The Beqaa Valley is separated from Syria by the Easter Mountain range, and in recent times it is estimated that over 2 million Syrians have fled to Lebanon to escape the devastation caused by constant aerial bombardment, as well as the threat of Isis, who at their peak presided over a third of the country. As their reach waned, and their retreat became increasingly desperate, Isis factions were camped on the border, with Lebanese forces prepared for battle.
One fine Friday morning in the summer of 2018, a team of 200 grape pickers were working their way through ‘Cap Est’, Massaya’s most prize vineyard, in the foothills of the Mount Lebanon’s Eastern range, north east of Baalbeck. Sami received a call from the Colonel of the Lebanese paratrooper regiment informing him that Isis fighters were gathering directly above the vineyard, preparing to infiltrate from Syria. As the paratroopers were preparing for an airborne operation at dawn, they were ordered to withdraw the pickers, suggesting it might be safe to return in a couple of weeks once the insurgence had been repelled. This would have been disastrous for the harvest and a major blow for the business. Picking one day too late can lead to excessive sugar levels in the gape, and overly alcoholic, unbalanced wines. Sami pointed out that they were trying to make wine, not jam and respectfully asked if they could possibly delay the operation to allow them to harvest. This fell on deaf ears, although Ramzi’s assertion that they would return the following Monday to salvage the harvest seemed to expedite the action. The area was cleared over the weekend and Ramzi was on the first truck down at 6am on Monday morning, as Sami continued to receive updates from the Colonel. Yet another example of the unique challenge of growing grapes in the Beqaa.
In addition to the geopolitical troubles faced by Lebanon, the most pressing issue is for once, not war, but the financial stability of the country. There is a serious risk that Lebanon will default on its loans, and that the banks will collapse. Massaya felt the implications of this recently, when the banks limited withdrawals to $1000 per week. Just as grape purchases for the latest harvest became due, payments were unable to be fulfilled. Being indebted to Beqaa growers is far from wise, and although most accepted that the business was powerless to bypass these restrictions, security was increased at Faqra and Tanaïl.
Recent demonstrations in front of the Mohammad Al-Amin mosque in Beirut.
It is both remarkable and inspiring to see how Massaya has grown and flourished amidst the domestic pressures and turbulence inside Lebanon, and on its borders. Ramzi’s efforts, with continued help from his French partners, has seen the quality of the wines increase year on year, whilst Sami continues to travel extensively, spreading awareness not just of Massaya, but of Lebanon. Its food, its people, its beauty, its potential. And the next generation, Sami’s children, are already lending a hand. Michel, aged 11, is the Chef de Cave, whilst Mayssa, aged 12, is Restaurant Manager. Before long, no doubt their younger siblings Malek and Yara will self-appoint their own roles!
Before the devastating blast of 4th August 2020 that resulted in the deaths of 215 people, with a further 7500 injured, there were encouraging signs that for the first time, the Lebanese people were uniting across all faiths in a stand against the corruption and nepotism that has existed in the country for decades. They demonstrated shoulder to shoulder in vast numbers not just in Beirut, but in major cities across Lebanon and the world. The momentum of this movement was derailed with the spread of Covid in Lebanon, and the imposition of social distancing rules. As various factions cling to power, there is still hope that it’s not too late; that international monetary support will be provided on the basis that sound fiscal policies and governance are introduced; that people of all faiths can finally coexist in peace and prosper. Let’s raise a glass to that.
Story written by Jon Campbell from Define Food & Wine. An award-winning wine merchant, based in Cheshire, and one of the original importers of Massaya wines into the UK, back in 2004.