  It’s just like the year 2000.  There were so many theories as to what was going to happen then.   Power was going to go off the grid, computers were going to crash, planes were going to fall out of the air, the earth is going to crack in three and hurl towards the sun… come on.  As much as I like to read about conspiracy, you have to take it with a grain of salt.  When you see the National Enquirer with Bill Clinton shaking hands with an ailen, yeah I’m pretty sure that it was doctored up.  But it’s fun to read about that stuff.  It’s kind of what keeps me going.  I’ll believe everything about 2012 when I see it.  Just like if or when the Cuban embargo gets lifted.

CP – What do you think about the embargo?

Dion G – Maybe Obama will lift it.  I don’t think that as average citizens we have enough information to really know why it’s gone on so long.  We can only speculate and guess.  Now you look at Clinton and you would have thought by looking at his general make-up and personality, he’d of done it – if there was any guy who should have lifted the embargo it would have been him.  But no, he was staunch, he was steadfast and didn’t do it. We were left puzzled.  Obama is up now, and if he has any intention of lifting it then, I’ll believe it when I see it.  I really don’t think we have the whole story though.

CP – You mean the government is trying to keep us in the dark with certain issues?  And you’re telling me Clinton didn’t shake hands with an alien?  

Dion G – Well, I don’t know about Clinton…

CP – Being a boutique company with relatively limited production presently, what is your selection process for retailers?

Dion G – I am really fortunate to be on both sides of the fence not only owning my own brand, but a retailer.  I’ve been in the retail for a long time.  I know every fucking game that these retailers think they are playing, know they are playing, or what they’re trying to pull over on you.  I know because I’ve been there and done it.  You can pretty much tell within a five or ten minute conversation whether these guys are stores who I am looking for to represent my product.  For me it has never been about money.  It’s not about stuffing my pockets with $100 bills otherwise, A. I would have been selling to anybody and B. I would have come up with something a little more touchie-feelie, something a little more general with my packaging.  If anybody says I’m only out there to make money, they’re full of shit.  All you have to do is look at the packaging, brand identity and approach of my product to prove that theory wrong.

CP – How is it working with the factory and coming up with blends being that you are in Reno?

Dion G – I am very thankful and fortunate that the components/ tobacco, the factory, the rollers, are all on the same page.  I have such a great relationship with the farmers.  It is really a unique position that I am in as a brand owner.  New brand owners walk into a factory kind of like a deer blinded in headlights. I know at first I did. They sit down and the man will throw six or seven different cigars on the table, just off the rack blends. Guy’s will smoke them and think, wow number seven is amazing that’s the one let’s go with that and it’s out the door from there.  Coming with the retail background and knowledge knowing the profile of cigars that I like and also what the people are looking for was an advantage. Being able to sit down with the farmers especially, and tell them exactly what I’m looking for, what I need to do, how it has to hit the palate a certain way and go through the nose a certain way is invaluable.  A lot of the farmers and the guys in the factory are like all of us.  We all know what tastes good – but we don’t know why it tastes good.  It’s like being at a party and putting out four bottles of wine.  You’ll crack open that one special bottle that you’ve been saving for the party.  Invariably the wine that was your favorite will be gone first and the other three bottles will be sitting there. It’s because people subconsciously know that it tastes good but they don’t know why.  That’s where the science of sorts comes into play.

CP – What is a good cigar to you?

Dion G – There is a science, or a system behind it.  Hendrik Kelner really capitalized on it.  It’s the way tobacco approaches your palate and recognizing the parts of it, sweet, salty, sour and bitter.  All of the tobacco and the components of a cigar have to approach and hit your palate all at the same time.  What that does is makes your mouth salivate.  You aren’t just hitting the center of your palate, or the tip of the tongue.  To me this is the mark of a good cigar, of a well blended cigar.  You have an unlit cigar and a full glass of water.  You should smoke the cigar and when you are done, you should still have a full glass water.  When I smoke a cigar, if too much of one component is used that exhibits too much dryness or bitterness to the palate, your palate subconsciously craves moisture.  Even though you don’t need hydration, your palate is dry and needs water.  A good cigar should make your mouth water.

CP – Now do you pretty much have free range when you visit the factory to play around with the tobacco and come up with different blends?

Dion G – It’s a great privilege.  We all have a great amount of mutual respect.  We all value each other’s opinion.  What it really comes down to is listening to your palate, and being able to say no when you don’t like something.  A perfect example is when a few of us were standing around some pilones, granted we’re in a barn in a specific area of Nicaragua where all the tobacco is fantastic.  Yet we’re standing over this one pilone.  At first I thought it was good.  Only one guy thought it was bitter, the others liked it.  I rolled up a little cigar with him and smoked it.  I counted to ten and the last favor on my palate was this inherent bitterness.  I was just like, fuck, he’s right.  I said that we’ve been hemming and hawing over this one pilone, while everything else in this place is killer!  We’ve smoked through everything, let it go!  You can basically cover your eyes and point at any pilone in the place and will smoke beautifully.  Why the hell are we wasting our time with this one pilone?  We have a lot of fun, and we have a lot of great tobacco.

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