Winemaking in Hezbollah Country
By Reese Erlich
Lebanese wine is steeped in history, explains Emile Majdalani as he lovingly pours a deep red, cabernet sauvignon into a wide-bowled goblet. Majdalani is business manager of the Kefraya winery, in the verdant green hills of the central Bekaa Valley, ninety minutes by car from Beirut. Listen here:
“The Phoenicians, the Lebanese ancestors, were among the first–if not the first–to ferment grape juice and convert it into wine,” Majdalani says. “A few thousand years later the Romans practiced esoteric rites in Baalbek where you have the temple of Bacchus.”
“Esoteric” is a discreet way to put it. An hour’s drive from the winery sit the Roman ruins of Baalbek. Roman nobles would drink wine at the Temple of Bacchus there, and then hold sex orgies with slaves. Wine was much more than just an aphrodisiac for the ancient Romans. “Some of them were also appreciating the wine in a more distinctive manner,” Majdalani says. I suggest that perhaps they would only tipple a glass with dinner. “Yes, why not?” he replies.
Wine production halted under Arab rule that began in 634, and in the early years of Lebanon’s administration by the Ottomans, which started in the early sixteenth century. Christian monks revived commercial winemaking in the late nineteenth century.
The Lebanese civil war, which lasted from 1975-90, dealt Lebanese vintners a serious blow. Zafer Chaoui, chairman of the board of Ksara, Lebanon’s largest winery, explains the civil war caused road blockages and wine consumption dropped. “The future of the Bekaa Valley was quite uncertain,” says Chaoui. “We were concerned that fundamentalists would control the area.”
Fears of a fundamentalist crackdown on winemaking proved unfounded. Hezbollah (the Party of God) — a regular winner of municipal and parliamentary elections in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley — has no problems with wine production. Wine makers “haven’t been specially targeted,” says Chaoui. “Even in the area where Hezbollah controls, you find wine in the restaurants.”
Chaoui argues that the biggest threat to Lebanese winemakers has come from other quarters. Israel occupied southern Lebanon from 1982-85, initially allying itself with right-wing Christian Phalangists. But, says Chaoui, Israel’s occupation ultimately alienated the Christian community. He says Israeli troops “dug out all the grape plantations” in his vineyards. “Why? Because they were an occupation army and wanted to destroy to the maximum.” It took four years for Ksara to replant and harvest its grapes. Wine making was disrupted again during the month- long Israeli war against Lebanon in 2006.
Today Lebanese Christians, Druze and Muslims get along in the Bekaa Valley. The opportunity for profit makes strange bedfellows. Sami Ghosen, for example, co-owner of Chateau Masaya, employs pious Muslims to make copper stills. They have the best skills, Ghosen says, because they learned their trade repairing Mosques’ copper roofs.
Ghosen admits that not all is well in the world of Lebanese wine. Wine sales have suffered from Lebanon’s reputation as a war-torn, unstable country. “When you drink a glass of wine, you are traveling in a way,” says Ghosen. “You give an okay in your mind or heart to that country. I like to think that Lebanon is not so negatively perceived.”
Indeed, Lebanese wine production has doubled over the past twenty years. Today the country produces an estimated 7.5 million bottles annually. The future fortunes of Lebanese winemakers will largely ride on their ability to survive the perennial misfortunes of Middle East politics.