May 2013 was a decisive moment for the Lebanese wine industry. For the first time, the state put its hand in its pocket to support the burgeoning sector by hosting a Lebanese wine day at the George V Hotel in Paris. In 2014, the ministry stumped up again by hosting another bumper event, this time in Berlin. In 2015, it plans to take Lebanon’s road show to New York. Meanwhile, there have also been mini tastings at various Lebanese embassies and legations.
It seems everyone wants a bit of our wines. But that was not always the case. For years, successive governments, presumably because they didn’t want to offend religious sensibilities, were reluctant to either promote wine or offer significant financial assistance to Lebanon’s wine producers. But the ever increasing quality of Lebanese wine and the game changing moment that saw members of the Union Vinicole du Liban (UVL), Lebanon’s association of wine producers, decide to work together and self finance a generic campaign in the UK and Germany, meant the state could no longer ignore what is without doubt our most high profile export.
But wine is not hummus or olive oil and the idea of selling Lebanon the country before its wine was a long time coming. As far back as 2002, the UVL floated the idea of a generic campaign, but it was only at the end of 2009 that Madeleine Waters, a British PR executive who had previously done similar campaigns for other regions, especially Napa Valley in California, was appointed to sell Lebanon to British traders, media and consumers. Five years is not a long time, considering that Californians, Chileans and others have been at it for decades, but the fact that it happened at all was nothing short of a miracle.
[pullquote]Lebanon’s reputation has been lovingly polished through increased and more focused tastings[/pullquote]
And what a difference five years has made. ‘Wines of Lebanon,’ Waters’ campaign, won Generic Campaign of the Year at the 2012 International Wine Challenge, while Lebanon’s reputation has been lovingly polished through increased and more focused tastings, proper press coverage and strategic social media activity. Wine heavyweights such as Oz Clarke, Tim Atkin, Sarah Jane Evans, Natasha Hughes, Tom Cannavan, Victoria Moore and Joe Wadsack have all visited Lebanon and, apparently, loved the place.
Lebanon’s unique appeal
But at the risk of biting the hand that feeds it, the sector must insist that it has more of a say in how to spend future money allocated to promoting Lebanese wine abroad. No one is saying the funds are being mismanaged, but marketing wine is a specialist’s trade. The days when it was enough to simply roll up at a trade fair and show your wines are long gone. This does still happen, of course, but it is an activity that is part of a bigger package offering diversified activities that highlight the whole gamut of wine culture.
Consumers want to know the history of a region; they want to know about terroir and how certain grapes perform from country to country. They will ask about harvest yields, about native grapes and about who uses oak and who doesn’t, and who makes organic wines and who doesn’t. They want to know about personalities and where a particular winemaker studied. The list is endless. To capture all this requires an understanding of what makes consumers, journalists and the sommeliers tick. Each wants to know something different and so each message must talk to a specific segment. If we can get it right, the rewards could be endless.
Lebanon really should be the sexiest wine producing country in the world. This isn’t a moment of misty eyed sentimentality to which we Lebanese are often prone. Lebanese wine can be a genuine contender to other more well known wines. Some 3,000 years ago, the Phoenicians were the first people to sell wine. So our wine comes from a region where wine was first made, which is as good a backstory as you can get. The good news is that the current vintage is also very good, in most cases excellent, and is getting even better, especially the white wine. Our terroir is impressive and becoming more diverse by the day, while the Bekaa Valley is mystical and magical and a great headquarter for branding Lebanon.
But most importantly, we don’t produce that much wine; only about 8 million bottles per year. It’s nothing really, not even by regional standards. Cyprus makes around 33 million bottles, Israel 50 million and Turkey 70 million annually, which means we can play on scarcity, sell at a premium and market Lebanon as the ultimate boutique nation.
But if we don’t catch what Shakespeare’s Brutus called the “tide in the affairs of men,” then somewhere like Macedonia or Croatia might come along and sail off with our glory. And then, to once again quote the great Roman — who probably drank a lot of Lebanese wine back in the day — we’ll be “bound in shallows and miseries.” Lebanon already has enough problems without its modest $50 million wine industry missing the boat.
[pullquote]Our wine comes from a region where wine was first made, which is as good a backstory as you can get[/pullquote]
A bright future
When it comes to the domestic market there is more exciting work that can be done. Because, while Lebanon is a grape and wine country, it’s not yet a fully fledged wine drinking country. The grape plays a huge role in our agricultural heritage. It goes into arak, our powerful aniseed based national drink, and it was out of that arak culture that today’s wine industry grew, first as a byproduct of arak and then as the modest sector we have today. But the Lebanese consumer is still in love with whiskey, vodka and beer and has been slow to catch on to the idea of wine. And many of those who do drink wine assume foreign is automatically better. The obvious next step therefore is to launch a national generic campaign to instill a sense of national pride through wine.
Lebanon has come a long way since the 1979 Bristol Wine Fair when the venerable British wine critic Michael Broadbent, writing in Decanter, declared Château Musar “one of the eye openers of the year.” Since then, Marsyas, Domaine des Tourelles, Château St Thomas, Domaine Wardy, Massaya, Ixsir, Châteaux Ka, Kefraya and Ksara, to name a few, have taken Lebanese wine from being an ethnic curiosity into the mainstream.
They all punch well above their weight and, contrary to the popular perception that Lebanese wine is pricey, can genuinely compete in the international market place. Its entry level wines, scandalously dismissed at home as headache inducing gut-rot, have wowed foreign wine critics with their easy to drink style and complex flavors. It is with these wines that Lebanon can build a mighty reputation.
There is no reason why Lebanon can’t have its day in the sun. It’s up to us now.