The French Laundry Has a Cigar Sommelier

The venerable fine-dining establishment has added this service—which includes sourcing rare cigars.

Oscar de la Villa, Jr. cigar sommelier

Multiple-award-winning chef, author, and restaurateur Thomas Keller has created the epitome of fine dining with his three-Michelin-starred French Laundry restaurant, located in Yountville, Calif. French cuisine that is superbly prepared and presented, a nine-course tasting menu that changes daily, an extensive wine list, and a spirits selection that includes pre-Prohibition whiskeys are just a few of the reasons that reservations in the 65-seat restaurant must be made two months in advance.

However, if you are a cigar aficionado, there is yet another reason your dining experience at the French Laundry will be memorable. As a cigar smoker himself, Keller has ensured that his restaurant stocks the finest smokes and provides an elegant but relaxing outdoor environment in which to enjoy them. Adding to the experience is the expertise of the French Laundry’s cigar sommelier, Oscar de la Villa Jr.

How did you get interested in cigars?

After college, I lived in Santiago, Dominican Republic. On weekends, I always stopped at Hotel El Gran Almirante to buy Arturo Fuente’s Flor Fina 8-5-8.

What brought you to the French Laundry?

In 2009, I was fortunate to start my hospitality career with Chef Thomas Keller at his fine-dining restaurant Per Se in New York City. The motivation to move to the Napa Valley was simple—to see where it all began for chef Keller.

The French Laundry is noted for impeccable food and service. How does this translate for your cigar-smoking customers? 

They enjoy knowing that at the end of their meal, they can continue the experience outside in our courtyard. There, we will pour their preselected digestif from our array of rare and fine spirits. The view is stunning—a 23- year-old, large Crepe Myrtle silhouettes the newly renovated kitchen designed by Snøhetta.

How do you try to meet their expectations?

As an avid fan, chef Keller has given us the freedom to seek out cigars that are especially rare in today’s market. Additionally, the relationships that I have been able to build with cigar makers such as Arturo Fuente and Nat Sherman have benefited the guests who are seeking highly sought-after cigars.

I have seen that you have an Elie Bleu humidor for each cigar-making country. This is very unique—how did that come about?

Chef Keller came up with the idea of representing the finest cigars around the world with country-specific humidors. The initial concept was to elevate the service for our guests.

What are some of your rarest cigars and their prices?

Our rarest are pre-embargo Cuban cigars: a George Washington, World’s Extra, 4 x 40 from 1881 ($950); an H. Upmann, Naturales, 7 x 36 Havana Lonsdale from the 1950s ($450); and a La Corona, Cristales, Havana 5 x 42 from the 1950s ($600).

What are some of your most popular cigars?

Our most popular cigars are the Arturo Fuente, Don Carlos Reserva No. 2, 5¼ x 54; the Nat Sherman Epoca, breva, 5 x 42; and the Oliva Serie V Melanio, 6½ x 52 torpedo.

Can customers bring their own cigars to the French Laundry?

Absolutely; there is no cutting fee.

Is there a clipping and lighting ritual? 

Toward the end of a guest’s meal, he or she will have selected their cigar tableside using our digital cigar list, which is presented on an iPad. We will designate a table outside and escort them for an easy transition from the dining room. I will then present the country-specific humidor to the guest containing the selected cigar. Afterward, an Ercuis tray arrives with an Ercuis cigar ashtray; the cigar lies on top, and beside it are the three options for cutting: straight, V-cut, and punch. Once the cigar is cut to the guest’s specification, the cigar is lit for the guest—either with a soft flame or torch lighter—to ensure that the tobacco is not burned and is lit evenly for a seamless smoking experience.

As for a suitable libation, we are pleased to offer an extensive selection of scotches from the Macallan. Should the guest be enjoying one of our pre-embargo cigars, I would suggest the Macallan 1955 46 Year Old Fine & Rare.

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