In Episode 20, we sit down with Michael Karam, the author of Wines of Lebanon and contributor to the new wine documentary Wine and War.
In this episode, Christian Oggenfuss sits with Michael Karam, the author of Wines of Lebanon and contributor to the new wine documentary Wine and War, about the rich and often war-torn history of Lebanese wines. This is their story.
0:00:00.0 Michael Karam: My name is Michael Karam. I’m a wine writer, I’m a wine professional in the sense that I work in the wine trade. My main work centers around marketing and wine communication and positioning of brands. And I consult for a few Lebanese wine producers, helping them primarily gain access to key international markets. Before that, I was a journalist and I lived in Lebanon from 1991 to 2014, covering everything that happens in the country and at the time in Syria as well. And then in end of 2006, I moved into political PR, giving up a little bit of my journalism and then in 2010, I moved into corporate PR, and then using all the skills that I acquired in my professional life until that point, that being journalism and PR, I decided to devote that to the Lebanese wine trade, which had been an industry that I’ve been covering as a journalist. So it all neatly, if you want, channeled my whole professional life from about 2010-2011, neatly channeled into working with the Lebanese wine producers.
0:01:21.2 Christian Oggenfuss: Great. So I’d love to explore a little bit of your early life. So tell me were you born in Lebanon? Were you born in the UK? What is your nationality?
0:01:29.2 MK: Yeah, no, I was born to Lebanese parents in the UK, who happened to be there by a quirk of fate. My parents worked for Middle East Airlines, which is Lebanon’s national carrier, and they ran the UK operation at a time when, you can call it Lebanon’s golden age. So they were running the Middle East Airlines office in Piccadilly in London and I just happened to be born in London. And again, by a twist of fate, I stayed in England because the Lebanese Civil War broke out in 1975. I was born in 1965. And so by the time I was 10, had there been any move to bring me to Lebanon to go to school there, that was quickly shelved because of the civil war. So I grew up in England, and I spent my first 26 years there. Although I did visit Lebanon a lot before the war, so I kind of had an idea of what the country was like, and I did have the privilege of seeing it during the so-called golden age. But up until I was about 26, I was a little Englishman and it was only when I went back to Lebanon in ’91 that I began to develop the Lebanese side of my character a lot more. So I’m a bit more balanced now.
0:02:41.4 CO: [chuckle] Is that also when you started to explore journalism? How did that come about that you get involved in wine journalism?
0:02:47.6 MK: I had this idea that I wanted to be a journalist, and it’s not an easy profession to get into, but when I left London to go to Lebanon in ’91, I found myself right place at the right time. It was a time when western, Westerners in general, were not going there because the kidnapping threat. So I found myself, if you want, able to get writing jobs, whereas if I had arrived in Beirut, I think five years later, the market would have been flooded. The market was definitely flooded, [chuckle] and I wouldn’t have had the head start and I may not have succeeded as much as I did. So I think timing is everything.
0:03:26.5 CO: What was the impetus to go to Lebanon during that period? It sounds like it was a very dangerous period for Westerners, as you mentioned, what was the impetus for going to Lebanon?
0:03:35.6 MK: Sadly, my father was killed in a helicopter crash in Africa in March of 1990, and the civil war had just come to an end, and I had inherited a house and some land there. And in 1991, I said, “Right, well, I’m gonna go to Lebanon, I’m going to sort out my father’s affairs and reacquaint myself with the country,” which I hadn’t really visited properly since I was about 10, 11 years old. I was meant to go for six months and I stayed for 23 years.
0:04:06.5 CO: What was that like for you as a self-professed London boy, as you mentioned earlier, going to Lebanon? Tell me a little bit about how it felt to experience that part of your family’s history.
0:04:16.4 MK: It’s funny, I was talking to someone about this just the other day, and they said, “What kind of person were you when you arrived in Beirut?” And it’s funny ’cause looking back, I cringe a bit because I kind of got off the plane thinking I was Hugh Grant and looking at the Middle East as if I was this kind of a dashing Englishman that had just turned up in the Levant. And I think I must have come across as quite embarrassing to my cousins who I reacquainted myself with. And looking back, I was this rather gauche foreigner turning up in Beirut at the end of a 15 year civil war. But I’d like to think that I quickly shed that rather stuffy English skin that I had and quickly acquired a more pleasing Mediterranean angle to my character, which now I think is… I’m a lot more comfortable in my skin now about who I am, and I think I owe that nearly quarter of a century in Lebanon to that development, let’s say.
0:05:13.5 CO: Did you go to Lebanon with the idea that you would be somehow involved in wine as a journalist, or did that evolve as you came to know the Lebanese wine trade?
0:05:25.2 MK: No, absolutely not. No. I mean, I turned up in Beirut, I got a job as an English teacher at the American University. I then moved into journalism, and in the late 90s, I found myself as a business reporter, if you want, and I was covering various sectors within the Lebanese economy, and I was hired to be the editor, in 2000, of Executive. Executive is a monthly business magazine, and in my first month there, I thought I should set a good example, and I should write the cover story. It was suggest that I do a feature on the Lebanese wine industry. And I did, and I found it fascinating. And I had always been drinking Lebanese wine, but I’d never really met the people behind the wine, and I was rather smitten by these kind of quirky characters. I’d covered Lebanese business, I’d covered bankers, and I’d met bankers, I’d met traders, I’d met people who owned insurance companies, but the owners of Lebanese wineries were a different kettle of fish all together.
0:06:27.5 MK: And now the story becomes even stranger because about three months later after that cover story was released, I get a phone call from a chap called Tom Stevenson, who was the editor of The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, and he said to me, “Would you like to contribute to the Lebanon chapter of a new wine book that I’m doing now?” And I said, “But Tom look, I don’t really know much about wine.” He said, “But that’s fine, I read your cover story. It’s really good and I can’t pay you anything, but overnight, you will be the instant world authority on Lebanese wine and you’ll be up there with all the stars. The experts on Bordeaux, Burgundy, California, the Loire.” And I said, “Yeah, sure. Okay.” And so I was fast-tracked very quickly into this lovely little annual called the Wine Report, which came out for eight consecutive years, or was it six consecutive years, I don’t know. And on the basis of that chapter, all journalists want to write a book, I thought I should write a book about Lebanese wine. Because it’s never been done before. And I got a publishing contract on the back of that chapter, and it was quite extraordinary, it all happened very quickly. And within two years that book won a prize, so suddenly there I was, I was writing about Lebanese wine. I was a wine writer.
0:07:46.1 CO: And the book you mentioned is Wines of Lebanon that came around 2005?
0:07:50.2 MK: 2005 exactly, yeah.
0:07:52.1 CO: So let’s dig a little bit deeper into Lebanon’s wine history. It has… I think most listeners, this would be new information to them, the rich history that Lebanon possesses in the world of wine. Can you tell us a little bit about… Take us a little bit through the timeline of Lebanese wine history.
0:08:09.8 MK: Yeah, while I was writing Wines of Lebanon, I got to know Patrick McGovern, who is the kind of uber-booze archeologist, and Patrick teaches at Penn State or University of Pennsylvania. I forget, I’m sorry. And he had written a book called Uncorking the Past, and he and I exchanged emails while I was writing Wines of Lebanon, and he was telling me that Lebanon is virtually the epicenter of the origins of wine. Georgia was where wine was first made, but the Lebanese… The culture of the vine drifted down to the Levantine coast quite quickly, and if the Phoenicians were not the first people to make wine, they were definitely the first people to bottle it and sell it. They were the first wine merchants. And in doing so, they… In trading wine, which they did along with glass and oil, the famous Murex purple dye, they gave the gift of wine to the then known world. They gave the gift of wine to the Cretans and then the Greeks and the Romans and the Carthaginians and the Spaniards, ’cause they set up these trading points across the Mediterranean, which in and of itself is a fascinating story.
0:09:18.6 MK: And then from Rome, the idea of wine spread through the Etruscans to the rest of Europe. So Lebanon has got a really stellar CV in its ancient wine production, and the impact, if you want, that what is now Lebanon had in spreading the idea of wine to the then known world. That’s the high point. The cult of Bacchus, if you want, was very powerful in the Beqaa Valley in the second century AD. If you go to the Beqaa now, you will see the massive and magnificent temple of Bacchus that is still there. That’s another, if you want, landmark in Lebanon’s role in the development of the wine culture. But really after that we go into hibernation, and while there is a strong tradition of the vine and wine-making in the Holy Land in the Ottoman territories, the story of Lebanese wine doesn’t really pick up again until the mid-19th century.
0:10:22.4 CO: And that’s interesting, why the pause? What is that attributed to? From such an early start and rich history to that hibernation, what was the impetus for that?
0:10:31.7 MK: I think, basically, it was the influence of religion. I think Islam played a major role in… I’m not gonna say the suppression of a wine culture, but it didn’t encourage it, and I think because Lebanon and the territories of the Levant also have a strong Christian element, it was the church that kept the idea of wine going, because wine is used for church services. You read the diaries of travelers to the Levant, and they do talk about the high quality of the wine, but a wine culture that you and I understand didn’t really exist, it was more of a relationship with the vine.
0:11:12.5 CO: And if I remember correctly, it was the Jesuits who in the 19th century founded Chateau Ksara. Is that correct? That kind of restarted this culture of producing wine.
0:11:24.3 MK: It’s an amazing story. The Jesuits were in the Beqaa valley, they were all over the Levantine, but this particular group of Jesuits were in a Beqaa town called Qarnayel, and they woke up one day and said, we want to make a dry wine that we’re used to in France. The majority of them were French, there were few Dutchmen and Germans there. And they quite literally went over the Lebanese mountain range to Beirut, got on a boat, sailed to Algeria, which was the biggest wine hub outside… A French wine hub outside France, and they bought great varieties that they felt would thrive in the Beqaa and they were the Grenache, Sance and Carignan. Got back on the boat, sailed to Beirut and started planting these vines in the Beqaa. And at first, the local farmers were a little bit suspicious, they didn’t like the importation of foreign vines, they thought they might spread disease, but eventually they were won over. And this is what I call the first accident of history in the development of the Lebanese wine industry, because they literally laid the foundations of the modern Lebanese wine industry by planting these French varieties in the Beqaa.
0:12:44.3 CO: That’s interesting, this is an area, for listeners who might not be up on their geography, that is in the middle of a very contentious part of the world in the Middle East, and the wine industry has really suffered under some of this conflict. Can you talk a little bit about all the hurdles that the wine industry has had to overcome in their pursuit to make wine?
0:13:06.6 MK: I think I need to take you back to the end of the First World War. So 1918, the Ottoman empire is on the losing side and Lebanon, what was Lebanon’s piece… The portion of land that became Lebanon was part of the Ottoman Empire which was ceded to France. This is a country that had suffered a lot during the Ottoman times, and during the First World War, there had been famine, and it was only with the arrival of the French in 1919 and the creation of Lebanon as an entity in 1920, that the wine industry experienced its second accidental history, if you want, because the French arrived with 50,000 civil servants and soldiers and they demanded wine every day. So again, the Lebanese began to make wine to sell to their new French overlords.
0:13:54.5 MK: It also was a period when Lebanon fell in love with everything French. It embraced francophone culture. This was a… From 1920 to 1975, Lebanon experienced, if you want, a golden age, it was when the country was really finding its feet. Yes, there was the Second World War, but by and large, Lebanon was spared that. We get to 1975 and the country descends into civil way. And the party, if you want, ended. And the Lebanese wine industry, which was probably made up of about six producers, really found itself taking a blow.
0:14:30.8 MK: But then we have the third accident of history, which is the decision by the Hochar family, which owned Chateau Musar, probably the most famous Lebanese wine producer, to take their wines and sell them abroad. And they were discovered in England at the Bristol Wine Fair in 1979. And in doing so, Lebanon’s flag was planted on the world wine map. And everyone knows about Serge Hochar during the Lebanese Civil War. He was a war hero. His stories about making wine in conflict were famous, and that’s why he was Decanter Magazine’s First Man of the Year. But what people don’t know, this is the point that I’m trying to get to in a rather long-winded way, is that a lot of Lebanese wine producers were also struggling to make wine in war, but their stories weren’t told. The owners of Chateau Ksara were regularly kidnapped and threatened with mock executions. Chateau Kefraya’s wine maker was taken prisoner during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. And on a day-to-day basis over a period of 15 years, Lebanese wine makers faced danger and constant instability, and yet they never really missed a harvest. And that’s why Wine and War, that’s why we’re trying to tell that story.
0:15:54.5 CO: Yeah, so thanks for mentioning the Wine and War documentary, I would encourage all listeners to watch the documentary. It was just released this fall. Tell me a little bit about how that documentary came to be.
0:16:06.8 MK: I got a phone call in 2013 from two rather charming Californian film makers who rocked up in Beirut, and they said, “We’re making a film about Lebanese wine. Can we come and interview you?” And I said, “Yes, sure.” And I was in my house in the mountains at the time, and I said, “Listen, I’m not going down to Beirut. You’ll have to come up and see me, if you want to see me.” And he was like, “Yeah, dude, fine, fine. Yeah, house in the mountains, okay.” And so they turned up with all their cameras and everything, and they were meant to just come for a couple of hours, and this was on Saturday. And they didn’t leave till Sunday morning, because I cooked them lunch, and the one bottle of wine led to quite a few bottles of wine. And when they left, I just thought, “Well, that was fun. I’m looking forward to seeing the film when it comes out. “
0:16:51.4 MK: And then about a month later, I get a phone call and they said, “Listen, would you like to collaborate with us on the film, on writing a script, on structuring the story, and so on.” So that was then. And I said, “Yeah, fine, I’ll do it.” I said, “I haven’t got much time, but yes, no, I can do that. I can do that.” Well, what I thought would be a couple of weeks work became seven years. And in the intervening period, rather tragically Serge Hochar of Chateau Musar died in a swimming accident in Acapulco on New Year’s Eve in 2014. And that rather threw us a bit, because we didn’t know whether to stop what we were doing and make a film just about Serge, because we had so many hours of him on film, probably more than anyone else has, had or still has. And then I think by 2015-2016, we settled on a formula that it would be still a film about Lebanon, and its wine makers, and their struggle to make wine. And then through that, it would be in fact a homage to the Lebanese entrepreneur who has struggled through centuries to make ends meet, and to trade, and to do business in times of conflict and political instability, but with Serge as the main star, because we all recognize that throughout the world, even though Lebanese wine has progressed so much in the consciousness of consumers, Chateau Musar is still way out there as the most famous Lebanese wine, and he was its foremost champion.
0:18:21.2 CO: Which strikes me from the film and from what you’ve said, is the amazing tenacity of the Lebanese wine community and winery owners, wine makers. That entrepreneurial spirit that just drives them to… Even in the face of adversity, to continue forward. What is at the heart of that? Most people, when faced with that much war, that much adversity, would consider a different profession. How are the Lebanese different in that regard?
0:18:50.7 MK: At the risk of being accused of looking at this through rose tinted lenses, I think it’s something that is in our DNA, that stretches back thousands of years. I was on a beach just outside Sidon in 2017, with a group of Lebanese archaeologists who had just found the first commercial Phoenician wine press. And it’s the wine press that you see at the beginning of the film when the drone comes in off the sea. And I was talking to the lead archeologist of the dig, and she said, “You have to remember, the Lebanese, even 4000 years ago, were persecuted and had limited opportunities at home, and that’s why they built their boats. That’s why the Phoenicians, if you want, the early Lebanese built their boats and they had to seek opportunities abroad.” That was a real moment of epiphany for me, because it made me understand the fact that the Lebanese are the most fanatical business people. They are traders. They will calculate on the back of an envelope whether a business will succeed or not. They’re very transactional people, and they come from an area in the world that is plagued by instability, so they’ve had to go and seek opportunities abroad. And they still do this, to this day. Even today, I will guarantee that there are people who left Beirut and are having to seek opportunities abroad because of that tragic explosion on the 4th of August.
0:20:24.3 MK: I think it’s something that has been passed down through the generations. They are can do people, they are the crisis management experts, par excellence. And that’s just how we are. Although I don’t have to claim to have that bit of DNA in me, for some reason. I think it must be growing up in England. But I’m the worst businessman that you can think of. But the Lebanese, they’re smart people. They’re smart, and they’re tenacious and they never give up, and they will not let anything phase them. Be it a power cut, be it war, anything. They will find a way to get around it. And, again, a long-winded answer to your question. I think that this is what has helped the Lebanese wine industry since the mid-19th century. They just get on with it and they will not let anything phase them.
0:21:13.8 CO: The Lebanese wine industry is, as you touched on very lightly in your last answer, is very dependent on the international market. I think I’ve read somewhere that they produce about 10 million bottles of wine a year, and most of it for export. How have the wine makers been able to exploit the international market for Lebanese wines?
0:21:34.3 MK: That’s a very good question, because as you say, we do 10 million bottles a year, which is nothing. It’s literally nothing, if you consider that Brazil produces 350 million bottles a year, and I’d wager that not many of your listeners have ever drunk any wine from Brazil. We’re tiny, and because we’re small, we sell at a premium. So our wines don’t really get put in front of the typical wine consumer so we have to be a bit more strategic in our marketing.
0:22:08.3 MK: We’re not Chile, we’re not New Zealand, we’re not Australia, we’re not South Africa, we’re not Italy, we’re not Spain. We’re quite niche. The big challenge is, to tell consumers that Lebanon is a wine-producing country, first of all, I think is the biggest hurdle that we have to overcome, is to convince international consumers that Lebanon is like Chile, it’s like South Africa, it’s like Australia, it’s like New Zealand, and it makes wine. Once they understand that, I don’t think they really care who the producers are. They will come afterwards. And yet, it was very difficult to convince the Lebanese wine producers to work as a team, because despite all the brilliance that I’ve just been speaking about, the Lebanese entrepreneur, they’re not team players. And so, the challenge was to get them to work as a team and to launch a generic campaign, which we finally did in the UK in 2010.
0:23:00.5 MK: And it worked. Sales in Lebanese wine in the UK, which is our biggest and most serious market rose by 35% a year over four years. Sadly though, it’s not a happy ending to the story because the generic campaign wound up after four years. I think it’s because the Lebanese being mainly transactional people couldn’t understand why they were spending, spending, spending and not getting… Not seeing an immediate return on their investment, despite the fact that they’d be told, this is something you need to do for 10, 15, 20 years.
0:23:33.3 MK: So I’d say, the biggest challenge is to convince the Lebanese entrepreneur, who is an individual by and large, that they need to invest long-term. And that’s challenging for a nation that, for thousands of years, has lived on the, “I give you that, you pay me that.” The immediate transaction.
0:23:52.8 CO: You mentioned the role of Serge Hochar in the Lebanese wine trade, and he was a very outspoken, vocal spokesman for Lebanese wine. How big of a role do you think he played in helping establish, re-establish Lebanese wine trade?
0:24:08.8 MK: He was a giant. The guy was a one-off, and I would say he wasn’t Lebanese in his character. He was philosophical, he went into wine for a start. Actually, if you remember in the film, he said he wanted to become a priest. So I think he had this kind of zen-like software in him from the beginning. But he immediately understood what the world wanted from a wine. He understood that the world wanted a story, he understood that the world wanted a front man, a front of house man who could tell that story and who was charismatic. And I think he understood that to really succeed, the world wanted a wine that was a little bit controversial as well.
0:24:52.4 MK: And Christian, I’m sure as you know, Chateau Musar wines have their supporters and their detractors because they’re not the most approachable wines in the world. But I think those people who taste them and like them, are immediately lifelong converts, and I think that making an esoteric and enigmatic wine from an esoteric and enigmatic part of the world was a wonderful formula. And so, I think all that wrapped up was the magic of Serge.
0:25:22.0 CO: And as you mentioned, the wine world last Serge in 2010, is that correct?
0:25:27.3 MK: It was New Year’s Eve, 2014.
0:25:30.3 CO: 2014. That must have rocked the Lebanese wine world, I’m sure, and more recent events, as you mentioned, the horrible explosion in East Beirut in August of this year, the COVID crisis, the financial crisis. Lebanon, continues to face, what seems to be body blow after body blow. What does the future hold for this country and for the wine trade?
0:25:51.8 MK: Yeah. It’s absolutely horrendous. It’s utterly horrendous what’s happened to Lebanon in the last year. If I could take your listeners back to just over a year ago, I think October 10, 2019, there was a popular revolution in Lebanon, which precipitated a financial crisis and horrific inflation. And at that point, the Lebanese wine producers were saying to themselves, we need to generate hard currency if we are going to survive this, because the Lebanese Pound to the Dollar, I think lost something like 80% of its value. So between October and February, October 2019 and February 2020, the strategy, and I was working with a lot of Lebanese wine producers on this, was that exports had to be the priority just to generate the hard currency that they could use to buy the raw materials, to buy bottles, corks, capsules, labels, all the wine-making materials that they need on an annual basis.
0:27:00.9 MK: That was a challenge in itself. And then the pandemic hit. So if Lebanon had one hand tied behind its back, it suddenly had both hands tied behind its back, because it couldn’t sell abroad because everyone stopped buying, essentially. So it wasn’t selling at home, or if it was selling at home, it was selling at a massive loss. Couldn’t sell abroad, because everyone was putting all their orders on hold. And then, just to add to it, there was this terrible, traumatic, tragic explosion on August 4th, which ripped through East Beirut, part of the city in which I lived for 23 years. 80,000 homes were destroyed, and the population traumatized. So this is where we are today.
0:27:48.1 CO: Unimaginable to us who live in the West, in the US, in Canada, and in the UK, to face something like that. Let’s switch gears a little bit and let’s talk about making in Lebanon. I’m sure there has been an evolution over time as to what varieties are grown and the styles of wine that are made. Take us maybe on a little bit of a 30-year timeline as to how has the industry evolved and where do you see it going from a winemaking perspective?
0:28:15.2 MK: This is actually quite encouraging, and I’m happy to talk about this. When the civil war ended, Lebanon had a civil… Maybe your listeners are not as clued up on this as I perhaps assume they are. Lebanon experienced a civil war between 1975 and 1990, during which time, by and large, the wine industry was on hold. In 1990, when everyone was dusting themselves down after 15 years of killing each other, the wineries that had been around before the civil war began to restructure themselves, and Arak producers and significant owners of vineyards in the Beqaa Valley took a look around and said, “Well, what’s the rest of the world been up to while we were fighting?”
0:29:00.1 MK: And it precipitated what I call phase two of the evolution of the Lebanese wine industry. They said… They looked around, they said, “Well, the Californians have made great strides. Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans, Chileans, the Argentinians, we wanna be part of this.” And they looked around and they said, “Well, what are we gonna do? What have we got? Well, we’ve got a little bit of Mourvedre, we’ve got a bit of Cinsault, we’ve got some Carignan, we#ve got some Grenache, but we don’t really… That’s not gonna really cut it.” Because the Lebanese are very, very proud people. They’re very quality-conscious. And they said, “We need to be up there with the rest of the world. So they started pulling up a lot of their Cinsault and the Grenache and the Carignan, and the Mourvedre, and the Ugni Blanc with white grapes. And they shipped in Cavas, Merlot, Shiraz, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and they bought the best French oak barrels that money could buy. Because this is what they thought the world really wanted from Lebanon. And with hindsight, it’s easy to understand why they wanted to do this, because they said, “We’re a small country. We have to focus on quality.”
0:30:15.4 MK: If you want, the trajectory for the first 20 years, it was rich, extracted, powerful wines dressed in the best oak that money could buy. And yet one had the suspicion that the real taste of the Beqaa, the real essence of the Beqaa, the spirit of the Beqaa wasn’t necessarily… I’m not saying it wasn’t, saying it wasn’t necessarily to be found in these grapes. And I’m speaking from my own point of view here, but I always had the sneaking suspicion that Cinsault, Carignan, Grenache… Obeideh, and Merwah, the two indigenous white grapes that we had, were really what we should be focusing on. And I was considered a bit of a nut for even entertaining the idea that the industry should be driven by these grapes. It were seen as a bit déclassé, a bit peasant-like because they’ve been around forever, and if Lebanon really wanted to step up to the plate, it had to give what the Lebanese would call, “les cépages nobles” The nobles of varieties.
0:31:27.8 MK: And it worked. It was fine. It was fine. Lebanese wine did begin to evolve and catch the attention of the international wine world. And it wasn’t just Chateau Musar anymore. Chateau Kefraya made a wine called the Comte de M, and it was the first wine other than Musar that was noticed by Robert Parker, and then people began to realize that they were… There was another style of Lebanese wine, a more squeaky clean style that most consumers would probably understand.
0:31:57.2 MK: But the really interesting thing came from, I’d say 2010 onwards, and the first thing was the white wines began to improve dramatically. Because Lebanon was always seen as red wine country, big, powerful reds. It’s a hot climate. Yeah, they make a few bottles of white wine, but it was more as an afterthought. But then, when they began to understand the varieties that they’d planted in the last 10 years before that, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, bit of Clairette, and they planted them really high up, so you’re getting freshness. Suddenly, people were saying, “Wow, Lebanese wines are becoming really… Lebanese white wines are becoming really interesting. They have a freshness and the complexity that belie their origins,” and that really added a new dimension to Lebanon’s wine offering.
0:32:57.8 MK: These white wines were not an afterthought. They were something quite special and they were diverse. They had depth, complexity, character, arguably even more depth, complexity and character than the reds for which they had been famed, and that’s one thing. And then secondly, the penny dropped and people were saying, “Let’s look at the grapes that have done us great service for the last 150 years.” Notably, the Sancerre, which Serge Hochar used to great effect in his chateau, followed closely by the Carignan, all these Southern French grapes that love a hot climate with a little bit of altitude and which, in the Beqaa, really thrive. The French come to Lebanon, they drink our Sancerre and they say, “Your Sancerre is amazing! Ours, a bit thin, a bit… You know, whatever.”
0:33:52.5 MK: But whatever happens in the Beqaa, it gives great expression to this grape and now you’re beginning to see that everyone is rushing to make old vine Sancerre, old vine Carignan and on the back of that, there was a revival of the Merwah and the Obaideh our indigenous whites, which were real peasants in the eyes of the Lebanese wine producers and only suitable for arak, which is our national drink. It’s an aniseed-based eau-de-vie. And then suddenly, now everyone wants Obaideh wines and Merwah wines because everyone wants authenticity. And this was a trick that Serge Hochar recognised 30 years ago, 40 years ago. To this day, his chateau is still 50-50, Merwah-Obaideh. And I think now that Lebanon is beginning to evolve properly as not just a tiny wine-producing country that makes international-style wines that are well made, but could come from anywhere, we’re now beginning to adopt an identity. And I think that is the most important thing in the development of Lebanese wine in the last 30 years.
0:35:05.9 MK: There’s a young man called Maher Harb. He’s got a winery in Batroun, in the north of Lebanon. It’s called Sept, as in seven, S-E-P-T. And he has done the first skin-contact Obaideh and that is amazing. I mean, skin-contact Obaideh, you even mention that five years ago, people would have gone, “Wuh?” And now, this is the kind of culture that is happening and I’m excited, I’m really happy, I’m just also sad that Lebanon… Just as this new zeitgeist is beginning to happen, all the negative stuff is happening at the same time to somehow push it back. But, yeah, that’s it in a nutshell.
0:35:44.3 CO: It is fascinating and it is heartening to see the continued perseverance of the Lebanese winemakers and their exploration of their wine-making culture. You wrote another book recently, if I’m not mistaken, called Tears of Bacchus and that focuses not only on Lebanese wine-making culture, but also on Syrian wine-making culture. Can you tell us a little bit about that book?
0:36:06.2 MK: I didn’t write it. That would be unfair. I edited it. It’s a series of essays, I think, by eight or nine contributors of which I am one. But no, it’s not my book. I’m just the editor and the compiler. I managed to assemble a great team, varied team of authors who are novelists, journalists, archaeologists, curators, who managed to bring a different voice and a different flavor to the chapter that they wrote, and it’s basically… It is not the history of wine-making in the Arab world. It is a history of wine-making in the Arab world. And we forget that Lebanon and Syria was basically the same country and Syria, today, despite the tragedy that has befallen that country in the last 10 years, if one doesn’t want to belittle that tragedy by talking about its potential as a wine-producing country, has huge potential. And I really, really can’t wait for, first of all, peace and prosperity and the safety of its people. But once all that is taken care of, I would love to see the similar growth there in wine that Lebanon experienced after the civil war in 1990.
0:37:24.4 MK: One producer… Or let’s say, there is one producer in Syria today that has really made an impact and that is Domaine Bargylus, which is owned by Karim and Sandro Saadé. They’re a Lebanese-Syrian family. They own Chateau Marsyas in the Beqaa Valley and they made the extraordinary decision in 2005 to plant a vineyard in Jebel Al-Ansariyé in Syria, above the port city of Latakia, and plant Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. And within 15 years, have demonstrated that the terroir in that region is amazing and can compete with anything that Lebanon can do, and they kept on producing… And have kept on producing wine during the civil war. Amazing wines, if anyone gets a chance to taste them and they’re not that hard to find. The whites, in particular, are staggering. I think, at the moment, in the UK market, there’s a 2014, six years old, no oak and yet retains a freshness and a complexity that is just quite staggering. They have the most amazing ability to age and develop, and I think Syria or that part of Syria can really contribute a very valuable dimension to the reputation of wines from the Levant.
0:38:57.1 CO: So I know the final chapter in the book of Lebanon’s wine industry is far from written. For my final question, maybe you can share with our listeners, what is your hope that they take away from this interview and from watching the documentary, Wine and War? What is the central message you hope that listeners and viewers of the documentary will walk away with?
0:39:19.0 MK: I think it’s a big ask to tell people to buy Lebanese wine. I mean, yes, if you see Lebanese wine in your local wine shop, buy it, try it, you’ll love it, I hope. But from a bigger picture perspective, I would just love it if your listeners today were presented with a different view of a country that has been unfairly portrayed in the media over the last 50 years. I know that the US had a tragic experience in Lebanon in the 1980s and that scar is still there and the memory of that is still there. All I want to say is Lebanon is more than an unstable country punctuated by periods of instability and bad guys with beards and guns. It’s a country that has been around forever and has a deep, deep, deep civilization of tradition, history, hospitality and I think, most importantly, generosity of spirit and all these things are conveyed in the wine.
0:40:27.6 MK: And if I’m being completely honest, one of the things that attracted me to write about Lebanese wine was that this was something that I could show to the rest of the world and say, “Look, listen, we’re not just about bad stuff. We make wine and we make fabulous food as well, by the way. And also, if you can find it, try our national drink, arak.” But I think a lot of the people who bought my book in 2005 said, “We live in America. We live in Europe. We live in Australia. We live in Canada. We live in South America. We just love having your book on our table.” And when we have guests to our house, they say, “Oh, you make wine in Lebanon, we didn’t know that.” And I think that’s what the Lebanese want to show the world, is that, as I said before, we’re more than just the bad stuff. We have history and civilization and I think the wine, while being in and of itself very good, conveys a more important message to the world.
0:41:25.6 CO: It sounds like the wine is a window into this area of the world with rich cultural history. Michael, thank you so much for joining us today and we look forward to continuing to follow the journey of Lebanese wines and the Lebanese people. I appreciate your very insightful storytelling in this region of the world.
0:41:44.9 MK: Christian, thank you. Thank you. It’s a pleasure to talk to you and through you, talk to your listeners.