SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — As authors committed accounts of the miraculous transformation of water to wine by divine grace to the New Testament, Romans laid the first foundations to the temple of Bacchus, god of wine and festivities. Centuries before, the great pharaohs of Egypt entombed themselves with the fermented bounty of Bekkah Valley. It seems many cultures have honored the long legacy of winemaking in present-day Lebanon. After centuries in decline, this ancient tradition is reemerging. Between 1990 and 2014, the number of vineyards increased from four to 40. If properly managed, Lebanese winemakers have the potential to transform the industry. Moreover, a recent World Bank report identified agricultural reform as an exceptionally efficient means to address income inequality, especially in a country that has seen unchanged rates of poverty for decades. In a highly leverageable opportunity, Lebanese winemakers can fight poverty.
After a brutal 15-year civil war, increased local wine consumption fuelled rapid growth with 74% of annual production staying within Lebanon. Formerly an export-based industry, per capita consumption rates doubled between 2004 and 2014 alone. Once a minuscule portion of the economy, winemaking now accounts for an estimated 10.17% of all manufacturing. This mostly reflects increased bulk and low-quality wine.
Accompanied by unsustainable agriculture practices, environmental degradation associated with increased vineyard yields is well established. In a region with limited resources, the effects are evident, especially in water scarcity. Where the strength of Lebanese wine in the export market is intrinsically linked with quality, a new generation of consumers demanded a different product. Therefore, the predominant challenge was balancing two distinct trends while protecting hard-earned brand identity. Another challenge entailed determining how Lebanese winemakers can fight poverty.
Corruption and Poverty
Then, economic inequality had accelerated. In the span of a decade, Lebanon has faced economic and social crises that have crippled an already fledgling nation and any attempts at poverty reduction. The neighboring civil war in Syria created a refugee influx and labor disparities of astonishing magnitude, completely overwhelming social structures. Corrupt governmental leaders have pilfered national wealth, and an unregulated financial sector and capital mismanagement brought economic collapse so complete it is termed a depression.
With these enormous constraints, Lebanon also grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, which has destabilized countries in substantially less dire situations. Furthermore, governmental negligence directly caused an explosion in the port of Beirut, killing hundreds and causing unimaginable cultural and economic loss, not to mention complete destruction of trade capacity as millions of wine bottles were destroyed as well. As in previous periods of turmoil, local consumption of wine has all but disappeared. This marks a particularly cruel turn for an industry transitioning to meet consumer preference.
A Nation at War
Despite these misfortunes, the need for Lebanon to divorce the “reductive synopsis” of a nation perpetually at conflict is vital to future prosperity, a sentiment endorsed by the population at large as well as the wine industry in general. A focused and centralized vision for future economic growth is a core component of addressing these issues, yet federal leaders have yet to organize this operation. Regarding agriculture and resource management, the Lebanese Agronomic Research Institute is woefully under-resourced and under-funded. It cannot produce the necessary research to coordinate the best sustainable practices.
In the wine sector specifically, the Lebanese government did not endorse a proposal to form the National Institute of Vine and Wine in 2000 until 2012. This hampered the establishment of industry standards and regulations. Consequently, it is the tenacity of the Lebanese people that will be the determining factor and an entrepreneurial character, which was first ensconced by Phoenician wine traders millennia ago, that will continue to be the greatest resources to address the endemic inequalities of modern Lebanon. Subsequently, Lebanese winemakers can fight poverty, continuing the contributions of previous generations to economic growth and prosperity.
During the Lebanese Civil War, Serge Hochar saw domestic sales plummet from 90% to 5% of annual production. Nonetheless, he and the Chateau Musar staff continued harvesting grapes in an active war zone, refusing to accede to unsurmountable pressure. The 2020 documentary Wine and War details countless similar stories of unbelievable determination, personifying the tradition of ultimate sacrifice for their craft. Several exceptionally visionary wine sector firms continue to exhibit this indomitable character, showing that Lebanese winemakers are able to fight poverty. After all, the lifespans of vineyards are measured in generations, not years.
At Chateau Kefraya, a progressive ethos intrinsically links corporate social responsibility to profitability and value, with “eco-sensitivity” as a primary focus. IXSIR winery, which CNN sanctioned as one of the Greenest Buildings of 2011, is developing partnerships with surrounding communities and boosting local economies through aggressive wine tourism promotion. Heliopolis, Lebanon’s first attempt at a grape-growing union, an essential component of wine regions across the globe, has seen membership swell from 13 to 267. This has allowed cooperation at a hitherto impossible level. An industry-wide commitment to sustainability helped 69% of all wineries to adopt environmentally responsible practices. Such commitment serves to prevent the changing levels of industrial agriculture and chemicals.
Wine Forges Change
Most importantly, a broad and diverse community of Lebanese citizens is forging a unified path toward a better future. Together they are charting an escape from decades of political corruption. In this growing industry and through social engagement, a brighter economic forecast is helping neglected rural populations. Long-suffering from the worst consequences of poverty, these communities now participate in the dialogue to define a more just society. Although one sector of the economy, Lebanese winemakers can fight poverty. In so doing, they highlight a broader evolution and continuing thousands of years of tradition and resilience. Miraculous transformations have come from Lebanese wine before; expect them to continue.
– Kit Krajeski