BEIRUT: There’s a tale that’s circulated locally about how Lebanese wines made during wars are “better” than those produced between armed conflicts.
This contrary-sounding notion seemed to be confirmed shortly after the 34-day war of 2006, at least for some amateurs. Harat Hrayk was still mostly in ruins when a hitherto unknown, downmarket local red appeared that innocent boozers could throw back at room temperature without grimacing.
No one bothered to find out when the grapes had been harvested, but during its brief heyday this gulping wine fuelled enough late-night binges that the tale of “conflict wine” fermented further. There was no foolishness about “tasting the strife” in a wine’s finish, just speculation about how conflict might affect labour markets, when the grapes could be brought in and, ultimately, how a wine tastes.
The documentary “Wine and War: The Untold Story of Wine in the Middle East” is dedicated to the experiences of winemakers trying to ply their trade on Lebanon’s unsettled post-civil war landscape. Co-directors Mark Johnston and Mark Ryan don’t indulge the “conflict wine” narrative, but their film does alight upon Serge and Ronald Hochar’s reminiscences upon Chateau Musar 1984, made in the shadow of the Israelis’ 1982 invasion and occupation of the southern half of the country.
The grapes weren’t brought in until October, as the story goes, and it took ages to get them to the vats on the coast. The Hochars didn’t consider the 1984 vintage fit for bottling, it’s said, until New York sommelier Paul Greco tried the stuff and told them they’d made something remarkable.
Serge Hochar, thus Chateau Musar, is the star of “Wine and War,” which gathers the reflections, tall tales and views of perhaps a dozen significant vintners and chateaux, most in Lebanon. Their voices mingle with remarks from a few archaeologists who’ve excavated Tell al-Burak and Baalbak, sites associated with the making or celebration of wine, “Eat, Pray Love” author Elizabeth Gilbert and a few international wine authorities.
Among this latter group is Michael Karam, once a features editor at this publication who has since become the most widely published English-language writer on Lebanese wine. A lifetime ago (aka 2005) Saqi released Karam’s “Wines of Lebanon,” a transparently titled coffee table book credited as an inspiration for “Wine and War.”
The camera occasionally falls upon the trenchant commentary of Karam and his white fedora. Less terse appearances find Hochar escorting the author through some of his favourite vintages. (Both men spit out the tasted wine for the camera.)
He’s also seen enjoying an undisclosed number of bottles over supper with Yves Morard, the French oenologist and raconteur who migrated to Lebanon in 1982 (the year of the Israeli army’s second invasion) to help Michel de Bustros launch Chateau Kefraya. (Neither man is shown spitting, but Karam’s digestion is audible at one point.)
The film’s subtitle, “the untold story of wine in the Middle East,” is misleading. Drawing upon testimonies from Lebanese (and two Syrian) vintners, it’s not a complete story of Middle East wine. Neither is it “untold,” being based upon Karam’s past writing and conversation. (Though it revisits figures profiled in “Wines of Lebanon,” the doc’s time among wine-invested archaeologists suggests it’s also driven by the research that produced “Tears of Bacchus: A History of Wine in the Middle East and Beyond,” Karam’s edited volume from 2020.)
Print adapted to film can be vexing for audiences. Even an amiable survey of booze production can become contentious when it’s located in the Middle East. This film does itself no favours. Nominally as interested in “war” as it is in “wine,” it’s not committed to a measured discussion of relevant conflicts in their own terms, so it resorts to shorthand.
The most regrettable of these shorthand gestures is the file footage producers acquired to illustrate Middle East Conflict. This “Arabs at war” montage is first sampled to represent 7000 years of winemaking in the shadow of “instability, war, occupation ... or all three.” It’s intermittently trotted out later to accompany some informants’ civil war recollections.
Gunmen clad in Palestinian kuffiyyas abound, and there’s an ad-quality snippet or two of a Merkava coursing through sand dunes. The doc is also fond of footage of the black flag associated with Daaesh, as well as scenes of ignorant men smashing ancient statues and blowing up archaeological sites.
Reminiscent of something out of “Reel Bad Arabs,” these clichéd representations are all the more regrettable for being so unnecessary. In a film about Lebanese wine production, yet another clip of an AK-47 hanging from a boy’s index finger will never lodge in an audience’s memory like Serge Hochar’s anecdote about surviving the shelling of Ashrafiyya in the late ’80s with the aid of a bottle of something from 1972.
It’s the tales of Lebanon’s winemakers – at times matter-of-fact, at others hilariously self-mythologising – that offer the best reason to watch this film. The filmmakers have gone one better.
“Wine and War” is distributed online, with rentals going for US$12. All proceeds, Karam told The Daily Star from the south of England, will be donated to Cap-Ho – the association at Beirut’s Saint George Hospital (aka the Mustashfa Rum) that’s dedicated to caring for sick and needy children.
To watch “Wine and War,” and support Cap-Ho, see: https://wineandwar.com/