The Eastern Mediterranean is on the move. Greece may be on the ropes economically but its wines have never been more popular, with its indigenous Assyrtiko grape, grown mainly on the island of Santorini, the current darling among informed consumers. Turkey, for so long a country with a dubious reputation in terms of wine quality, is taking huge strides to remind the world of its impressive heritage and its dozens of indigenous grapes by retaining the services of an award winning PR manager and at least two Masters of Wine. Cyprus too is slowly shedding its image as a bulk producer selling cheap wine to thirsty European tourists and now has a slew of high quality boutique wineries. Throw in Macedonia, Croatia, Georgia and Armenia, and wine lovers can now mine a region that has been making wine longer than anyone else, with dozens of grape varieties to delight their palates.
Lebanon is also part of this exciting movement. Indeed, our tiny Mediterranean country with an even smaller production rate – 9 million bottles per year – has been something of a pioneer in promoting the wines of the region. In 2010, I was privileged to be involved in the Wines of Lebanon publicity campaign in the UK. It was the first time our leading producers worked together to promote the idea of Lebanon as a wine producing country. It was a well-trodden path, one taken by all the major New World wine producing countries and regions including California, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Chile, Argentina and the like, and in doing so we signaled our desire to be taken seriously.
We created a logo, opened a UK press office, held tastings at fairs, went on the road to London, Manchester and Bristol and held masterclasses at the London Wine Fair and Prowein in Dusseldorf. We invited high profile wine writers and sommeliers to Lebanon and they all left the country as fully paid up members of the “I love Lebanon” fan club, becoming informal roving ambassadors.
What made this all the more incredible was that it was all self-funded. There was not a penny from the Lebanese state, which was still unsure about what to do with wine. Meanwhile, regional neighbours were impressed, aiming to reach Lebanese standards. The Turks, for instance, put the word out that they wanted to do what the Lebanese were doing.
All this interest and increased regional activity comes at a time when Lebanese producers are quite naturally feeling the pinch. The results of generic campaigns are notoriously hard to quantify. Yes, sales in the UK have gone up by around 40 percent in the past five years and yes, there is no doubt that our stock has risen among the media and consumers alike. But now the government has to step in and pick up the slack.
In 2013, the state did make funds available, presumably because the growing popularity of Lebanese wine at home and abroad could no longer be ignored, but now the challenge must be to spend that funding efficiently so that Lebanon can not only compete internationally but can also take advantage of the current interest in Eastern Mediterranean wines. It won’t last forever though; before long there will be another region, country or grape to swoon over.
Thus, the challenges are twofold: Lebanon’s wine producers, who have shown so much foresight thus far, must recognize and react effectively to this increased interest in their product. Moreover, marketing must robustly position Lebanon within this geographical zone to remind consumers that we are a Mediterranean country as well as a Middle Eastern country, with a glorious culinary tradition – food plays a huge part in piquing consumer interest – and an awesome wine heritage.
But it is also essential that the state work even closer with the Union Vinicole du Liban, Lebanon’s association of wine producers, to spend what funding there is in the most efficient way possible. What has been made available so far has been generous, but spending has been wasteful. It is simply not enough to choose a major world city, hire a conference room in a five star hotel and turn up with our wines. Where to hold events and how to organise them should be the decision of people who know how wine must be marketed.
We have a great opportunity. Let’s not waste it.