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Hezbollah minister bows out of wine institute launch

From left, acting caretaker Agriculture Minister Gebran Bassil, caretaker Economy Minister Nicolas Nahas and former MP Salim Warde attend a conference at the ministry in Beirut, Friday, May 24, 2013. (The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)

BEIRUT: Caretaker Energy Minister Gebran Bassil stepped into the shoes of his counterpart at the Agriculture Ministry, which is headed by a Hezbollah official, to announce the imminent launch of a national wine institute Friday.

The Lebanese Wine Institute is gearing up for an official opening next week, Bassil announced, as part of “an investment in the future.”

Bassil was joined by caretaker Economy Minister Nicolas Nahhas, Louis Lahoud, the director-general of the ministry, and former minister Salim Wardy, who is active in the sector.

Bassil was standing in for Agriculture Minister Hussein Hajj Hassan, as Hezbollah’s policy does not allow its members to deal with alcohol.

Building on the success of an already growing and thriving industry, the country’s private and public sectors are joining forces to create an institution that will regulate and set standards for its wine.

“The country has a responsibility to encourage the sector. So many Lebanese are buying land and starting wineries,” Bassil said.

“Lebanese wine is a success story, and we need to build on the sector,” said caretaker Economy and Trade Minister Nicolas Nahhas. “The institute is fundamental to develop the sector and to have our voice heard, and take our wine to the next step. This is an investment in the future.”

The institute, an idea first proposed 10 years ago when the country’s first wine law was implemented, will see the private and public sector working together to regulate the industry and impose international standards. The new system is inspired by the French certification system Appellation d’Origine Controlee, and deals with issues such as over-harvesting, medal sticker abuse, diluting and misrepresentation.

Earlier this month, around 100 winemakers and members of the Agriculture Ministry traveled to Paris to promote Lebanese wine with a tasting event.

The institute, scheduled to open sometime next week, will be located in Dbayyeh, and the eight members, comprised of both the private and public sectors, will meet in the coming days to determine administrative posts.

Until now the industry has more or less been regulating itself through the Union of Wine Producers. But with a growing number of vintners now representing Lebanon, many of whom rely on their exports for profit, both the producers and the government felt it was time to work together to organize the sector.

When the Civil War ended in 1990, there were only five wineries, including Chateau Musar, which made a name for themselves and put Lebanese wine on the map when it won critical acclaim at the U.K.’s Bristol Wine Fair back in 1979.

By 2005, the number of wineries in the country had grown to 30. Today, Lebanon is home to 40 wineries, yielding an annual revenue of $37 million. Lebanese wine exports, mainly to Europe and North America, total more than 160,000 liters per month.

Experts believe the new initiative has the potential to bring new life to an old industry that dates back to 5000 B.C., when the Phoenicians, believed to be the first winemakers, began exporting to neighboring lands.

However, some warned there could be a downside to the institute.

“While I welcome the creation of a wine institute, I hope it will add more impetus to the good work the wine producers have done to promote Lebanese wine and not get it bogged down in bureaucracy,” said Lebanese wine writer Michael Karam, who has long advocated for a unified plan for marketing and standards of the sector.

“I sense the ministry has identified the potential of Lebanese wine and I hope that in helping to promote the sector that they listen to the experience of the Lebanese wine producers who have been selling their wine all over the world for decades.”

Habib Karam (no relation to Michael), who owns Karam Winery in the southern town of Jezzine, worries that smaller producers and those from outside the Bekaa Valley – where 90 percent of the country’s wine is made – will not be underrepresented.

“At the end of the day, it’s the big winemakers who want to dominate the field,” he said. Still, he said he was willing to “give them a chance.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 25, 2013, on page 3.

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