Chateau Musar
Reports 23 May 2020

Chateau Musar in the war years – a vintage report with a difference

A new book charts the remarkable story of Lebanon’s most renowned winery. In this excerpt, the winery’s driving force, Serge Hochar, battles to keep making wine during the country’s crippling civil war
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A recipe for disaster: start with a generous serving of rich Maronites. Take one dispossessed Palestinian population. Seethe with resentment. Add to this a mixture of revolutionaries, Arab nationalists and anarchists. Stir. Whisk a non-functioning, collapsing government together with international ignorance to achieve an insubstantial, collapsing froth. Season with poor unemployed youths of every Muslim hue and creed. Boil together with fresh Druze from the Chouf Mountains. Garnish with Syrian, Iranian, Iraqi and Israeli know-how, money and weapons. Keep heating until the taste is bitter and sour, and the dish explodes. This it did, on April 13th 1975. During that year, battles between Christian militias and the PLO spread to Beirut, resulting in a division (the ‘Green Line’) between the east and west parts of the city and causing a bitterness that was to dominate the region for the next 15 years, leaving Lebanon in ruins.

Between 1975 and 1990, Lebanon was a mosaic of wars. Fighters, foreign and home-grown, spread their anger everywhere, and this rapidly infected the entire country with fear – and more anger. Your surname alone was often your death sentence. Your accent would betray your ethnic origin. Being in possession of either your name or your tongue at the wrong time or place could mean summary execution, protracted siege or bombardment. Against this backdrop, Serge Hochar was determined to continue making his – and Lebanon’s – flagship wine, Chateau Musar. Here’s how he did it…

Chateau Musar: The Story of a Wine Icon is the fifth title from the Académie du Vin Library

1975

‘You talk of war, and of civil war,’ Serge Hochar would say. ‘There is nothing civil about war. What happened in Lebanon is that people fought their wars on our land.’

On a good day, the ride from the Chateau Musar office in Achrafiyeh at the centre of the city to the airport might take 15 minutes. But good days were rare in 1975. That August, there was peace in the Beka’a Valley: war was confined to downtown Beirut. The Musar wine press had broken down just before the harvest and the replacement part was sitting over at the airport. Without it there would be no wine. ‘It was a beautiful day,’ remembered Serge: ‘The kind of summer day that grapes love.’ (When Serge talked of the war, a sharpness entered his eyes. This was neither Hemingway machismo nor the look of an us-against-them, set-jaw partisan. It came from the memory of a daily life you simply had to endure.) ‘En route, I noticed that outside the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps there was a militia checkpoint. We called these “barrages de mort”, killing barricades. If you had a name like mine, they’d kill you – finished. I carried on to the airport, picked up the machine part and sat quietly by myself for 15 minutes. I thought, I know my faith. This is not a religious thing. But it is the same faith I have in my wines. So, I got back in the car. By the time I drove past Sabra and Chatila, the checkpoint had disappeared.’

Serge got back to the winery and told his employees that their jobs were safe, but that the war would last, and to get through it they must work seriously. They did.

By October 24th, the Hochar’s 1975 harvest was safely gathered in. The grapes had been separated from their stems and the gash-red flesh had been turned into pulpy juice. This juice was now quietly fermenting in huge concrete tanks in the calm of the Ghazir winery. Back in Beirut, 25kms away, something altogether different was fermenting.

Beirut’s smartest property has always been found on the Corniche, a strip of coastline between mountain and sea, where the elegant liked to stroll, and the wealthy reside in the smartest apartments. Here, like concrete fingers pointing skywards, a cluster of smart international hotels had grown tall. These towers, some as yet unfinished, became the ideal spots from which to throw bombs into the surrounding Christian area. The St George, the Phoenicia, the Holiday Inn, Palm Beach, Alcazar and Normandie hotels had all hell shot out of them in the seven weeks that followed. (The Holiday Inn remains today a bombed-out hulk whose empty windows stare sightlessly out to sea, standing as a stark reminder to all who see it.)

The Battle of the Hotels was the first crack in the schism that would separate Christian East from Muslim West Beirut for the next 15 years. The dividing line between the two, the Green Line, became a no-go area that came to symbolize the depravity of all urban wars. From the Chateau Musar offices in Beirut it is a 10-minute stroll to the Green Line.

Serge Hochar remained upbeat in times of astonishing adversity

1976

30,000 Syrian troops invade Lebanon ostensibly to restore peace, but in reality this is Syria’s attempt to claim the lands it believes it was owed when Lebanon became independent in 1943.

‘In war, at every moment you can be in danger. War is not easy. And our wars were not short.’ said Serge: ‘In 1976 there was total war in Lebanon. We had no electricity. No fuel. No transport. No harvest. No nothing. 1976 was the only year in which we failed to make any wine. You cannot have a vintage every year. For others the weather is a problem – for us, it is war.’

Without the ability to reach the grapes, to pick them and bring them back to the winery, there could be no new wine. Even if there had been, there was nobody to buy it. So Serge saw the opportunity to reach out and find new markets for the wines he had in his cellars. His father-in-law had a travel-agency in London and agreed to start importing his wines in the UK.

1977

From 1977 to 1990 (and during plenty of small dirty wars since) the Hochar family successfully made wine each year – often plucking grapes from the barbed wire zones of the frontline. ‘During times of war, we have to put all our belief and all our assets in wine!’ said Serge. ‘We have to keep going with the things that are our essence. By now, I was used to war. So I kept on making wine; I was making it for a market I did not yet know existed.’

1978

The UN steps in with peace-keeping troops and Israel is forced to withdraw from Lebanon. Syria steps in instead, targeting the Christian population in the ‘Hundred Days’ War’, the worst offensive for two years. Serge: ‘There was very heavy shelling in Beirut. The Syrians shelled Achrafiyeh, where our office is. At the time, my wife Tania was running the Godiva chocolatier nearby. She took the kids to the winery cellar in Ghazir in shock. There were many dead in Achrafiyeh. My secretary hid in the strong metal filing cabinet. Many people here were psychologically affected.’

Druze militia men in Beirut in 1976
Israeli tanks in Beirut in 1982

1979

Revolution in Iran leads to radicalization of the Shiite movement in Lebanon, and creation of the Amal party, the ‘movement of the dispossessed’.

1980

Bashir Gemayal unites Lebanon’s Christian military factions, creating the Lebanese Forces political party. Serge: ‘This was one of the worst years of the war for us. I used to write a harvest report, but have mislaid it for this year.’ Chateau Musar UK was officially established this year.

1981

Relations between Syria and Israel deteriorate. Serge: ‘This was a year of terrible hardship. Tania and the kids left for London. They had to. I could not guarantee their safety. They came back, then left again in 1983. I promised that I would join them the moment the war ended. We did see each other every few months when I could get a flight’.

1982

Israel invades Lebanon again with the aim of dislodging the PLO. Some 18,000 people, mostly civilians, lose their lives as the battle-zone moves towards Beirut. Italian, French and US troops assist in the evacuation of the Palestinians.

In the Beka’a, 80 hectares of Musar vineyards become the frontline between the Syrians and Israelis, whose tanks faced each other over the vines. Serge calculates that he will not be able to harvest grapes from them again until 1985. But he does. In the confusion that ensues after the invasion, the loyal Bedouin pickers collect what fruit they can and the Hochar trucks manage to make their way to the winery. Serge: ‘The 1982 is a pure wine of war.’

1983

Times darken further as suicide bombing reprisals shock Beirut and its suburbs. In the Chouf mountains, the Mountain War begins. That summer, Serge took his family on holiday to the US. During a stop-over in Paris on their return journey, war broke out again so the family decided to settle in France.

Winter is severe in the Beka’a, with metres of snow coating the vineyards; summer is barely warmer and the Hochars’ harvest was late. A break in fighting, instilled by the American fleet anchored off Beirut, came at just the right time for the vineyard manager to pick a few grape bunches and smuggle them into Beirut for Ronald to check. They were good: there had been no rain, no heatwave, and the grapes had reached perfect condition. Ronald put in a call to Serge, who was visiting the US, and the brothers decided to match the bravery of their vineyard manager and order the harvest in. ‘It was very dangerous,’ admits Ronald: ‘Serge flew to Cyprus, then took a six-hour hovercraft crossing to Beirut; he arrived at the winery in Ghazir moments after two rockets blasted the coast road he’d just been driving on.’ The truck drivers, with their precious loads of hand-cut grapes, carefully negotiated the capillary-like country roads that would lead them to the winery, relying on a network of local gossip to learn which roads the militias were controlling with checkpoints and which route between the Beka’a and Ghazir would be the least bloody. They were successful. As Ronald said, there were two advantages: ‘Our usual headache, the traffic jams, were gone. And the harvest, just like that of 1982, was excellent!’

1984

The Lebanese Forces, having controlled the capital since 1982, are expelled, and the Amal Party takes control of West Beirut. Peacekeeping forces (from the US, Italy and the UK) leave Lebanon.

Serge: ‘We did our best with what we have, as always. This is the Lebanese way. You give me grapes and my job is only to help them to be the best wine they can be. In 1984 the sun was very hot and the fighting was hotter. After waiting and waiting for a break in the shelling, and more than a month after the last day of the harvest should have been, we quickly picked whatever grapes were left on the vines. Most were very ripe and sugary. There were enough grapes for only two truckloads, and only two of our drivers were brave enough to attempt the journey to Ghazir.

The first truck managed to find a way through the cedar forests in the northern Beka’a and get eventually to Tripoli, near the northern border with Syria. In five days it was with us. The second truck drove south over mountain tracks to Jezzine, then crossed the battle fronts on the way down to Sidon. From there, the trucks needed to avoid Beirut, so they waited for a boat. There was a terrible storm, which delayed the ferry to Jounieh. Eventually the storm was quiet enough and the ferry sailed slowly up the coast. The trucks arrived at the winery after seven days, on October 20th, 45 days after what should have been the end of the harvest – 45! So, in 1984 the grapes that we received were hot, bruised, sticky and very much fermenting. As an act of defiance, and as an act of faith, as a way of showing that the Lebanese spirit can never be broken, we made those grapes into wine. I made the 1984 to declare war against war.’

In 1984, Serge Hochar was named as the first ever Decanter magazine ‘Man of the Year’.

In 1984 the grapes that we received were hot, bruised, sticky and very much fermenting. As an act of defiance, we made those grapes into wine. I made the 1984 to declare war against war

1985

The Israelis continue their withdrawl from the south of Lebanon under armed pressure from Hezbollah. They keep an occupied ‘security zone’ along their border. In the War of the Camps, Palestinian refugee camps are targeted by Shi’ite and Amal militia. Serge: ‘The Israelis continued to withdraw from Sidon but it was still difficult to get the grapes from the Beka’a to the winery. After this year, things started to settle down, on our terms.’

1986

Serge: ‘Military action destroyed some of the vineyards on Mount Lebanon. Our white grape Obaideh was, and is, grown on the slopes of the Anti-Lebanon and was still available – but we only ever used this grape for Arak (Lebanon’s aniseed-flavoured aperitif). Prior to 1986, the Chateau white was only produced from Merwah grapes. From 1986 we began to blend Obaideh with Merwah and the combination worked. We were the first to use these two local varieties in a unique new style of wine.’ Close to four decades later, Musar is still the only one.

1987

Anger at the continued presence of Israel in Lebanon is augmented by the first Intifada (Palestinian uprising against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza).

1988

Following Amin Gemayel, Lebanon’s new interim president is announced as Michel Aoun.

Serge: ‘Life in Lebanon was not so hectic in 1988. It was a normal year, politically speaking.’

1989

President Aoun declares war on Syria. After seven months of fighting, with 800 dead, the Arab League negotiates a ceasefire. The Taif Agreement is signed, with the ethos ‘no victor and no vanquished’, in an attempt to end the Lebanese Civil War. Life is beginning to return to normal in the Hochar vineyards. In an impressive vintage, Carignan grapes begin to win Serge’s heart.

1990

The terms of the Taif agreement are legalized, with reforms including a larger parliamentary assembly, an even Christian to Muslim ratio and reduced power for the presidency.

The final Syrian offensive on October 13th forces President Aoun into exile, and a new unified government under President Elias Hrawi begins the delicate job of piecing Lebanon back together.

Serge: ‘We were told that the war had ended, but my nose said there were problems. We usually started to harvest our red grapes at around September 15th, but I was afraid of the situation as the Syrians were threatening General Aoun in Lebanon. So, we started harvesting on September 5th. Lucky we did, as 20 days later the Syrians attacked and blocked all the roads. We had finished harvesting the day before.’

In 1990, with peace in the air, the EU asked for evidence that Lebanon was a ‘wine producing country’ in order for Chateau Musar to be able to officially export. Lebanon had produced wine for 6,000 years. This EU directive required a law to be passed in Lebanon giving winemaking the status of an officially sanctioned business – a sensitive subject given that the Minister of Agriculture was a Hezbollah member of the Shi’a community. But the law was passed, and Serge became Lebanon’s delegate to the OIV (Office International de la Vigne et du Vin).

Workers in the Chateau Musar vineyard were sometimes taking their life into their own hands

The phoenix rises

After more than 15 years, Lebanon’s Civil War was over. The foundations for its new republic had been laid. But the costs were high: more than 100,000 people had died, nearly one million displaced, and billions of dollars worth of property and infrastructure had been destroyed.

Musar’s vineyards had suffered damage from fighting in the Beka’a, and the winery in Ghazir had been subject to intermittent shelling, but thankfully escaped major damage. As Serge said: ‘If you ask me on which side I fought during these 15 years, I can only tell you that I was fighting for my wines. The wars were futile, useless. Without point. They were not only about religion, or power, they were about money. Militias at checkpoints demanded heavy bribes. And as soon as the fighting started in Beirut, different factions broke into the banks, blew up the safes and ran away with millions of dollars. Most militias imposed “taxes” on the people who lived in or travelled through the areas they controlled, and Musar’s trucks going through checkpoints were no exception. War is about profit.’ And loss.

The sheer effort required to get the Musar grapes to the winery each year had been extraordinary. The pickers, who would often pick under artillery and gunfire as the dug-in militias bombarded each other, emerged as heroes. As did the truck drivers who risked their lives during every minute of a journey that in peacetime can be made in two and a half hours, but during war had taken five days.

All wineries like their grapes to arrive at the winery in the shortest possible time after they have been picked. This is because if grapes are bruised, or crushed under the weight of other bunches, the sun warms them up nicely as they travel and they start to ferment. A delivery of warm, fermenting grapes makes a musty, unattractive wine. So winemakers will try to prevent this happening by picking in the cool air of night, under floodlights. Others load their freshly picked grapes straight into refrigerated trucks. Neither of these sophistications were available to the Hochars during war time.

As Serge had said: ‘There was almost no vintage in 1984.’ Just two trucks made their way back to the winery – one taking five days. ‘My 1984 red was made from grapes that were so over-ripe and had travelled such long journeys to the winery that they were already hot and fermenting. The wine I made from them was like no other wine I have made before or since. I bottled it for the hell of it, and I trusted the 1984 to become whatever it decided to be.’

In wine terms and in human terms, Chateau Musar’s 1984 red is the equivalent of sticking two fat fingers up at the twisted egos, tortured logic and misplaced hubris that cause men to fight and kill. By one of those vinous miracles that allows Musar wines to live long, healthy, interesting lives, a wine that should not really have been wine at all became not only a drinkable wine, but a delicious, complex exciting one, brimming with life and hope.

Chateau Musar: The Story of a Wine Icon is the fifth title from Steven Spurrier and the Académie du Vin Library team. Edited by Susan Keevil, photography by Lucy Pope. Published by the Académie du Vin Library with the full participation and approval of the Hochar family, with contributions from: Jancis Robinson MW; Michael Broadbent; Steven Spurrier; Bartholomew Broadbent; Elizabeth Gilbert; Fongyee Walker MW and Edward Ragg MW.

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