Akar pauses. He rakes his hair, searching for words.
Grapes will not replace cannabis in Lebanon anytime soon, if ever. While many rmers prefer grapes to other cropsand certainly to ones like potatoes, that yield poor returnsthey need enterprises like the Heliopolis Cooperative to make their transition feasible and attractive. Its a nobrainer, Karam says. But its not that straightforward. They need at least three years before the vines can produce. What do they do in the meantime?
Good! He keeps looking over, smiling. Weve been bonding a bit, swapping crazy stories about our ancestral villagesboth known for guntoting, temperamental, boisterous residents. Like many Lebanese, Elie has relatives abroad and a rather touching affinity for Lebaneseorigin folksemigres, or their sons and daughterstraveling through the Old Country. Do you visit your village much?
Were almost there Dayr alAhmar, a village huddled beneath the northern peaks.
No, no. Look We use different grapes and blends. Each label has its own taste. The coop is still important to us, so we bottle its wines to reduce the risks for rmers.
Elie, a rmer and member of the Heliopolis Cooperative, weights a brush plant with a rock as a natural filter inside a concrete ageing vat at the Couvent Rouge winery.
There is no evidence that wine was purged, or extirpated, from the region, says Alex Rowell, author of the forthcomingVintage Humor The Islamic Wine Poetry of Abu Nuwas, as he swills a not offensive white wine outside of a Beirut caf. Caliphs, from the Umayyad era onwards, were drinkers. Some [were] enthusiastic imbibers.
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The rmers make wine, too. With the help of winemakers, the coop has created two new labels Coteaux Les Cedres and Dayaa, an Arabiclabeled wine that derives its name, and incorporates the ry of, a Lebanese village. A few of the rmers are launching their own private winery, Couvent Rouge, through which they hope to further help other rmersand, of course, turn a profit.
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Melhem Habshi, a rmer and member of the Heliopolis Cooperative oversees a team of workers picking grapes that will be used to make wine at Couvent Rouge winery.
This is an inland frontiera place where the mountain meets the plain, I say to Sam, an intrepid photojournalist whos excited about the trip but quickly learning to ignore me. Over the past few centuries, people have migrated from inhospile climes in search of pasturelands and fields to rm.
Cannabis grows everywhere. It grows by the road, across the vineyards, and on the hills. It grows in peoples goddamn gardens, with kids playing on balconies above.
He pours, spilling a few drops. Im new to pouring, he explains, with a wink. I dab at the wine with my fingers, then lick them like an idiot.
What I really like about this wine is that its and funlike my grandthers batches. He used to make wine. For me, this wine is about a nostalgia that weve been talking about. Our grandparents, these rmers. They make good wine. And, yes, their story matters.
Theres no formula for what makes a good wine, he explains, picking up steam. Wine should be good, fun. Its . But that doesnt mean I can explain it. I like the wines that I like. I hope people drink wines they like, not wines theyre told to like.
***On the way back to the winery, we hit a junction to the right, a field full of cannabisgreen and golden, swaying in the breezeand, to the left, a vineyard full of Spanish Tempranillo taking well to the soil.
There is no evidence that wine was purged from the region
Tell him to take pict Rasha yells, wind whipping her veil around.
Couvent Rouge, meanwhile, bottles around , wines a year under its own label. We are trying to compete with these [big brands], Habshi says. There are so many good wines. And were of course competing with other regions Zahle, the West Bekaatraditional wine areas.
Elie drives us out to meet Habshis brother, Melhem, whos out with his picking crew today. We abandon the truck in the middle of the road and walk over.
Incidentally, the grapes are delicious. Syrah is the best, Melham declares, handing me a handful. They pop like blueberries, with a nice kick. It struggles sometimes, not just in Lebanon. Syrah is the most important grape in the world. You just cant make a good wine without Syrah!
The drug trade exploded in the s and s. Even as global consumers demanded more hash, heroin, and edriving up prices and profitsthe state collapsed completely during the Lebanese civil war, which lasted from . Left to their own devices, rmers began cultivating more cannabis and opium. The Bekaa Valley became a drug lords paradise; drugs became its peoples petroleum.
We work with them all year, Melhem explains. We try to have them help with the harvest. They work hard. They are very good people.
While the Heliopolis Cooperative is a project of, by, and for Lebanese rmers, Melhem worries about the bottom line. We couldnt find enough Lebanese people to do this work even before the [Syrian] war, he says, repeating a refrain heard across Lebanon. I know only a few Lebanese that will work for L or maybe LL [an hour]. But, day after day, that is a lot more for us to bear.
Face crinkling with glee, Habshi leads us up some stairs, through planned offices and processing cilities, and then down to a cavernous basement. We make , bottles a year now, he says, walking past walls and walls of stacked wine bottles. We split the production. These bottles are for the Heliopolis Cooperative Cedres and Dayaa. See? And these are for us, Couvent Rouge.
What do you taste? he asks, as we try Australian, French, and Lebanese wines. How do you rate [the wines]?
Everyone wanted a cut. Rapacious militias and foreign armies controlled the Bekaa Valley, overland transit routes, and a dozen seaports to the wider world. Moving thousands of tons of hash, e, and heroin, they pocketed hundreds of millions of dollars. Then, they used the money to buy guns, pay more gunmen, and fight each other. After the Syrian regime monopolized control of the Bekaa Valley, going so r as to send in units of its presidential guard, it silized the drug trade and began to benefit from billions of dollars in related revenue. By , Lebanese rmers were producing percent of the worlds cannabis and a significant share of its opium poppiesleading the U.S. Congress to hold hearings on the worlds largest drug rm.
Farmers in the area, we discover through a sloppy sort of Socratic dialogue with the driver, cant make a living growing apples because the lands are too low and hot; barley or wheat, because most rmers dont own plots of land large enough for such cheap crops; or figs, cherries, or other fruits, because, well, nobody eats jam or jelly anymore!
A wiry man, Melhems sporting green shorts and a white undershirt that pops in the sun. Who has my lighter? he bellows, halfseriously. My lighter
Sauntering through rows of Syrah and Tempranillo, Melhem explains how the Heliopolis Cooperative serves as a useful intermediary for rmers. When we started out, we didnt know much about grapes. It took about four years. We made mistakes. All the while, the government did nothing for us! I think some of the ministers worry about alcohol. Haram, eh? No, they prefer guns
I hope you stay, he says. I dont like when people leave Lebanon. We all have cousins in America and Australia. Why? Now I can stay, growing grapes and doing other work in the winter. God willing, youll stay here. And Sam! Visit us from time to time. Now this town is your home.
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Many rmers have stuck with cannabis. Lebanese authorities have, as Habshi puts it, left the area alone since or maybe . With cannabis production soaring by more than percent, Lebanon is again among the worlds top fivecannabisor cannabis resinproducers. Drug lords are back in black, even finding time to do cutesy spots forVICEor theBBClike CEOs doing bizarre sponsored content profiles.
Then, in the s, the Lebanese government tried to encourage rmers to grow potatoes. Really? another rmer asks, incredulously, while he drives us around some cannabis fields in the area. Do you know how much [a unit] of hash is? You want people to grow potatoes?!
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Bearish and gregarious, Khachan smiles from behind the storefront. After twenty minutes of niceties, we sit with some of his friends.
Grapes will not replace cannabis in Lebanon anytime soon, if ever
Elie points with pride at a smaller patch, one of two that he owns. Thats mine. It took two years to sort out the land. It was too dry, and we couldnt get a reliable supply of water over.
After we step onto a patio that has been the scene of some outrageous parties, Habshi and his employee Elie drive us around the lands and towns that surround the winery. Racing past young vineyards, a shepherd tending to his flock, and a golden hill where barleys been cut, we take in fertile fields and orchards grapes, tobacco, apples, figs, wheat, an errant sunflower, and more.
You want [Sam] to take someone elses picture? Its only about the winery, I promise.
Cultivating legal crops, the coops rmers are in a brutal business. Lebanons earlier wineriesthere were five, including one run bybrotherswho slept in a vineyard with AKs at their sidesnearly went extinct during the war. But since they found their footing in the s, winemakers and oenophiles have resurrected wine culture in Lebanon.
And they did so under the MuslimArab, Persian, Egyptian, Turkic, and Turkishrulers that governed the area, with a few Crusader interludes, from the ll of Rome until the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. Christians made wine for sacrament and private consumption, which is why viticulture survivedthough it did atrophyunder the Ottomans, who tried to ban the and consumption of wine except for religious purposes. Monks flourished as winemakers.Monasteriesthroughout the Middle East became halls of hospitality, and then hedonism, for Muslim travelers and visitors. And, anyway, Muslims were not as uniformly opposed to wineor its effectsas contemporary stereos and simplifications suggest.
At the moment of truth, though, we all agree the Cedres red is excellentnot a gimmick. That really was delicious, Linda giggles. Can I have some more?
No! she laughs loudly. I dont want him taking anyone elses picture Only mine!
Hold on. Habshi answers the phone, lets loose some profuse pronity, and then finishes his story. The rmers work in a string of eleven villageseight mostly Maronite, three mostly Shiabetween Bcharre and Baalbek. The Heliopolis Cooperative welcomes rmers from all s, so long as theyre honest and have suile land, because we share our joys and share our sorrows, good times and bad. Were only worried about our livelihoods.
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I do, Rasha smiles, eyes sparkling. She fishes the lighter out of her shirt, hands it over, and says hello. Like most of Melhems crew, Rasha is Syrianfrom Homs, which, as she reminds us, is renowned for the beauty of its womennow living in Lebanon.
Locals have also been planting much more potentand lucrativecrops for centuries cannabis and opium poppies. They increased production to meet exportdriven demand after Lebanon became an independent state in .
We see Couvent Rouge in the distance a concrete bunker, angular but still elegant, perched on a hill like a Galactic Empire command center in the Levant.
Farmers here used to grow cannabis and opium poppies destined for the hash and heroin trade. Now, they grow grapes Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Tempranillo, and more. Working together in theCooperative Coteaux dHeliopolisor the Heliopolis Cooperative, inspired by the Hellenic name for Baalbek, a major nearby townrmers in the area have been supplying grapes to Lebanons largest wineries since the early s.
But wait. Its time to stop the meditations and musings. Weve missed our turn.
Joseph, a sweet kid who works in the store, likes wines that fit his personalitycausing some consternation among the seasoned snobs. If you like sweet wines, then youre still developing a taste for wine. Linda, a lovely lady, tastes patiently and takes notes on her phone. I like that one, she says, leaning over. Im surprised. She takes smoking breaks, much to Khachans chagrin, with Michela suave dude whos roared up a M BMW. Michel seems to be here a lot; neither he nor Khachan can remember which vintages he likesor when hes bought them. Are you going to party after this? he grins, after a few glasses. Dont mix alcohols! And then theres Chawqi, a genteel man who lets his love of wine shine. He has sips of this and bites of that, while politely conversing with Sam about Merry Old England.
We climb Mount Lebanon, which rises rapidly from the Mediterranean. Navigating the narrow, rutted roads, we cut through a landscape littered with lush ravines and barren quarries; rivers dyed red with topsoil runoff, which the ancients believed to be the blood of Adonis; olive trees, firs, and cedars; and redroofed homes that dot oncepicturesque villages now covered by concrete. After a hairpin turn at the top, we arriveabruptlyin the Bekaa Valley, a sunsoaked, patchy plain that the Romans called the breadbasket of the world.
Melhem says hes worked with some of the fruit pickers since before the Syrian war began in , but that hes seen more people looking for work since then. He pays each worker LL, or ., an hoursomething like twelve dollars a day.
Walid Habshi ushers us in, makes small talk, and sits down in a room that overlooks the Bekaa Valley. The Heliopolis Cooperative really began its work in . We had seven rmers, Habshi says. None of us had grown grapes for wine. We did grow a grape native to Lebanon Obeideh.
Now driving determinedly, we ignore the scenery and skip the historical sites. Were here to drink wine.
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Abu Nuwas, the master of the Arabic wine poem, even mentioned Lebanon at least three times. Once, he requested that if he died in the lands of the Levant, then he not be left too r from Firzula grapegrowing town that still stands just miles south of Dayr alAhmar.
What government? Habshi sneers, sitting in the winery. He points to the horizon, and patchy plain below. Were on a different planet.
And Lebanons wine sector is still smallwith total revenue less than million dollars, and exportgenerated profits of less than millioncompared to the billion dollars that the Lebanese are estimated to pocket from hash, heroin, and synthetic drugs like the Captagon craved by fighters in Syria and partygoers in the Arab Gulf. Without resourceaggregating ventures like the Helipolis Cooperative or valueadding enterprises like Couvent Rouge, rmers would have to sell their grapeslegal, and thus cheapunder contract, shaving something like percent from their sale price.
***Back in Beirut, which begins to bustle after dark, we join Ziad Abi Akar for a few more glasses of a red Cedres . Research Now guzzling the wine like water, weve gone from rating it as delicious and refreshing to praising it as ing ntasticwith flavors that are both sharp and sweet, like red apple skin, sweet blackberries, and tart raspberries.
Our first vintage was in , Habshi says. It takes time for vines to produce properly. Now we have around rmerscurrent rmers, to be clearproducing between and tons [of grapes] a year. hectares.
Do you know how much a unit of hash is? You want people to grow potatoes?!
He wants to walk us through the winery, which is ultramodern but still under construction. It smells like a sugar ctory. Fermentation, he notes, before explaining why they use concrete vats. Concrete isnt like wood, but its better than metal. It still interacts with the environment. It breathes, if you will.
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We drink the wine; they make love to it, gurgling and puckering their way to a concealed climax. We smell soap, taste olive oil, or insist that theres a touch of lavender; they say that the flavors we detectthe flavors that our minds, noses, and tongues are searching forare citrus, berries, or spice. Its a science, Khachan says, before softening the blow. But it is imprecise. Taste matters. There is no best wine, but there is a correct way to taste.
The coop stepped in. It simplified issues relating to land titles, eased the banks creditrisk concerns, secured more vorable loans, and backstopped rmers financiallythereby the transition from the drug trade, which still dwarfs wine in terms of revenue, much more attractive than it otherwise would have been. The rmers then focused on when to trim, what to spray, when to load, and which grapes to grow.
But long before the Jesuits, the Phoenicians, a searing people who lived on the Levantine coast in ancient times, made and traded wine all around the Mediterranean. Locals kept wine under the Hellenic, Assyrian, Babylonian, Roman, and Byzantine rulers that passed through Lebanon during the next couple thousand years.
Theyre also up against the world. Italian producers, for instance, make around billion bottles of wine a year. Even Cyprus, where the climate is much like the drier parts of Lebanon, churns out million bottles a yearfour times Lebanese production. The trick is to sell the country before the producer, Karam, the author ofLebanese Wines, had explained earlier. Most people know of Chilean wines, but I bet [theyd] be pushed to name a producer. If the government were smart, it would really get behind these producers.
Caught between aggressive eradication campaigns and ineffective cropsubstitution initiatives, some rmers decided to grow grapes, turningweed into wine.
He stops, then yells. Elie? Please bring us some wine, so we can have fun. Red wine.
Sam and I sit at the end, trying to stay out of everyones wayand out of Khachans crosshairs. No dice.
People have been growing grapes and wine in the Bekaa Valley for millennia. There was an uninterrupted wine culture in Lebanon even before the Jesuits [revitalized wine] in , says Michael Karam, the LebaneseBritish author ofLebanese Wines. The Jesuits game changer was that they made a dry wine and laid the foundations of the modern wine industry. Then, with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the arrival of the French, things really began to motor, he adds.
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You should always visit, he says. We hit a bump. Happily, Samstanding on the truck bedis still with us, though Im not sure flying cefirst into a field of cannabis would be so bad.
After that, the authorities began serious eradication campaigns, in part to placate the Clinton administration, which was pushing for peace between Syria and Israel. They razed fields, burned crops, and shut down processing cilities. In , the United States removed Lebanon from its list of narcoticstrafficking states.
Melhem smiles uneasily. Not one to waste time, hed just been blasting his brother on the phone. Who? What do you mean questions and pictures? Fuck that , we overhear him yelling.
Writing a book about Lebanons wine road, Akars identifying and mapping out wineries that have two things in common fun wines and compelling, real stories. He decants the wine, insisting that we taste it in phases, then explains how he first found these rmers. We were buying new products for the bar, and a distributor told me to just try it. It was supergood!
Habshi turns the taps, letting wine cascade into our glasses. Employees load shrubs and stones into some of the empty vats. We lean up against the cool wall, sniff the glassesno whiff of hash, to be clearand get to drinking again. You might smell hash, he says, sensing my struggle, if you work with imagination!
Hold on. If the winery is merely slapping different labels on the bottles, then its just selling more bull branding to consumers obsessed with contrived authenticity, ke origin stories, elegant logos, and
Shes still struggling with the veil. Pictures! another woman yells. The pictures!
Almost wineries now operate in Lebanon, which is smaller than Connecticut. They offer tours and tastings, and have built openair viewing stations and restaurants. They sell millions of bottles a year, in Lebanon and around the world. Chateau Ksara, started by Jesuit monks in and now Lebanons largest winery, churns out million bottles a year near Zahlea town, in the foothills of Mount Sannine, which is home to a third of Lebanons wineries. Other large wineriesChateau Kefraya, which produces around million bottles a year, or Chateau Musar which churns out at least ,produce wine at an impressive, though not yet global, scale.
Rolling the truck up the road, Eliewhos spent most of the day smiling shylyopens up. So, are you liking Lebanon?
Heading back to Beirut, we take a shortcut through the ski town of Faraya and nearby Ajaltoun. Carlos Khachan, the proprietor of Wine More and a brand manager for the Heliopolis Cooperative, has twice invited us to join him for a private winetasting.
In the s, with Lebanon emerging as a freewheeling merchant republic, people foundplenty of opportunities for debauched endeavors. Beirut boomed. It became a global center for finance, trade, travel, and shipping; it also became a crime center. With complicit bankers and officials, Lebanese criminals helped run some of the most prominent drug rings in the worldincluding, for instance,the inmous French Connection and ventures linked to the mafia.
After a long, rambling conversation filled with impassioned asides and tangential rants, Akarrips throughthe pretention, pseudoscience, and bull often offered by oenophiles around the world.
While the Heliopolis Cooperative seems to have succeeded, its still a small enterprise. It produces fewer grapes than other vineyards. And its rmers own less than onethirtieth the land held by their cannabiscultivating counterparts in the area, to say nothing about the rest of the Bekaa Valley.
But rmers couldnt find adequate alternatives for their illicit crops, despite Lebanese and international attempts to help. In the s, the U.S. Agency for International Development USAID tried to encourage dairyrming and ultimatelysupported the purchase of nearly ,cows. Something went wrong, a rmer mutters as we walk through a small slice of land north of Dayr alAhmar. We didnt see a single cow. Maybe there were thousands of cows. Some son of a probably stole them!From Cannwine basketabis to Cabernet