Wine and War: film review

It’s a story that has been told many times, but an extraordinary new film shows in gripping detail how the modern Lebanese wine industry exists because of – not despite – the terrible conflicts that have convulsed this most resilient of countries

Words by Adam Lechmere

Lebanese army troops monitoring ISIS positions in the distant hills, July 2014 (photo: Nicholas Blandford)

The story of how Serge Hochar and his brother Ronald came to London from a country mired in a terrible civil war in 1979, with a suitcase full of wine, and charmed the wine world with their extraordinary reds and ageless whites, is so well-known as to be apocryphal.

“People said to us, ‘You’ve come from Lebanon, what are you, refugees?’”  Ronald tells Michael Karam in this gripping film. “’No,’ I said, ‘we’re adventurers.’”

Those of us who know and love Lebanon have heard the war stories many times: of grapes picked and wine made while shrapnel was fizzing overhead; of the bullet-pocked walls, still visible today; of the winery owner bundled into a taxi at gunpoint and taken to a scrubby hillside to be shot (“I was strangely very calm,” remembers Jean-Pierre Sara, who was only saved when a commander recognised him as a friend of the Druze politician and poet Kamal Jumblatt). But in Wine and War, a new film directed by Mark Johnston and Mark Ryan based on the book Lebanese Wines by Michael Karam (who presents), it all seems fresh.

Wine and War makes an old story seem fresh

Anchoring the narrative is the great showman himself, the late Serge Hochar, the architect of Lebanese wine. A conversation with Hochar – who died in 2014 – was a masterclass in cod philosophy and tangential rumination. “How old am I?” he demands of Karam. “You’re 73, Serge”. “No! I am 24. I’m getting younger. That is why I am so dangerous.” Michael Broadbent nails it when he says Hochar’s genius was his charm – “A great part of the wine was Serge himself”.

Hochar is the star, but Karam introduces the whole galaxy of Lebanese wine, from winemakers like the wild-haired Frenchman Yves Morard, who couldn’t stay away even after being arrested and thrown in jail, to cosmopolitan owners like the Saade brothers (“When there’s fighting 500m away from your vineyard, it puts everything into question”).

The Bekaa Valley: desert, vineyards and cannabis plantations (photo: Michael Karam)
The late Serge Hochar with Mark Ryan, one of the co-directors of the film

All they want to do is make their wine, but there’s always a man (not necessarily an enemy) with a gun, somewhere in the picture. “My father was a general in the Lebanese army. He was my hero,” says Neila Bitar of Coteaux du Botrys. “At the age of 11 he put a gun in my hand and said, ‘You keep firm and shoot in the middle as if you’re shooting someone between the eyes – you got it?’ I enjoyed it actually – it was terrible to do that to a young girl but he meant it, to have his daughters be strong and ready for any situation. So wine and war have always been a part of my life.”

What becomes increasingly clear is that the title of the film could as well be Wine is  War. It was the war that made the Hochars come to London. In 1975, Serge predicted that the civil war could last decades (it went on for 15 years). Musar’s sales in Lebanon dropped by 90 per cent. They had to find markets, so in 1979 they packed their suitcases with bottles and jumped on a plane. London was fascinated: Broadbent and Jancis Robinson said they’d never tasted anything like the heady, perfumed reds of Musar; Decanter magazine made Serge its first Man of the Year in 1984. “If it wasn’t for the war, I wouldn’t have come to London. Thank God for the war,” he says.

And if war shaped Musar’s marketing strategy, and introduced the world to the wonders of Lebanese wine, it also influenced the style of the wine. Ramzi Ghosn of Massaya, who refused to leave the winery during the 2006 war (the nadir came when an Israeli missile killed the daughter of one of their workers) said his winemaking practices “definitely” changed because of war. “My wine became for people to enjoy it now, not in 10 years. 2006 reaffirmed that our culture is about daily dolce vita.”

"Our culture is about daily dolce vita": Ramzi Ghosn
"We are lucky people": Faouzi Issa

In the end, the most remarkable thing about this remarkable film is the sheer joy (if that is the word) with which these men and women go about their lives. Take the wine-making Trappist monk Father Joseph Fahed, for example, who at the height of hostilities was taken to see an Arab warlord. “I’ve come to defy you. I’m not dead yet”, the priest said – and the two embraced.

“We are lucky people,” says Faouzi Issa of Domaine des Tourelles, sitting cross-legged between his vines and a field of shoulder-high cannabis. “ I think we are lucky,” Dr Laure Salloum of the directorate-general of antiquities agrees, sitting on a deckchair among the vast, magnificent ruins of the temple of Baalbek, deep in Hezbollah country and inaccessible to most visitors (I was lucky enough to see it in 2011, on a diamond-bright, freezing February day. It’s the nearest thing to time travel I’ve ever experienced).

If you get the impression this is a sombre film, far from it. Yes, there is terrible, dramatic footage of bomb strikes, whole factories obliterated, trucks careering off the road in flames, but that’s contrasted by the gorgeous photography of one of the world’s most beautiful, fertile countries, the breathtaking scenery underscored by Karim Douaidy’s plangent bouzouki and guitar. Michael Karam is an eloquent presenter and narrator, and never far from a corkscrew. During one obviously mammoth tasting session (“Which wines do you want to taste?” “All of them”) he belches gently as he contemplates his glass.

Father Joseph Fahed of Le Couvent St. Sauveur des Trappistes

The film’s most life-affirming message is that wine means peace; just as the Phoenicians knew that you don’t go to war with your trading partners, you don’t have time to fight if you’ve got grapes to harvest. These aren’t mere aphorisms – they’re rooted in reality. Towards the end of the film we meet Naji and Jill Boutros, who 20 years ago decided to come back to Naji’s village of Bhamdoun in Mount Lebanon, where 500 people were massacred during the civil war, while he had been studying in London. “I had hatred against human beings. I never wanted to come back here.” But he returned, and they planted vines at his father’s hotel that had been destroyed, then planted many more vineyards all over the village. Chateau Belle-Vue is now a thriving winery and hotel. Boutros realised, he says, that he was powerless as a man to change anything. “But I don’t have to seek justice by myself. I can seek justice by planting and beautifying things.”

Wine and War is available on Watch the trailer here