The Union Vinicole du Liban (UVL), Lebanon’s association of wine producers, was founded in 1997 to defend and promote Lebanese wineries’ interests and image abroad. It was established at a time when Lebanon was just beginning to export its wine in significant quantities, according to the association’s website.
Today, the UVL represents 23 out of 42 of the country’s wineries and has achieved some good results in expanding the export market for Lebanese wine through initiating and funding generic campaigns such as the “Wines of Lebanon” promotion in the United Kingdom in 2010.
Executive sits with Zafer Chaoui, current head of the UVL and chairman and chief executive officer of Chateau Ksara, to learn more about the UVL’s role in promoting Lebanese wine and its views on the wine-making industry’s growth.
E The UVL has been working hard to promote Lebanese wine abroad. Can you give us a little summary of the activities you have done or participated in this past year?
The UVL is a very united organization; we work [as a team] and we have, for the third consecutive year, a budget which has been allocated to us from both the Ministry of Agriculture and the Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture (CCIA) of Beirut and Mount Lebanon. Here I would like to extend my thanks and gratitude to the president [of the CCIA] Mr. Mohamed Choucair.
This budget allows us to participate in various events because, as you know, the producers in the union are uneven in size and some of them cannot afford individually to go to exhibitions. So when financing is provided and when there is a common stand, which is what we usually do, then expenses are much lower.
We used this year’s budget for many activities including the production of a DVD about the Lebanese wine industry in both English and Arabic which is shown in all exhibitions and conferences we participate in.
Moreover, with the support of this funding from the CCIA, 19 Lebanese wine producers were able to go to Megavino, an important wine exhibition held in Brussels, to exhibit their wines. This was the first time we participated in an exhibition in Belgium and it was a success as a number of professionals came to taste our wines and we organized eight professional master classes about Lebanese wine. We were astonished to realize that many people in Belgium didn’t know Lebanon as a wine producing country and this is very serious as we are one of the oldest producers in the world.
Then, also with financing from the chamber, we sent a representative who knows our wine well to conduct tastings in various targeted cities. This year, this took place in three locations: in Bern, Switzerland, where the chargé d’affaires, Jeffrey R. Cellars, hosted a two-day tasting event at his home, in New York where the Lebanese American University office donated their premises and finally in London where Michael Karam, Lebanese journalist and wine expert, talked about our wine.
Knowing well that the situation in Beirut is not the best, we are trying as much as we can within our financial limits and with the assistance of the CCIA to make the most of events abroad and I can tell you I am proud and satisfied with what we are doing with our small budget.
E You mention the budget from the CCIA. How big a budget does the UVL have and where does it come from?
Well, we have three kinds of income. The first income comes from the winemakers themselves as we pay a contribution to be members of UVL and for each event. The events are never financed 100 percent by X or Y; we contribute to them [ourselves] and this is very important because every member has to feel that they are contributing. For example, at Megavino the common budget paid for the stand but every member also paid for their travelling expenses and their wine shipments. When we send a speaker abroad, he or she is paid for by the common budget but every member handles their other expenses alone.
Occasionally, we get financial assistance from the Ministry of Agriculture which covers an event. In 2013, we had a big event in Paris and in 2014 we went to Berlin and both were covered by the ministry’s budget. This year, due to the paralysis of the government, we couldn’t get any financing.
The third budget, which we have been receiving for three years now, is an amount of $15,000 from the CCIA for the activities I mentioned earlier.
E To what do you attribute this increased interest in and support of the Lebanese wine industry?
First of all, wine is on top of the list of products which are comparable to the best production on an international level and Lebanese wine is easily comparable to the good wines of Spain, Italy, Chile or any other wine producing country.
Second, there has been political awareness regarding this product. A year and a half ago, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Emigrants Gebran Bassil requested that the embassies, ambassadors and heads of mission give more importance to the economic development of Lebanon abroad and one of the products which they can work on is certainly wine.
Third, there is a common desire from the industry and from wine producers to work together and perform to the highest degree possible. Lebanese entrepreneurs are the best in the world and Lebanon is a unique attraction. We just need security, stability and peace and we will sell and produce 10 times more wine than we do now.
E Which brings me to my next question. Lebanon produces roughly 8 million bottles per year which is a very small number when compared with even neighboring wine producing countries. What is needed to grow this number further?
The production is very small. We can grow it but it will be expensive; Lebanon is expensive. Land is extremely expensive and the equipment is brought from abroad: all that we call habillage from bottles to labels and corks are imported from abroad.
We have excellent knowhow and a microclimate which is ideal for wine production but we are expensive and that’s why we target quality and not quantity.
E So do you think Lebanon can market itself further as a boutique wine producing country focusing only on quality?
Well it is a fact that we are a boutique producing wine country and we hope to be able to grow and we should increase production somehow but we need stability and we need cheap land values. It’s no secret that Cyprus is producing 30 million bottles of wine per year. Certainly we can never be a huge producer like that but we can increase the level of production we have today.
E Now that the National Wine Institute has finally been formed, when can we expect it to start its work and what is its added value to the industry?
The loss of [wine-maker] Serge Hochar affected the development of this institute and also the lack of budget for the institute to begin operating. The government could not meet to allocate its budget and so they are handicapped by a lack of funding.
It has a lot of added value. I always compare the institute for wine producers to the central bank for commercial banks. It has a controlling role which it has to play and it has to adapt and adjust Lebanese regulations to conform with international standards.
E Could you share some of the UVL’s plans for 2016?
The UVL will continue to do its best and increase its activities, to raise its budgets and be present whenever and wherever possible.
We are already committed with the Consulate General in Dubai for March 2016 where he will open the [Lebanese] embassy for professional wine tasting, and this is very important as we are not alone there selling our wine. The ambassador in Abu Dhabi suggested that we do the same event there the next day and we will.
The UVL’s name has certainly developed a lot recently and Lebanese wine as a whole is much more known than it used to be. We have a lot of opportunities which are not costly and we make the most of them to be present as Lebanese wine.