How wine can help rejuvenate Lebanon

For the past two years, from an office in the English city of Bath (population: 39,000), Madeleine Waters, a partner in Coco PR (number of staff: three), has been changing the way British consumers view Lebanon. Waters runs the Wines of Lebanon awareness campaign on behalf of the Union Vinicole du Liban, the Lebanese association of wine producers, which was this month shortlisted for the prestigious International Wine Challenge’s Generic Campaign of the Year category. The winner will be announced in September.

Win or lose, what Coco has been able to achieve goes beyond promoting Lebanese wine by also selling a positive and sunny idea of Lebanon itself. Waters has also demonstrated that with very little money (Coco’s base annual budget is around $77,000) and a great deal of professionalism, talent and focus, it is possible to change perceptions by doing the basics well. There is no other campaign that is generating as much positive publicity for Lebanon, even if it is only restricted to the United Kingdom. The Tourism Ministry should take note.

Selling a wine on the back of a country’s positives is nothing new. Look at what wine did to cleanse South Africa’s apartheid-drenched reputation and you begin to get and idea of what it can do for Lebanon, a country many associate with excitable men with guns.

With a media campaign that has included press trips to Lebanon and road shows across the U.K., Waters (who, full disclosure, is an old friend of mine) has not only been able to get the wine message across; she has also able to sell Lebanon’s generosity of spirit, hospitality, and cuisine, as well as the country’s landmarks. Waters has understood that wine drinkers are people who might like the idea of Lebanon, or that people interested in Lebanon might also be drawn to its wines.

But bottom line, it’s all about selling wine and Waters’ brief was to persuade British consumers that Lebanon was a bona fide wine producing country that could compete with the best in the world, so that Britain’s growing number of middle-class wine drinkers might say, “You know what? I fancy a bottle of Lebanese with dinner tonight.”

So far, Waters has convinced influential wine critics, sommeliers and wine buyers, such as Jancis Robinson, Oz Clarke, Tim Atkin, Sarah Jane Evans, Fiona Beckett and Victoria Moore to jump on an airplane to Beirut. Next year, Waters wants to bring popular oenophile Olly “Jolly Ollie” Smith, who also hosts a television show. I can’t wait to watch him telling millions of viewers about his trip.

Coco was also instrumental in the decision of Marks & Spencer to list three Lebanese wines as part of its Eastern Mediterranean range, launched in May. The importance of the decision cannot be overestimated. “We tried for 20 years to get in to see them,” admitted Charles Ghostine, the general manager of Chateau Ksara, Lebanon’s biggest producer. “Now, in less than two years we are on the shelves.”

In November this year, the campaign heads to Turkey for an international wine bloggers conference on the wines of the Eastern Mediterranean. Not only will it create further exposure and demonstrate the Union Vinicole du Liban’s willingness to tap into the latest media, it will also position Lebanon within a regional context, alongside Turkey, Greece Cyprus and, yes Israel.

And yet the campaign has been conducted with little or no government recognition, and no financial support. Religious and budgetary reasons may have been a factor, but there has also been a scandalous lack of interest in what is surely one of Lebanon’s few export success stories.

This has to change and should, as enthusiasm for Lebanese wine grows both at home and abroad. Increasingly, the religious argument is unpersuasive. Lebanon is not officially a Muslim country, but as long as Lebanon’s wine industry flew under the global radar the religious factor was an easy one to avoid. Now the wine industry must surely qualify for funding, especially as the campaign has shown just how much bang for the buck it can get.

Waters told me that with as little as the equivalent of $467,000 (1.75 percent of the industry’s revenues), the Union Vinicole du Liban could run multiple campaigns, targeting other markets in Europe and the United States. The government must therefore put its hand in its pocket and, similar to what happens in many wine-producing countries, match the industry’s contributions dollar for dollar. If it can hand over a reported $150,000 to Lebanon’s olive oil producers, then our much-talked-about wine must surely qualify for a hand out.

Coco is no Burson-Marsteller or Weber Shandwick, much larger publicity firms in the United Kingdom. Apart from an award for its campaign on behalf of British cauliflower farmers, Coco has yet to hit the big time. With Syria burning and Lebanon’s infrastructure in a shambles, not to mention the Lebanese economy going through a rough patch, the Lebanese government should be thankful that Waters, a marathon-running mother of three, is doing a job it should be doing itself.

Michael Karam is the author of “Wines of Lebanon” (Saqi 2005), winner of the 2005 Gourmand Award for Best New World Wine book. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 30, 2012, on page 7.




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