For most people sitting at home or in a bar in the US or Europe, taking a sip of Syrian, Lebanese, or home-made Iranian wine, the untold stories of how people risk their lives to make these wines would be unimaginable. A look into this reality would certainly give each sip a deeper meaning.
Searching for a deeper meaning was the core of a journey that two American film directors – Mark Johnston and Mark Ryan – took in Lebanon to produce “Wine and War.” The feature documentary spans over nine years and seeks to break the stereotype of a country defined by turmoil.
“Wine in Lebanon is just a vehicle to highlight how wine has been a great unifier against the country’s feuding rivals,” Ryan told Inside Arabia. “Wine, in its metaphorical sense, allows people to communicate and engage in speaking on a multitude of subjects without the fear that conflict often tries to instill in people’s minds.”
“Unlike the common belief that wine is a Christian product, we have seen both Muslims and Christians work together in Lebanese vineyards,” Ryan explained.
The documentary shines light on wine history in Lebanon, with a focus on testimonies from those who fought to make wine in the 1975-90 civil war and the 2006 war with Israel, and those who continue to produce wine in the shadow of regional instability.
The winemakers’ astonishing stories tell of bravery, determination, and survival and show how wine can be a unifier and a metaphor for life.
The winemakers’ astonishing stories tell of bravery, determination, and survival and show how wine can be a unifier and a metaphor for life, hospitality, civilization, and above all, a force for good in a region defined by turmoil and animosity.
“Despite its rarity, Lebanese wine is sold in the US market, and the first time I bought a bottle from a store here, I was impressed with its high quality and affordable cost compared to other brands,” Ryan, who resides in Los Angeles, added.
His first taste of Lebanese wine motivated Ryan to read a book titled “Wine of Lebanon” by Michael Karam, which then inspired him to visit Lebanon to gain a better understanding of the people and the culture. After nine years of filming, he co-produced the documentary.
“Winemakers and vineyard farmers are as attached to their vineyard as the grape, no matter [how much] the situation gets worse,” co-director Mark Johnston told Inside Arabia.
Despite the fact that the documentary has nothing to do with politics or religion, both directors said they have faced several obstacles since 2013 until the film was completed and came to light on October 9, 2020. “We had to go through many bureaucratic procedures and lots of papers and stamps from so many departments including Hezbollah, and there were lots of restrictions on using drones,” Johnston said.
“I remember in 2016, we were shooting in Baalbek – a historical city about 67 km northeast of Beirut. ISIS had crossed the borders, we heard the fighting nearby and we were concerned about the crew’s safety,” Ryan said.
“On another occasion, we were filming in an area which is only three kilometers from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Hezbollah and Israeli forces were in a severe battle and we could not reach the location where we planned to film,” Johnston added.
“Making wine in [times of] war is more than a way of life, it is a state of mind,” declares one of the individuals in the film.
“Wine and War” Main Characters
The “Wine and War” film features influential winemakers in Lebanon who put the country on the world wine map, including Serge Hochar, who ran Chateau Musar winery from 1959 until his death in 2014. Hochar’s determination to make and export his wines during the darkest days of the 1975–1990 civil war has set Lebanon as an exporting model. Chateau Musar is known for transporting the grapes across the front lines during the civil war. Currently, the sector exports over 50 percent of the production mainly to the United Kingdom, France, and the United States.
Among the other industry insiders the film features is the late Michel de Bustros, founder of Château Kefraya winery, who died four years ago at the age of 87. Described as a dedicated environmentalist, Bustros started planting vines on his family’s Kefraya estate in the 1950s until it became one of Lebanon’s most acclaimed wines. “He never took no for an answer and refused to surrender even when his vines were caught in the crossfire of conflict,” said Karam.
“[Michel de Bustros] never took no for an answer and refused to surrender even when his vines were caught in the crossfire of conflict.”
There are also appearances by French winemaker Yves Morard, who endured the Israeli invasion of 1982 and the aerial dogfights above the vineyards; Jean-Pierre Sara, the former owner of Chateau Ksara, who was twice subjected to a mock execution after being abducted while driving to the winery; and the Sa‘adeh brothers, who are making wine in the midst of the Syrian civil war.
Additionally, the film features Naji Boutros of Chateau Belle-Vue winery, who planted vines in the mountain town of Bhamdoun where 500 of its inhabitants were murdered in 1983; Ramzi Ghosn of Massaya, who stayed with his vines during the 2006 summer war between Hezbollah and Israel; and a host of other winery owners who live in the shadow of instability—most recently caused by the presence of the Islamic State group and the Syrian civil war.
The filmmakers even tracked down the author of “Eat, Pray, Love,” Elizabeth Gilbert, who developed a special relationship with Lebanon after writing a story about Chateau Musar for GQ magazine.
Wine in Lebanon: Past and Present
Lebanon has gone through many challenges since October 2019, with the flare of public protests calling for the country’s long-standing corruption, inflation, bureaucracy, and misgovernance to be dismantled.
In reality, the devastating port blast in August 2020 has been a syndrome of a long chapter of political turmoil dating back to the 15-year-long civil war and foreign interventions, in a country which once took pride in being seen as “the Paris of the Middle East.” However, thanks to its fearless wine entrepreneurs, Lebanon is trying to revive its old joy as “the Boudreaux of Old World.”
Lebanon has 300 days of sunshine a year and a fertile soil which provides a long growing season, producing quality grapes and other fruits.
Lebanon has 300 days of sunshine a year and a fertile soil which provides a long growing season, producing quality grapes and other fruits. The Lebanese people have superior wineries and a resilient entrepreneurial spirit as well as a craft of making wine that dates back to the Phoenicians, thousands of years ago. All of the wineries have vineyards in the Bekaa Valley. The most heavily planted varietals include Cinsault, Carignon, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Mourvedre.
Unfortunately, the port of Beirut was destroyed by the explosion and will need months, if not years, to fully operate. Wine entrepreneurs won’t be able to export almost 9 million bottles of wine a year or import the equipment needed for winemaking such as corks. Meanwhile, the country’s economic collapse makes it even harder for the Lebanese wine that was set for export to be sold domestically.
Despite its high quality, Lebanese wine production is still much lower than other neighboring countries. For instance, nearby Cyprus produces 40 million bottles a year; Israel, to the south, generates 50 million; and Turkey, to the north, yields 70 million bottles annually.
The stereotype about Lebanon in the West is another challenge facing wine exporters. “If you stopped someone in the street in Britain, asking them about Chile, they would spontaneously say ‘Chilean wine,’ as the country produces almost 100 million bottles a year. But if you ask them about Lebanon, they would probably say, ‘guys with guns, guys with beards, instability, war, religious turmoil,’ and so on,” said Michael Karam, a Lebanese wine expert, in an interview with CNBC.
The stereotype about Lebanon in the West is a challenge facing wine exporters.
“That is why we need first to replace this image with an image of mountains, vineyards, and huge hands picking vines, families sitting around the table enjoying that Mediterranean lifestyle,” Karam added.
Historically speaking, Phoenicians used to export wine jars to ancient Egyptians around 3500 BC and taught the Greeks the craft of winemaking before it was widely spread around Europe. Lebanon was part of the biblical land of Canaan. Jesus changed water into wine there at the wedding of Cana.
Now, wine entrepreneurs have to overcome multiple difficulties, including employee safety, logistical and operational disruptions, the flight of grape collectors, zero Islamist tolerance for the wine industry, border closures and lockdowns because of the Covid-19 pandemic, and fears of potential Israeli strikes targeting the widely-spread out Hezbollah movement.
Despite all these challenges, the number of wineries has increased from five during Lebanon’s civil war to 50 today, revealing a deep sense of resistance, resilience, and humanity.
“What is older, wine or humanity?” Serge Hochar of Chateau Musar, a Lebanese winemaker, wonders in the film. “Fruit was there before humans existed, so the grapes were there… and when their juice leaks on the ground, grapes ferment, and become wine, so wine made itself before humans did,” Hochar concluded, indicating that even moments of pleasure and intoxication in their symbolic sense are key factors of deconfliction and thus an integral part of human existence.
Like the Rhabani Brothers and Fairuz music, which was admired by almost all feuding factions in Lebanon, winemaking and wine drinking in an often hostile environment are a source of relief and solace, and act as a buffer against the sense of polarization and politicization born from war and conflict.
*Note: In support of the Lebanese people, all proceeds from the film’s release are to be donated to CAP-HO, a charity that provides medical care to children without insurance at the St. Georges Hospital in Beirut, which was hit hard by the August 4 explosion in the Lebanese capital.