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Keeping up appearances


by Michael Karam

What were you doing the moment you heard Rafik Hariri was dead? Ramzi Ghosn was selling his wine at a trade fair in Dubai. “Ronald Hochar [co-owner of Chateau Musar] came over to our stand and told me about the explosion,” recalls Ghosn, who with his brother, Sami, in 1996 founded Massaya, the winery that has been credited with being a major force in Lebanon’s wine revival. “One hour later I was sitting, funnily enough, with Laurent Rigaux, who was the F&B manager at the Phoenicia when it reopened, and I received a text message confirming the sad news. I did not say anything. I wanted to keep it minimal, but I knew we were not selling wine anymore. We were saving the image of Lebanon and protecting a brand, and I don’t just mean Massaya, but Lebanese wine in general.”

Ghosn is painfully aware how perceptions can change. “Before last Wednesday, we felt as wine producers, that we had moved away from the images of war. Sure, people would come to us and ask how things were in Lebanon these days, but the dark old images had gone.” It could be argued that the Ghosns have been partly responsible for erasing those images. The brothers made Lebanese wine cool, with their New-World-look bottles and minimalist labels. Dovetailing nicely with the first genuine stirrings of post-war optimism, Lebanese wine was no longer associated with dusty bottles on the shelf of the local store. It was wine that said summer dining and carefree, beautiful people.

It was also of a good enough quality to attract a trio of high-profile French partners: Daniel Brunier, owner of Domaine Le Vieux Télégraphe, one the greatest of all the Châteauneuf du Papes, Hubert de Boüard de Laforest of Château Angélus and Dominique Hébrard, formerly of Château Cheval Blanc. They all invested in the Ghosn’s Oriental dream, putting their gut instinct, sense of romance, call it what you will, into the brothers’ tiny winery, that five years earlier had been a plot of barren land.

Essentially the brothers needed a comparative advantage and they saw it in French know-how. “They were in for 10% (today that investment has reached nearly $1 million) but it was enough to get started,” explains Sami Ghosn. “The use of their name was the key. Without it, no one would have cared. Still, the French initially had to be convinced by what they were lending their name to. They came and they saw the soil, the grapes and the Bekaa, and they believed in it.” Today, in post-Hariri Lebanon, that confidence is more important than ever. In his office, Ramzi is playing a DVD of the six short films made by the Lebanese government to promote tourism. They cover skiing, food, archeology, beach fun, Solidere’s achievements and, of course, wine. Ghosn is the star, portrayed as the archetypal wine producer, resplendent in linen shirt and Panama hat, striding among his vines looking for all the world like the Man from del Monte.

The short clip, which paints Lebanese wine in a generic Mediterranean aspect, will come as a welcome change to those whose mental stock of Middle East images is comprised mainly of despots, bombs and sand dunes. In fact all the films are seductive. Who wouldn’t want to visit Lebanon after watching them? Ghosn hits the remote and the screen goes blank. “Now we need to sell Lebanon doubly hard after last week’s events,” he says. “Wine consumers have three options: price, availability and image. Image and price are crucial. In terms of image, chaos does not work. Only Serge Hochar [of Chateau Musar] was able to capitalize upon the war and the intrigue.”

The relationship between wine and the internal machinations of a country is particularly tight. “When you choose a wine you are choosing the taste of a country. Look at the Chileans and the South Africans. When Pinochet and his generals were in charge no one wanted Chilean wine. Look at South Africa; it wad almost immoral to serve South African wine.” Now that all these countries have freed themselves of repression they are sexy and so are their wines. Lebanese wine is becoming sexy. We have to keep it sexy.”

The events of February 14 aside, things are getting sexier. For the record, Lebanon’s microscopic (by global standards) wine sector saw 11% growth in exports this year, part of an overall curve, representing a 74% increase since 2000. Massaya’s production levels are also on the rise and now stand at a respectable 300,000 bottles annually. The winery has a strong export instinct and has developed a strong presence in France and the UK (the two countries account for a whopping 70% of all Lebanese wine exports) as well as Canada. As of this year, Massaya has also been probing the equally attractive and relatively untapped US market, especially in New York, Florida, Illinois and Texas. The Ghosns are still uncertain what volumes they will be allocating to the US market, but both are confident that they can break out of the clichéd Lebanese on-trade and into the mainstream as they have done in Europe. Clichés are forbidden at Massaya. From the outset, the brothers and their partners did not call the winery a “château,” despite the Lebanese fondness for classy superlatives. Instead they opted for a New World wine approach, color coding the three main reds – white (Classic), Silver (Selection) and Gold (Reserve). The signal they were sending market was that they were breaking away from the old order. The range is a nod to both Lebanese and French influences

Most people forget that Massaya began life as Arak producers with the, by now ubiquitous and oft copied blue bottle adorned with Arabic calligraphy. The decision to make wine was taken in 1996, with the first forty-eight-thousand-bottle harvest made from locally purchased grapes one year later. Ramzi leans back in his chair. “It was just like the arak,” he sighs. “No one took us seriously. They said we were kids playing. Then, within two years we had French partners.”

Suddenly, the wine venture had taken on a different rhythm. Until then it was romance, now it had an international dimension. Has it worked? “Today we are on the wine list of the Paris Ritz, Le Crillon, the Georges V and the Wine Society in the UK. Massaya is running its own show,” says Sami. “Our partners opened doors, but without the quality, we would not have lasted.”

Over the next five years, the brothers want to expand and plant in areas other than the Bekaa. They want to experiment with TERROIR. And now is the time. New grape plantations have changed the lives of many of the Bekaa Valley’s struggling farmers, who were forced to grow illegal hashish and opium or fruit and vegetables that were severely undercut by those from neighbouring countries. The landscape of many towns like Mansoura and Rashaya is changing as the demand for good TERROIR increases.

Ramzi is at pains to stress that for him and Sami, theirs is a national collaboration. “My brother and I were driving through Byblos, in the area where the Lebanese forces militia wanted to build an airstrip that would serve Christian Lebanon. Sami pointed out that it’s ironic that many Lebanese wanted to be separate, when in actual fact we cannot produce without each other. Our suppliers are Muslim; our financiers are Muslim and much of our hardware comes from Muslim manufacturers. We cannot be on our own.”

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Michael Karam

Michael Karam is the author of Wines of Lebanon.

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