A Hopeful Harvest

by Jeffrey Kaiser:

Towering high above the Beqaa Valley, the ancient Roman ruins of the Temple of Bacchus in the town of Baalbek lie nearly untouched. It seems apt that the Romans dedicated a temple to Bacchus, the god of wine, in the center of the modern-day wine industry in Lebanon. With its temperate summer climate and rocky soil, the Beqaa Valley is ideal terroir for wine production. Yet while production is now steady, the region is only beginning to recognize its potential after years of political instability held back its growth. As Lebanon shows sign of reviving, so does its wine industry, and wine producers hope that peace and production will grow hand in hand.

Although few might guess it, wine is historically rooted in the Middle East. It is thought to have originated 5,000 years ago in the Caucasus, its production then spreading across the region from modern-day Israel to Iraq. Wine production in Lebanon began around 1857 when Jesuit priests planted vines imported from French Algeria. Since then, the Beqaa has fostered many fruitful harvests. But cultivation suffered during the 15-year civil war that raged through the ’70s and ’80s, transforming Lebanon from a center of culture and intellect to a nation known abroad mostly in association with the Palestine Liberation Organization, Hezbollah, and perpetual political strife. Today, wine producers believe that their product can not only sell abroad but can also help rebuild Lebanon’s international image.

Grapes flourish in the Beqaa Valley, with its temperate climate and rich, rocky soil (Courtesy Massaya).

Fewer than 20 years ago, only a handful of wineries existed in Lebanon. Although a few, such as the well-known Chateau Musar, had become recognized in the greater wine world, the civil war, lasting until 1990, hindered growth at a time when small wine markets in places like Australia, New Zealand, and Chile were emerging rapidly.

Today, Lebanese wineries continue to open and tourists have begun to plan trips to Lebanon specifically targeting the Beqaa. “If people are coming here to visit the wineries and to learn about the Beqaa, it means that we are making a point and that our vision of a different Lebanon is materializing,” said Ramzi Ghosn, owner of the Massaya winery. Ghosn started Massaya with his brother Sami eight years after the end of the civil war: It was Beqaa’s first “new generation” winery. “In 1998 there were approximately four or five wineries,” said Ghosn. “Now there are around 20 or 25, if not more.”

Lebanon is a predominantly Muslim country and alcohol is forbidden in the Qur’an, but Michael Karam, author of Wines of Lebanon, claims that this demographic reality has not held back the industry. “The only impact is on the national consumption,” said Karam. “We don’t, as a country, drink a lot.” Consequently, Chateau Musar has at times exported up to 97 percent of its annual production. The wine industry’s expansion today is a direct measure of growing international interest.

According to Karam, Lebanon is perfectly suited for a “boutique” wine industry. But the vineyards of the Beqaa Valley are still subject to regional instability. “We were almost going to miss the harvest in 2006,” Ghosn said, discussing the high-profile Israel-Hezbollah war of that summer. “The war ended on August 13 and we started our harvest on August 15.” The winery sustained minor damage to some of its buildings during the bombings. Producers understand the risks that go along with running a business in the area, which is known as a Hezbollah stronghold. “We always have contingency plans in our head. It would be unfortunate if we had another war tomorrow, but that’s reality. We are born in this environment and we learn to develop some skills out of experience,” said Ghosn.

Despite the continuing risk of conflict, the future seems bright for Lebanese wine producers. With more international press and recognition, the industry has flourished. “There is no reason that Lebanese wine should not be among the sexiest wines out there. Lebanon has everything: the culture, the heritage, the intrigue,” said Karam.

“Lebanon is not the country you see in the news,” claimed Ghosn. “We try to convey a message of tolerance and civilization. A glass of wine from Lebanon epitomizes this spirit of tolerance, and we hope our exports are contributing to a better image of Lebanon.” Bacchus may again be worthy of praise in the modern-day Beqaa.

Jeffrey Kaiser’12 is a political science major in Saybrook College.