BHAMDOUN, Lebanon: In Le Telegraphe, the French bistro-style restaurant run by the Chateau Belle-Vue winery in Bhamdoun, a single ceramic tile embedded in the wall holds pride of place. The item, salvaged from a ruin, is the only piece of the Hotel Belle Vue that remains intact, but the community-centric spirit of the once-famed establishment is revived in Naji Boutros’ wines.
Built to showcase a stonecutter’s craft, operated to finance a generation’s education and then closed to the public to house an extended family, the 26-room Hotel Belle Vue was a mainstay of Boutros’ maternal family for decades.
It was in a wing of this sprawling home nestled in the hills of Mount Lebanon and filled with parents and uncles and grandparents that Naji Boutros spent his childhood, relishing the mountain air. These days, he readily admits his teenage self’s preference for days spent among grapevines and olive trees over nights on the tear in the country’s capital.
“It was a very beautiful childhood; it was fantastic,” Boutros tells The Daily Star, that is until the mid ’70s.
“Then of course the war came and we were uprooted from here,” Boutros says, describing how repeated rounds of fighting in the mountain village just 21 km from Beirut eventually drove many of its predominantly Christian residents to leave their homes and seek refuge elsewhere.
Boutros was among the first of those to leave, departing in 1983 for France before moving on to the United States for university, where he met his wife, Jill.
It would be almost a decade before he would visit his hometown again, and several more years before the desire to return to Lebanon would become too strong for the then-London-based investment banker to ignore.
“Life was not easy in London,” he says. “I was making lots of money as a city boy, but it was very empty. I’m someone who grew up touching, feeling, seeing the result of what you seed, what you grow, having the fruit.
“I [also] felt I was losing my family,” he continues. “I did not know my children. I did not know my wife. And I was really not happy.”
The melancholic Boutros talked about Bhamdoun ad nauseam. “I was almost obnoxious,” he admits, “everything was better in Bhamdoun.”
But when Boutros ventured back to Bhamdoun in the early ’90s, he found “90 percent of the old stone buildings destroyed,” including the beloved work of his great grandfather’s hands – the Hotel Belle Vue.
Standing among the rubble that remains of the Hotel Belle Vue today, Boutros states simply, “the house was here.” Then he points out the domed stone roofs of what were the cellars, the lone hint of the grand stone structure with sweeping staircases that once stood on the site.
Looking around, Boutros grows wistful. “You grew up in a place and there’s no house. You dream, you dream of it and there’s no house, no stones, nothing. They had [even] uprooted the trees.”
“But” he adds, “There was a tile.”
On an early trip back, Jill uncovered the intact ceramic tile from among the hotel’s debris. She packed the treasure away for Boutros to discover when he opened his suitcase in London.
“She said, ‘We’ll come back one day,’” he recalls.
In 1999, they did just that. The first thing Boutros did was replant his grandfather’s vineyard, which covers just under a hectare. With Vivaldi’s Four Seasons booming through loudspeakers, he set about the task in honor of his family’s memories and in an effort to return some greenery to a village once well-known for its viticulture.
In addition to a number of workers Boutros hired to help with the task, others, hearing the music, came to assist with the planting effort. Then a cousin asked whether Boutros would replant his vineyard too.
Concerns that the cousin’s land may have been mined didn’t stop the band of workers, now on a roll, from powering ahead with the planting. It was a decision they realized the stupidity of a week later when the Army pulled a number of cluster bombs out of the field.
“We were really stupid. We had a higher objective. Having a higher objective makes you forget about the lower objective,” Boutros says, reflecting on their decision.
By now, word had spread of Boutros’ project, and many of the old Bhamdoun families whose lands had also fallen into disrepair began to come to him with a simple request: “Naji, plant our land.”
That first year Boutros planted four families’ vineyards. Today, Chateau Belle-Vue has some 24 hectares of vines in assorted locations around the village. Most are now owned by the winery, but some are still in the hands of their original Bhamdoun families and Boutros pays for their use either in wine or money.
In 2003, the winery produced its first vintage – a mere 3,000 bottles, made and pressed by hand. On their labels, the bottles carried an image of the Hotel Belle Vue in all its former glory and its name – La Renaissance.
Little did Boutros known that four years later, when the Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blend was released, the wine would win a gold medal at the International Wine and Spirit Competition in London.
Indeed, Boutros admits that winemaking is the only project he’s ever undertaken where he really did not know where he was going to end up.
But the Bhamdoun terroir provides some natural magic for winemakers, offering on its rugged slopes a variety of microclimates. In his original family vineyard, Boutros demonstrates this, pointing out two visibly different types of soil just 2 meters apart.
“This is the secret. This is why our wine has a full bouquet, a very complex taste. One [soil] is very clayish; one is less clayish,” he explains.
Chateau Belle-Vue now produces two reds, La Renaissance and Le Chateau, and a white, Petit Geste.
Joseph, an elderly resident of Bhamdoun and one of the men who helped Boutros out with that first round of planting, still manages the vineyards today. He points out that they have never had to use fertilizers on the vines because “we have everything in this land.”
From 6 a.m. daily until almost sundown, Joseph can be found among the vines. He says the grapes speak to him: “If I forget a vine, I hear a cry behind me, ‘Why don’t you talk with me?”
Joseph still recalls the village before the war. “If you came here before the war, you would see a paradise. It was all grapes for the arak, for the wine,” he says.
Boutros has been working hard to recreate that paradise, planting olive trees and close to 150 cedars in addition to the vines. At the outset, he also vowed to give $1 per bottle back to the community, but says that he has ended up “giving a lot more than that,” through funding educational scholarships, health care expenses and distributing heating oil in winter.
As far as possible, Boutros employs locals, and he has successfully managed to turn the annual harvest into a community activity.
“All the village comes when we pick the grapes, especially the young people,” Joseph says, adding that he takes the harvesting season as an opportunity to share the history of the village with a young generation he feels has largely turned away from the land in favor of computers.
Yet even as Boutros drives around the village pointing out cedars he’s planted, he grows frustrated. Although Bhamdoun is far less defiled by concrete monstrosities than other villages in Lebanon, there is still a wealth of poorly planned construction.
“This is the real cancer of Lebanon, the cement,” he says, adding that many of the new buildings popping up violate laws governing their height and size. “We try to protect as much as we can, but at the end of the day urban planning need to help in the protection.”
“If they had a bit of a brain they would look at the examples of Napa Valley, of Bourgogne, of Bordeaux, of Sanoma County, of the wine country in Australia, in New Zealand. It generates more tourism and it employs more people than ... [other] industries.”
Reflecting on his winery project and the work he has done in the community, Boutros says: “It will pay off in the end. If it doesn’t pay off monetarily, it has paid off with beauty.”