Jeffery A. Salter

For Rocky Patel, what started out as a keen interest in cigars quickly morphed into a major obsession. So what did he do? He closed his law practice and started a cigar company. Which turned into an $85 million empire — cult fan base and all.

Just last month, 3,000 cigar nuts descended upon Lake Harmony, Pa., for CigarFest 2011 — a weekend of feasting, music and fealty to an increasingly harassed tradition. Known as the Super Bowl of cigar events, it’s a place where Brothers and Sisters of the Leaf (BOTLs and SOTLs, for short) from across the U.S. go to strike up new friendships, gripe about significant others and share lifelong dreams with an openness only a good stogie can inspire. Industry stars abound at these events, hawking their latest creations, the vast majority of Cuban descent with names like Fernandez and Castro, yet few enjoy the rabid following laid claim to by an Indian-American phenom named Rocky Patel. Eternally grinning, a glass of scotch in one hand and a namesake stogie in the other, he holds court like the fun uncle at a family gathering. In 15 years, the former Hollywood attorney has gone from total cigar outsider to owner of an $85 million empire, and he has garnered a slew of 90-plus ratings for the cigars that bear his name, as well as an ardent fan base that regards him as a blending master. American Way caught up with him at home in Naples, Fla., during a rare break — then quickly discovered that the word break doesn’t exist in Patel’s lexicon.

Jeffery A. Salter
“This is where I dream,” he says, piloting a copper-hued Bentley through traffic on Tamiami Trail, one of the city’s main thoroughfares. “When I work, it’s a lot of multitasking, people coming in all the time with production, account, marketing issues. It doesn’t lend itself to creativity. So I’m creative riding in airplanes or driving. That’s where I dream about building a better cigar, creating a lifestyle company.” A stretch of road opens up, and Patel, 50, lays on the gas. The sound in the cabin never rises above a muted roar, but outside things get distinctly blurrier. “The mad mind is always going.”

The mad mind’s latest offering is Burn by Rocky Patel, a newly opened cigar lounge in Naples’ tony Mercato district. A two-year labor of love, it melds Mediterranean, Asian and Cuban influences in a way that still manages to retain the comforts of a neighborhood pub. Strange touches abound, like cowhide seats and an illuminated bar top composed of semiprecious stones. Patel checks each and every detail within 30 seconds of entering and suggests improvements to his staff. The colored lights in the bar top don’t change at the correct intervals. A DJ needs to set up shop and spin several times a week. But the one area that is beyond reproach is the spacious walk-in humidor, glowing a warm yellow and filled with Patel’s product lines, as well as lounge-only ?offerings from respected makers such as Arturo Fuente and Padrón. Patel leads me over to the far wall, where cedar lockers are available for regulars to purchase. It’s a nod to the grande dame of cigar lounges, L.A.’s famed Grand Havana Room, of which Patel was a founding member.

“Those were our old stomping grounds,” he says, taking the cellophane off a 15th Anniversary cigar and taking a deep whiff of the chocolaty exterior. “We’d hang out there at all hours — Bruce Willis, Gene Hackman, all the 90210 crowd. [A lawyer at the time,] I was heavy into movie financing, putting projects together, so that’s where I’d hold meetings.” He cuts the cigar and lights it with a butane lighter that could double as a blowtorch. “Meat Loaf, of all people, had the locker next to mine. Huge cigar fan.”

Seeking a deeper knowledge of what went into the stogies that he was gifting to clients during that period, Patel decided to journey to growing operations in Nicaragua and Honduras to learn about the varying flavors produced by different ?tobaccos — he studied farming, curing, fermenting, and the overall art of cigar making, and he created hundreds of blends to season his palate. “I’ve always loved to cook and thought the way I approached creating a new dish, layering in new ingredients for a deeper flavor, would lend itself well to cigars.” Eventually he reached a point where he could pinpoint not only a particular tobacco’s country of origin, but he could also tell you which of eight sections of a tobacco plant the leaf had been harvested from, based on taste alone. What had begun as merely a curiosity had morphed into an obsession for perfection, and he was faced with the choice of either pulling away or wading all the way in.