In a country where it feels there is often little to be proud of, the Lebanese wine industry has offered us quite a few reasons to hold our head high—and could offer us even more if the industry learns to collaborate on a wider scale.
The wine industry has seen a lot of growth over the past decade—there are currently 54 wineries registered with the Ministry of Agriculture (MoA), up from around 20 in 2009. This growth of more than 150 percent is only in terms of operator numbers, however. Many of the new wineries are on the boutique side, meaning total national production volume has not increased significantly from the 9 million bottles quoted by the Union Vinicole du Liban (UVL). The owners of wineries Executive spoke with say consumers’ curiosity has been piqued through new Lebanese wineries entering the market, and this has translated into an increase in enotourism and general awareness of Lebanese wine. The negative perception of Lebanese wine among some local consumers (that it is headache inducing and expensive) is also changing.
Wineries that export all have their individual strategies targeting international markets, but most of them have recognized the value of collective marketing, and as such work together to spread the name of Lebanese wines in these markets. For example, UVL member wineries, and some individual wineries, regularly exhibit in international wine fairs together under one pavilion named “Wines of Lebanon.” Their lobbying, and the undeniable growth and efforts of the sector, have encouraged the public sector to support the industry despite their limited funds. The MoA organizes an annual day of Lebanese wine in a different city every year (it will be held in Copenhagen, Denmark, on November 4 this year) while the Ministry of Foriegn Affairs and Emigrants promotes Lebanese wine through the Lebanese embassies.
But the wine industry has developed in a way that this sporadic cooperation is no longer enough. Lebanon’s winery owners need to carry their commendable collaborations beyond attending a few international fairs as one group, only to return to Lebanon and work as individual wineries. If they don’t, then the industry will likely stagnate at this level of “almost there but not quite.” Those in the wine industry need to come together and ask the tough questions that global consumers will certainly be asking, such as: What is Lebanese wine? What distinguishes it from any other wine?
Here again, efforts that we can be proud of have already been made. Answering to global consumer demands for a story and identity behind the products they buy, Lebanese wineries have been experimenting with and producing wine out of local grape varieties, reviving ancient techniques of winemaking, and trying to prove that Lebanon is one of the oldest wine producing countries—and that, in fact, wine was first traded from Lebanon at the time of the Phoenicians.
But the problem is that, for the most part, this is being done at the level of individual wineries and not at a collective level, significantly slowing down results. Developing a grape-based identity for wine takes decades, as harvest and experimentation can occur only once a year, and so wineries need to come together and share findings regarding their research on different grape varieties and techniques—they can take a page from Napa Valley, the US’s playbook to see how fast a wine industry can grow through teamwork.
Once an identity is forged, it is time to build a compelling narrative or story around it. The increase in the number of wineries has brought with it new owners and winemakers who are eager to see the sector grow. Some of these players come from a business background, or have creative minds that can be put to use in forming a narrative that sells. They can bring their expertise to the table and work together with representatives of other wineries, especially the new crop of young Lebanese winemakers, to develop a narrative for Lebanese wines that would allow it to seriously compete at an international level. Whether they decide to build that narrative on our indigenous grapes or on Lebanon’s history with wine, or even come up with a narrative as to how winemaking is more of a family business in Lebanon is up to them to decide—the bottom line is that a unique identity and captivating narrative are needed to answer consumer demand and give Lebanese wine its competitive edge. And it needs to be done together.
Those in the wine industry should stop calling for state support and using its absence as an excuse for why the industry is not growing. It is no secret that the government’s budget is restricted, but the wine sector has shown us what happens when industry players work together to advance their sector instead of seeing each other as competitors. The UVL and wineries need to carry this collaboration out of the international fairs into Lebanon, and together develop a common identity and narrative to grow the sector to its full potential. While it would not be logical to expect Lebanon to compete with other wine producing countries in quantity, nothing should prevent it from developing a collective narrative that would significantly grow its sales figures both locally and internationally, and to then compete on the quality versus price ratio side. Now that would be another reason to be proud.