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Below the Minaret, a Boutique Winery

Vintners in Lebanon are returning the country to its roots while carving a niche among fanciers.

September 04, 2003|T. Christian Miller | Times Staff Writer

TANAIL, Lebanon — There's something a bit odd about trying to run a world-class winery in the Bekaa Valley.

Sure, the similarities to Napa are obvious. The hills are golden brown. The air is soft, warm. The fields are filled with row after row of grapes, deep purple cabernet sauvignons and light green sauvignon blancs.

But then there's the soaring white minaret of the local mosque. And the roadblocks with Syrian army troops. And the yellow Hezbollah posters of Iran's late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini that adorn billboards.

The contrast between bon vivant oenophiles and teetotaling fundamentalists doesn't bother Ramzi Ghosn, one of the owners of Massaya, a boutique winery that has sprung to life just outside this dusty village. It's another sign of the contradictions of Lebanon's history.

"For us, it's just going back to our roots," he said, walking along a lavender-lined path in his vineyard as the call to afternoon prayer came from the nearby mosque. "Wine is part of our tradition."

The Lebanese wine industry is booming. Exports, now about 5 million to 6 million bottles a year, have doubled over the last decade. The number of wineries has grown from three to eight.

There's even a wine tour package through the Bekaa Valley, in the past more famous for hashish and guerrilla warfare than chateaux and wine cellars. The five-day trip includes bed-and-breakfast stays, a tour of Turkish baths and, of course, lots of wine tasting.

Even preeminent critics such as Robert Parker have praised the wines: "Lebanon has selected viticultural sites that can turn out world-class wine," he wrote a few years ago about a cuvee from Chateau Kefraya, one of the country's biggest exporters.

The wine industry here has a history. Some historians speculate that wine may have originated in the Middle East, with the technology brought to Europe by Roman soldiers.

Those troops may have marched through Baalbek, just up the road from here and called Heliopolis 2,000 years ago. The town was then a center of worship and still features one of the largest known temples to Bacchus, the god of wine.

The modern era of wine production in Lebanon began in 1857, when Jesuit priests first began to produce wine for Mass at Chateau Ksara, now one of the largest wineries in the country.

The industry continued to flourish through the 1900s, with the wineries supplying French soldiers during World War I, when France controlled Lebanon.

But the civil war that ripped the country apart between 1975 and 1990 was a dark time for wine too. The battle lines between Syrian and Israeli troops ran through the vineyards. Tanks plowed up the harvest. Druze militia that controlled the mountains slowed shipments so that grapes grown here sometimes arrived fermented at the country's best known winery, Chateau Musar, on the coast.

Ramzi and his brother, Sami, were living abroad when they decided to come back and found the Massaya winery in the early 1990s. The two Christians had been forced to flee their land during the civil war.

Sami, who had been working in Los Angeles as an architect, arrived to find Muslim squatters living in the family's home. He persuaded them to leave peacefully but traveled in the beginning with armed guards. The family, which had produced table grapes, decided to switch to wine to take advantage of its growing popularity worldwide.

"We completely abandoned the area," Ramzi Ghosn said. "But it was our land, and we always hoped that we could come back here. We always thought that peace would prevail."

Today the Lebanese are the Arab world's biggest drinkers of wine, consuming a little less than two gallons per person a year, according to the International Office of Wine and Vine. That's far below the world-champion French, who consume about 17 gallons a year, but nearly equal to the United States.

The relatively heavy consumption is revealing in two ways. First, it's proof again of Lebanon's religious plurality; Christians are 40% of the population. But it also shows that there's a significant segment of moderates among Lebanon's Muslim population.

Sunni Muslims own the Ksara winery and part of Massaya. One of the owners of Kefraya is Walid Jumblatt, a politician and leader of the Druze, a Muslim sect. Muslims are involved in every stage of production, from picking grapes to corking the bottles.

"If Muslims stopped drinking, there'd be no wine sales in Lebanon," joked Omar Garrah, cellar master at Kefraya.

Lebanon, however, remains a bit player. It was the world's 45th-largest producer of wine in 2000, ranking behind even other Muslim countries such as Algeria, Tunisia and Turkey. Lebanese vineyard owners speak bitterly of the competition from Israel, whose industry is flourishing in the Golan Heights on land seized from Syria during the 1967 Middle East War.

To boost sales, Lebanese winemakers have tried in recent years to create a niche as makers of more expensive wine. Massaya, for instance, is backed by French vintners and is focused exclusively on producing small-run, quality wines.

Many of the older wineries have begun tearing up vineyards with lower-quality grapes and replacing them with high-end varieties such as cabernet sauvignon, syrah and chardonnay. And some of the wineries have begun experimenting with making "Lebanese" wine with a distinctive flavor.

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