Squeezing grapes under Syrian war clouds

Lebanese winemakers on the border with Syria struggle to work amid violence, instability and dwindling tourist numbers.

Working in wine vineyards is one of the few jobs available to Syrian refugees in Lebanon [EPA]

Bekaa Valley, Lebanon – From the Ottoman Empire, to the French mandate period and the country’s 15-year civil war, Lebanon’s winemakers have almost always had to deal with conflict and instability. Today, Lebanese wineries face a new challenge: the Syrian war.

“Producing wine here is risky because we are in a region where all forms of extremism are present,” says Karim Saade, whose family owns two wineries, Domaine de Bargylus near Latakia, Syria, and Chateau Marsyas in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley.

“We feel we have a sense of mission. We have to be resilient because we are very attached to what we do,” he told Al Jazeera.

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Saade’s family established Domaine de Bargylus in 2003, and began producing wine in 2006 along the slopes of the al-Ansariyah mountains, in northwestern Syria. But when the war in Syria started three years ago, the family had to come up with innovative ideas to keep the production going.

Today, neither the Saade family nor their wine consultant, Stephane Derenoncourt, can cross the border with Lebanon and reach the winery, located only six hours away by car from Beirut, in the Syrian city of Latakia.

“We have to oversee the harvest and the production by phone. Grapes are regularly sent in refrigerated boxes from Latakia to Beirut by taxi, so that we can taste them and run the necessary tests,” explains Saade, adding that the company, which produces 50 000 bottles per year, ordered enough bottles and cork stoppers to produce the two next vintages.

Rockets recently hit the winery, destroying vines and equipment. “One of our biggest challenges is to keep our workers. Many of them wanted to leave the country,” Saade says.

Domaine de Bargylus acts as the only source of revenue of the company’s 15 permanent workers, all of whom live in nearby villages, where stable jobs are rare.

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Sitting at the terrace of Chateau Kefraya’s restaurant, in the Bekaa Valley, Fabrice Guiberteau eats lunch. The French winemaker came to Lebanon in 2006, just a few days after the war with Israel ended, and now lives at the winery.

His house, surrounded by vineyards, faces the Syrian border, located only 40km away. “It’s true that we are very close to Syria. When the wind blows from the east, we can hear the bombardments. It makes us realise how difficult the situation is,” he says, standing among the vines.

Most of the workers in the vineyards come from Syria or Bedouin villages in Lebanon. Twenty year-old Hayat el-Barhou came to Lebanon three years ago from Aleppo. She has worked in Chateau Ksara’s fields ever since.

With over one million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, she says there is no work in the country. “I work for $6 per day, the same rate as before the war. I would accept to work anywhere,” she says, while transplanting vine crops.

The deterioration of Lebanon’s security situation has led to a significant decrease of tourists in the country. “Hotels are empty and restaurants don’t work as much. They are our clients so of course it has an impact on our revenues,” George Sara, the chief commercial officer at Chateau Ksara winery, said.

Instability is always a big problem, but we are used to living and working in unstable conditions. We do our best to continue producing, advertising and selling.

by - Zafer Chaoui, Ksara winery

According to company President Zafer Chaoui, who also heads the Union Vinicole du Liban, Lebanon’s official association of wine producers, Chateau Ksara’s exports to Syria, which previously amounted to 260,000 bottles per year, have dropped by 60 percent.

He also says the spillover of the Syrian war in the Bekaa Valley, such as kidnappings, Syrian bombings and armed clashes between rival Lebanese Shia and Sunni factions supporting the Assad regime and opposition forces, has scared away many tourists.

“It affected the consumption in an obvious way because there are much less tourists coming from abroad, especially to the Bekaa Valley,” Chaoui told Al Jazeera.

The number of tourists in Lebanon during the first quarter of 2014 totalled 229,250, down by 16 percent from the same period last year, according to the Ministry of Tourism. In July 2010 alone, the number of tourist arrivals to the country had reached 361,934. That same year, at least two million tourists came to Lebanon, the most in more than 15 years.

“Instability is always a big problem, but we are used to living and working in unstable conditions. We do our best to continue producing, advertising and selling,” he says, adding that his winery has never missed a harvest.

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The Syrian war is the latest in a long series of conflicts that have shaken Lebanon throughout the last century. Eight years ago, the 2006 July war with Israel considerably affected the Bekaa’s winemakers.

“Israel was bombarding only 100 metres away from the winery. We received a message from Israel telling us they knew we had caves where we could hide things and to be careful. We decided to close in August, but the war ended. The next day we harvested,” Chateau Ksara’s George Sara.

For Michel de Bustros, who has been the owner of Chateau Kefraya since 1950, the biggest challenge to his work was the Israeli occupation of Lebanon in 1982, during the country’s civil war.

“They would destroy everything. They established their camps in the vineyards. Once, a Syrian plane also crashed in a vineyard,” he told Al Jazeera. De Bustros says his family and business partners often urged him to build the business slowly, fearing he would lose his investment, but he pushed forward.

“Nothing goes smoothly in Lebanon. There is always something that handicaps us. Right now it’s the situation in Syria. Of course I am worried about it, but business has to keep going.”

Source: Al Jazeera