In October 11, 1990, as the Lebanese civil war entered its final phase, Charles Ghostine received a phone call that would change his life. However, the Former National Liberal Party politician, who had anticipated returning to practicing law, did not expect much to come of the invitation to meet the Chateau Ksara board members.
In fact the meeting was seen as an inconvenience more than anything. “At the time, I lived in Beit Merri. I had to drive down to Beirut, park some distance away and then negotiate the various checkpoints on foot to get to Ksara’s offices on Avenue Charles Malek,” recalls Ghostine. “During the meeting, Albert Sara suggested I take over running the company. The last managing director was Jean-Pierre Sara, who had left the company 1987. Since then, Chateau Ksara had drifted.”
Ghostine knew nothing about wine, but had earned a reputation as a wartime leader and an organizer with a sharp mind. He had served for a period on the Executive Committee of the Lebanese Forces and in the early years of the war had been responsible for the defense and day-to-day running of Sodeco. These skills, and his reputation for hard work and honesty, were what the board wanted to exploit. “They recognized the need for crisis management,” says Ghostine. “Maybe in a normal situation I would not have been the man for the job but it was a crisis.”
Ghostine promised to think about it, but not longer after the war reached its bloody denouement and he thought that perhaps the offer had been superceded by national events. “I thought that was that and went back to practicing law. There was a lot of work at the time, disputes to be settled quickly out of court and so on.”
But call back they did, on January 17, 1991. By this time Ghostine was up to his ears in legal work, but admits it was difficult to say no. “I arrived at work on January 21 and immediately began looking at the files. I then went to Zahleh, a town I had not been able to visit for some time. I went to Ksara’s caves (underground cellars) and immediately felt something magical. Even though Syrian soldiers were still there, I was convinced there was something to be done with this company. I knew I could restructure it even though at the time I knew nothing about wine. By the time I reached Beirut I knew it could be done but it would take at least five years.”
According to Ghostine, everything that could go wrong with the company had gone wrong. There had been no investment since 1984 and very little since 1973. Before that, the previous owners, the Jesuits, had not really ploughed much money into what was an aging infrastructure. Ghostine also discovered that, although Ksara had a 12-year agreement with Jesuit brothers at the Tanail convent to provide 1,000 tons of grapes a year, this amount had had decreased to 200 tons and the winery was forced to buy grapes – at that time the traditional Cinsault, Grenache, Carignan and Ugni Blanc – from individual farmers in the village of Kefraya.
Today, 15 years after joining the company Ghostine pulls out his personal notes from his early days and reads out aloud. “1991: The winery is in bad shape. Staff moral is low, equipment is aging and there is a reliance on the local wine producers.”
One of the first things he had to do was sort out the grape situation. It would be a path that would lead to one of the most visionary moves in the history of modern Lebanese wine.
After the 1991 harvest, he went to meet the local farmers. “They all wanted to meet with me, as Ksara was, even then, the biggest producer and therefore it was up to us to set the price,” he explains. “It was a strange experience for me and a huge responsibility. I had to negotiate with 30 farmers after just six months in the business. I needed all my previous skills to hide my ignorance. In the end, I agreed to an increase in the cost of the kilo of grapes from 27 cents to 29 cents. They had wanted to double it but I think in the end they were satisfied.”
Then came the biggest challenge, the bid to plant noble grapes – Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Chardonnay Merlot and the like – essential to any step up in terms of overall product quality but which no one, not least the local farmers, believed would thrive in the Bekaa’s relatively untested terroir. There was a little Sauvignon Blanc and a bit of Cabernet Sauvignon, but nothing on a huge scale. In any case, the farmers made their calculations in terms of yield and these “new” grapes would take three years to mature and even then would give fewer grapes. “They all told me I was mad,” recalls Ghostine. “They told me that I was a lawyer and knew nothing about grapes. They said, don’t you think if we could plant these grapes we would have planted them years ago.”
Nonetheless, Ghostine was determined. The problem was he also had to find more land to plant. The company only owned 25 hectares in Ksara and he needed more autonomy. “I didn’t want to have to deal with the farmers every year to buy 1,500 tons. I wanted to control the quality of what we were producing.”
Ksara planted their first new vines in Mansoura. The farmers were reluctant to pull out their old grapes as they did not want land left fallow. They took some convincing, but Ghostine paid them double. In 1993, Ksara made a new agreement with the convent at Tanail to plant and buy Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, and, on land owned by the Schneller Institute in Kherbet Kanafar, the winery planted a further 40 hectares. “We told them we would finance everything during the lease period. We planted all the land in one year. I remember Elie Maamari (see page 56) was digging in the snow to finish in time. By the time we had finished we had planted Sauvignon Blanc, more Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Semillon, and Clairette.”
Still there was resistance to the idea of noble grapes. “There was no understanding of the concept. We had to work hard to instill the culture that started the concept of long-term agreements. Still in 1994, we were able to plant more grapes in Tallet Noub (45 hectares) and in the Itani property (40 hectares). The message eventually got through, Says Ghostine. “We were paying more for better quality grapes. Now they all do it.”
Ksara wanted to show the market that it was in control of its own grapes and its own vines so that no one could say that it didn’t have its own vineyards. “Today we control all our grapes and we are ISO Certified.”
Then came a revamping of Ksara’s range of wines. Ksara’s most visible wine had until that point been the Clos St Alphonse, but the new management felt it needed to lose its old fashioned image. However, as Ghostine points out, they couldn’t change image without changing the product. The winery had to wait three years until the new grapes were ready before it could change the labels and packaging. “We waited, even if it meant losing out to Chateau Kefraya.”
Ghostine insists that the support he had from the board was crucial to the company’s rehabilitation. “They believed in the brand’s potential although back then the extent of the dream was to be the market leader. We had no idea that we would be where we are today in terms of selling our wines in so many countries, although Mr. Chaoui had made it very clear from day one that one of my key missions would be to take the name of Ksara abroad. So from early on we looked at France, Germany, Finland, Sweden and Canada, where we were the first Lebanese wine to be sold, as well as the US, Syria, Egypt and Jordan.”
But what of the staff, whose morale had been eroded by a lack of leadership and focus. Ghostine had to rally the troops. “I gathered the staff and I told them we are here for what is inside this bottle before all else. I told them I wanted the wine to be delicious and we would exert all our efforts to make good wine. I told them I didn’t care about packaging. If the wine was good, the label was not important.”
But Ghostine also admits he had to find out how to reach this high standard. He looked at the existing equipment. “I asked if we had stainless steel vats and if not, why not and why were we still fermenting in cement?” He went to the wine fairs and sourced the equipment needed by a modern winery but he needed the money. Once again the board made the funds available. “Whatever I asked for I got. Since the first year we started investing intensively heavy. Close to $1 million a year. Today we have no debts.”
Same brand new image
Marketing was also key to rebuilding the winery’s image. Ksara’s television ad for Ksarak is widely held up as one of the best Lebanese clips in modern times. Filmed in the Bekaa it captures all that is good about rural Lebanon and, with its young-couple-in-love motif, breathed new life into the brand and the company. “The ad had an impact,” explains Ghostine. “It positioned the company as a Lebanese brand, a young product that hinted at a better past.”
In 1991, the company released what new wines it could, starting with the hugely popular Gris de Gris. The wine made an immediate impact abroad. “I went to a contest in Holland with the Gris de Gris, our arak, an excellent Reserve du Couvent and a Sunset rose and came back with five gold awards,” beams Ghostine. “We came back with a video and when we aired it on TV, we were accused of staging it. He grins. “Can you imagine?”
New wine maker
In 1993, the Syrians vacated the premises and it was also time to hire a new winemaker. Noel Rabaud, the French winemaker who was first hired in 1975, was still on the payroll. He visited Ksara five times a year to oversee the viticultural and vinicultural processes. But he was also working as a consultant in France for nearly 70 wineries. Ghostine knew that if Ksara were to forge ahead with its new program it needed someone full-time. In 1994, he hired James Palge, who is still with the company to this day.
“Palge was nearly disowned by his parents, who were worried about him going to work in a war zone,” recalls Ghostine, who had received than a dozen CVs for the job including interest from a Monsieur Bouat, a former Ksara winemaker who had worked for the Jesuits. “We nearly hired him but in the end we wanted a younger man. He was very disappointed.”
In June 1994, Ksara unveiled the Cuvee de Printemps, while the Gris de Gris was by now consistently selling out. Ksara then began to produce new labels and revise its pricing strategy. By the end of the year, the three year plan was complete. Ksara had planted new grapes, hired a new wine maker, developed the range, landscaped the winery, and bought new equipment.
Today, Chateau Ksara’s reputation as Lebanon’s biggest and oldest winery is secure. In producing 2 million bottles the winery harvests nearly 2,000 tons of grapes from its 300 hectares, an average of nearly 7 tons of grapes per hectare. “Some wine countries will obtain yields of as much as 14 tons per hectare,” says Ghostine. “We will not do this.” And even the farmers have stopped complaining.