And a woman is only a woman, but a good cigar is a Smoke. -- Rudyard Kipling.

A marriage was being announced, joining the House of Rothschild with the smoky realm of Davidoff, and 75 or so of us were invited to a little lunch at a downtown hotel. The reason I was there, I think, was that someone thought it was time I learned to eat, drink and smoke above my station. As a beer-swilling, stogie-smoking burger-scarfer, I was to report on the introduction of a new luxury cigar to America and the attendant rituals. Here's what went on:

At the door, a tall, slim young man with a clipboard took names and affiliations, and led the guests into a room where waiters were plying people with mushroom caps stuffed with sour cream and caviar, near a table stocked with champagne and white wine from the vines of Rothschild--the Mouton-Cadet Rothschilds.

In swift order, we were introduced to the Baroness Philippine de Rothschild (who prefers, we were told, to be called simply Madame de Rothschild though no one did so); to Zino Davidoff (a Swiss cigar czar who, in his late 70s, is a walking argument for judicious smoking as an avenue to a long and vigorous life); and to Davidoff's partner, Ernst Schneider, whom everybody called "Dr. Schneider" and presented as the experts' expert on cigars.

During the chitchat, the baroness confided that last week, at a Paris dinner party given by Paloma Picasso, a New York journalist had offered to help her bone up for the hard questions the American press was sure to throw at her. The first one was where the word "cigar" came from, and she said that while she knew it came from Spanish, she thought it might have originally been Indian.

The next hard question was why there was an affinity between wine and cigars, and she sparkled that that was obvious: "Wine and cigars are both the product of the soil and the sun, both represent pleasure and relaxation."

Later, before the luncheon (mussels, followed by rack of lamb, small saute'ed mushrooms and broiled peeled tomatoes, with a strawberry dessert--all, of course, accompanied by Rothschild wines), Davidoff played the same theme to a larger audience. In both wine and cigars, he said, one must "look for good color, good flavor, good taste." For his part, Schneider opened his brief talk with the observation that the word "cigar" goes back to the Mayan language, suggesting that people have been enjoying tobacco for a millennium or so. He was followed by a Sen or Bueso, representing the Honduran growers and makers of Zino Mouton-Cadet cigars, the luncheon's raison d'etre, who said his family had been in the tobacco business for "six generations that I know of, perhaps more." He also pledged that there would be "no compromise in the quality of Zino Mouton-Cadet cigars, not for quantity, not for price."

At table, the baroness observed that "cigar smoking is associated with idleness," but hastened to add, "of course, some of the busiest men have been cigar smokers. Winston Churchill." Schneider said, "Cigarette smokers--forgive me--tend to be nervous, but you have to take time to concentrate on your enjoyment of a cigar. When you have a great problem, and you smoke a good cigar in a relaxed way, you can solve your problem without tension."

He went on to describe the "homogenized" tobacco--actually a mix of pulverized tobacco with paper products--used in El Cheapo cigars like the quarter and 30-cent wonders I burn, and said that the low-price end of the U.S. cigar market is shrinking while the market for good (expensive) cigars is growing. "Smoke less," he counseled, "but smoke better. You should smoke consciously, not automatically."

As to the inevitable social questions smokers run into nowadays, he had several things to say:

* "Antismokers tend to be intolerant. I try not to go where there are intolerant people."

* "To be a cigar-smoker, one must be a gentleman. If anyone is offended by the smoke at the table, you can retire to the bar for your cigar and coffee and brandy."

* "In Europe, one is permitted to smoke cigars on airlines--Swissair, Air France, Lufthansa. The smell of good tobacco is not offensive there."

"The entire effort against smoking is mistaken. With 'light' cigarettes, people smoke more--two, three times as much--and inhale more paper. With better tobacco, they smoke less." That line of argument reminded me of the claims that cigar and pipe smokers don't inhale (not true, in my experience) and that the dangers lie in the paper, not the tobacco (dubious, at best). My own quarrel with the "light" cigarette movement is that it deprives me of what I smoke for--tars and nicotine.

Schneider said he smokes six to ten cigars a day. The baroness smoked several cigarettes before lunch, a cigar afterward, and did not want her picture taken with a cigarette in her hand.

There are good and bad years in tobacco, just as there are in grapes, Schneider said, and a good cigar is a blend of two or even three years to make the flavor come out right. He described the "tastings" of tobacco by a committee of six to 10 people, who smoke perhaps a third of each cigar blend being tested and clear their palates between tastings with a swallow or two of milk--except for Zino Davidoff, who doesn't like milk and uses coffee as a rinse--and the "fermentations" the tobacco goes through.

Fermentation appeared to mean "moisturizing," and there are two, one in the leaf stage and one as a cigar. Cigars should be kept at about 65 degrees Fahrenheit and 72 percent humidity, and Zino Mouton-Cadet happens to sell a humidor that will keep your stock at precisely those levels. If a cigar dries out for 48 hours it's "dead," and there'll be no pleasure left in smoking it; if you re-moisturize it, that's another "fermentation," and it alters the flavor, Schneider said.

He also said he'd been cautioned before coming to Washington not to speak of women while here, and went on to draw some parallels between cigars and beautiful women (there are no homely women in Cigarland, apparently, or enlightened men, either). On their going out: "If you ignore a beautiful woman or a cigar, it will go away." On relighting a cigar: "It can be done, but just as with a woman, it's best if they are kept afire."

Before the dessert, Davidoff had a cigarette. Baroness de Rothschild's cigar went out, and she relit it.

After the dessert, as the armagnac was being offered around, Schneider described and demonstrated how to select, cut, carefully light and enjoy a fine cigar. During the demonstration, Zino Davidoff was asked if that was how he himself lit his cigars. "No, too much theater," he said.

The double corona, or Churchill-size Mouton-Cadet cigar (8 inches long, with a 51 ring size) is to sell for $3, $75 for a box of 25; the smallest cigar to carry a Mouton-Cadet label, a corona (5 5/8 inches, with a 42 ring size) goes for $2, or $50 for a box of 25. No compromising there. Here in the Washington area, they'll be sold through W. Curtis Draper, Georgetown Tobacco Co., and Tobacco Barn (Crystal Underground, Seven Corners, Springfield Mall, but not yet Iverson Mall).

So, after all that, how did they taste? Well, to me, the Country Mouse in such matters, just as fine as you might expect. Among several better-cigar-smoking friends, reactions were mixed: "A good dollar cigar." "Not as good as a Monte Cristo"--which isn't available here anyway--"and maybe a little overpriced; you're paying for the name a little, but it's a good cigar." "A bit too mild for me; for that price I want more flavor." "Like designer jeans, you're paying something for the label."

But, hey, try one yourself and see what you think. Or, for the same money, try a dozen of my El Ropos.