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Campaign puts Lebanese wine on the map

BEIRUT: Many people wouldn’t be able to locate Lebanon on a map. But that hasn’t stopped some dedicated Lebanese wine lovers from working to make Lebanon a world-renowned wine producer.

“Lebanon needs every image booster it can get and wine is the perfect ambassador,” says Beirut-based wine writer Michael Karam, who, along with U.K. firm Coco PR, has been at the forefront of the Wines of Lebanon campaign for the past two years.

Eight wineries are participating, including the three largest – Ksara, Musar and Kefraya – as well as Domaine des Tourelles, Ka, Karam, Ixsir and St. Thomas.

So far, the initiative has brought prominent wine critics to Lebanon and has also brought more Lebanese wine bottles to the shelves of U.K. shops, most notably Marks and Spencer, which began selling three Lebanese labels – Domaine des Tourelles, Chateau Ka and Chateau Ksara – in May.

Since then, other U.K. retailers have asked for Lebanese labels. Ksara export manager Elie Maamari credits the generic campaign for a 26-percent rise in Lebanese wine sales in Britain.

Over the past two years, some of Lebanon’s biggest wineries – and longtime rivals – have showcased their products at the same exhibits as at last year’s wine fair in London and Prowein in Germany, and will do so again at the Vinexpo in Bordeaux next spring. Wines of Lebanon has also hosted tastings at some of Britain’s most prominent hotels.

Lebanon’s generic wine campaign was launched with the idea that bringing all of the country’s labels under one flag would raise the profile of the country’s wine, already one of Lebanon’s most successful exports.

Over the years, similar campaigns have been undertaken in Argentina, Australia, Brazil, California, Greece, New Zealand and South Africa. What sets Lebanon’s apart is that it is entirely organized and funded by the private wineries with no government support.

“Most people who know a little about Lebanese wine know about Musar,” says Coco PR’s Madeleine Waters, who did a similar campaign for California’s Napa Valley wineries, but says that this one is much more challenging, because the market is much less known.

Her efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. Earlier this month, her firm won the U.K.’s Generic Campaign of the Year award.

Waters says that those who are introduced to Lebanese wine “find it hard not to be captivated.” She says, “Apart from the quality and the investment, what gets people is the spirit of the Lebanese and making wine against all odds, even though that sounds cliche.”

Chateau Musar arrived at the scene at the 1979 Bristol Wine Fair, in the midst of Lebanon’s Civil War, and quickly became a favorite among wine connoisseurs for its high quality as well as for its success in making wine during hard times.

Meanwhile, Lebanon’s two other major wineries, Ksara and Kefraya, were also starting to make names for themselves, particularly in the domestic market and in the diaspora.

When the 15-year Civil War ended in 1990, there were only five wineries. By 2005, the number had grown to 30. Today, Lebanon is home to 40 wineries. But some believe that the momentum and new competition has breathed new life into the industry – one as old as the Phoenicians, yet still less commercially developed than many New World wine producers – and all that is needed now is the right exposure.

“It’s important that we’re under one pavilion and that we’re not competing with each other,” says Hady Kahale, general manager at Ixsir. Located in the hills of Batroun, the winery opened three years ago and has quickly made a name for itself, winning this year’s Grand Gold Medal at the International Wine Championship in Canada for its 2009 wine Altitudes.

Although he doesn’t hesitate to promote his own winery, proudly pointing out that they use a variety of grapes from different regions of Lebanon and adhere to high environmental standards, he also believes that the country’s generic wine campaign, of which he is taking part, will help the entire industry. “Lebanon is becoming better known,” he says. “When wine critics and journalists come, they’re surprised.”

But not everyone is on board with the Wines of Lebanon campaign. In fact, only eight of Lebanon’s 40 wineries are taking part, although the country’s largest producers are represented.

Ramzi Ghosn, co-owner of Massaya in Taanayel in the Bekaa Valley, one of the country’s best-known wineries, says that he suggested a generic campaign around 10 years ago, but the UVL, Lebanon’s official association of wine producers, refused.

“When they started, we didn’t think it would be appropriate for us to join,” Ghosn says, acknowledging that the campaign has helped his winery indirectly through general positive exposure of the country’s wine.

“But they should be doing the same for Lebanese wine [in Lebanon], because we’re experiencing a growth in imported wines,” he argues, insisting that while Lebanon is making a name for itself internationally, it has a way to go before it could be considered a wine-consuming country. The rate of wine consumption in Lebanon is one bottle per year per person, whereas in Morocco, it’s three bottles per year.

Ghosn also questions how effective the campaign has been in increasing exports. According to Lebanese customs, between 2011 and 2012, exports of Lebanese wine to the U.K. increased by 70 percent, from 29,242 to 49,000 liters per month. However, exports in general did not change significantly, decreasing by 4 percent, from 164,800 to 160,400 meaning that the increase in the U.K. compensated for decreases elsewhere.

“I think the campaign is successful because of Madeleine’s commitment and skills. But it’s not a generic campaign. They’re not talking about the Bekaa Valley. It’s just individual wineries,” he says.

He also laments that the campaign has seen no government support, which he thinks is crucial in creating a united campaign for all Lebanese wineries. Waters and Karam agree, but are proud of the private wine companies’ perseverance even when they are not receiving any support from the government.

“The Wines of Lebanon campaign is the most important and exciting milestone in the history of Lebanese wine since Chateau Musar was ‘discovered’ at the Bristol Wine Fair in 1979,” says Karam. “In just two years, we have gone from being a curiosity to a bona fide player in the global wine consciousness. The supermarkets are interested; the wine tourists are coming and the press is talking about us. The M&S listings are only the beginning.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 29, 2012, on page 1.

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