May 10, 2010

Private club aims to keep cigar smoking sociable

David Meyer leaned back in a leather-upholstered chair and smoked a Davidoff Aniversario No. 3. Seated nearby, Kelly Morrison savored a Davidoff 1000 and Rich Carney a Davidoff Puro D'Oro.

The three lounged and puffed in the members-only Commonwealth Cigar Club one floor above David and Renee Meyer's Milan Tobacconists retail store in Roanoke.

An annual fee of $1,000 and a biometric lock that reads fingerprints offer entry into the not-for-profit club, which formally opened April 16. Cigar aficionados living outside a 50-mile radius pay $500.

"The club is something Renee and I have always wanted to do," David Meyer said. "We just always envisioned a nice place for people to come and enjoy a cigar."

A dress code forbids hats and sandals and calls for collared shirts.

"There is a board that reviews all applications," he said.

Citing privacy, Meyer would not disclose members' names.

He said the club is intended to serve "like-minded people" but emphasized that demographics vary among the 30 people who have joined to date.

"Believe it or not, our members have all kinds of income levels," Meyer said.

So far, three women, including Renee, are members.

"We would like to get 50 members," Meyer said. "If we get 50, the club will be self-sufficient."

The Commonwealth Cigar Club occupies the second floor of the historic three-story building owned by the Meyers at 309 S. Jefferson St. The couple live on the third floor.

He would not say how much the club's limited liability company has invested to create the handsomely appointed club, which is a separate entity from Milan Tobacconists.

"People do not have to buy their cigars from us," Meyer said.

Membership provides access to private lockers in a room where the humidity is held to about 70 percent to retain cigars' ideal characteristics.

Pipe smokers can join, too. Two filtration systems serve smoke duty.

The Commonwealth Cigar Club has an ABC license that allows members to bring their own spirits, which are stored in individual lockers. Meyer said the club is the first of its kind in Virginia and that its unique setup prolonged the process of applying for and receiving the alcoholic beverage license. As a private club, it is exempt from Virginia's new law that prohibits smoking in restaurants.

Carney said he enjoys the taste and relaxation associated with a fine stogie, which he said typically requires an hour to smoke.

His favorite cigar is a Padron 2000, which features tobacco grown in Nicaragua.

"It's a very high-end taste for a very affordable cigar," Carney said.

Meyer said good, hand-rolled cigars generally range from $3 to $30 each.

Many cigar growers fled Cuba after the 1959 revolution led by Fidel Castro and left with the seeds for the tobacco famed for quality and taste. Some growers ended up in Honduras, Nicaragua and elsewhere -- including the Dominican Republic, which has achieved renown for tobacco used in prestigious brands such as the Davidoffs smoked by Meyer, Carney and Morrison.

One review of the Davidoff Aniversario line describes the cigars as "velvety to the touch" with notes of "pepper, grass and a touch of earth."

Carney is not a member of the Commonwealth Cigar Club.

"It's a tremendous luxury and a luxury I cannot share with my family," he said. "I come up here as a visitor."

In 2000, David and Renee Meyer purchased Milan Tobacconists from her father, Don Roy, and stepmother, Myriam, who had acquired the longtime downtown business, known as Milan Brothers, from brothers Joe, Herb and Ellis Milan in 1994. Milan Bros. was long famous in the Roanoke Valley for its tobacco products and as a place to discreetly peruse and purchase "girlie magazines." The Meyers accentuated and enhanced the former and deep-sixed the latter.

In 2008, the Meyers moved the business down South Jefferson Street after they purchased the three-story building at 309, which once housed Lee & Edwards Wine Merchants, for $600,000 in July 2008.

Like other tobacco products, cigars are linked to cancer. And even though most cigar smokers do not inhale, the risks remain.

Stogies have fans and foes. One recent Internet search for the phrase "cigar stink" pulled up about 1.4 million entries.

But cigar connoisseurs, men and women, celebrate the aroma and taste of fine, hand-rolled cigars and the relaxation of savoring their slow, steady burn.