Making Wine in Wartime Syria

Vintners try to maintain their crops as a country breaks down.

A Syrian laborer gathers grapes at Château Kefraya in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. (Jamal Saidi / Reuters)

Winemakers around the world share some of the same concerns, such as the weather, fermentation, critical reviews, and sales. But for winemakers in Syria and Lebanon, those concerns are compounded by a war that has been raging at their doorsteps for years. The challenges they face -- employee safety, operational disruptions, and a long history of local turmoil -- shed new light on the lengths winemakers in warzones will go to.

''We have to keep going,'' said Karim Saadé, whose family owns Château Bargylus near Latakia, Syria and Château Marsyas in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon. ''We've gone through so many hardships, as a family, as a people. It's not the first time, it won't be the last. You need to stay, to persevere. Through resiliency, you need to get to the best.''

The grandfather of Karim Saadé was one of the largest industrialists in Syria when the family's assets were seized during the rule of President Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1960s. Saadé's father was just 14 years old at the time. "He had to rebuild everything," Karim Saadé's brother Sandro said, "outside Syria, in Lebanon and Europe. Our challenge has been to come back to where we came from."

Establishing Château Bargylus has been part of that return. The vineyards are located on the slopes of the Al-Ansariyah mountains in northwestern Syria. It has been producing high-quality red and white wines since 2006, its first vintage. The vines were planted at Bargylus in 2003 and at its sister property, Château Marsyas, in 2005, when the family began working with the wine consultant Stéphane Derenoncourt. The Bargylus 2012 white wine, which was introduced last month in Beirut, has been produced within circumstances defined by the war that rages throughout the country.

Neither the Saadé family, which lives in Beirut, nor Derenoncourt, who works and travels throughout the Middle East and Europe, has been able to cross the border to visit the vineyards, not even during the sensitive harvest season when the most important wine-making decisions are made. ''During the ripening season when I am in Lebanon, the grapes from Syria came by taxi,'' Derenoncourt said. Every two or three days, the grapes are cut from the vines, placed in ice boxes, and carried by car across the border into Lebanon, where Derenencourt and his team taste and analyze the samples.

''Everything is very complex,'' Derenoncourt says, including basic winemaking logistics. ''If you need barrels, you need to plan six months before.''

Yet the most difficult challenge for the Saadé family at the moment is to convince the workers on the vineyard to stay, rather than join the streams of Syrian refugees fleeing the country. The family currently pays their employees at the pre-conflict rate, despite the collapse of the local currency. ''We're acting like a family in times of distress and problems,'' said Sandro Saadé. ''We don't have a single person who left.''

Perhaps because it's located outside of the cities and towns that have seen heavy fighting over the past two years of the Syrian war, the Bargylus winery itself has not yet been directly attacked.

Despite the difficulty of making wine in Syria today, the Saadé family nonetheless are planting the seeds, literally, for the future: Derenoncourt pointed out that they've just bought fresh rootstock for new vines.

"We have an optimistic view of the future, as ironic as that sounds," said Victor Schoenfeld, head winemaker at Golan Heights Winery in Israel. "We don't really take [the conflict in Syria] into account in our day-to-day activities. For us we're much busier with development projects that are coming to fruition at the moment."

From the vineyards that comprise his own terroir, Schoenfeld sometimes sees explosions and smoke across the border. ''Where I normally see it is from our Odem and El Rom vineyards, looking across the Kuneitra Plain,'' he said. ''Some days it's quiet, some days it's not.''

Schoenfeld was in Bordeaux last month for Vinexpo, a major wine and spirits trade show that attracts producers and brands from all over the world. It is here and at similar trade shows throughout Europe, Asia, and the United States that Schoenfeld communicates most easily with other winemakers from the Middle East and North Africa.

''We're all passionate about the same thing,'' Schoenfeld said. ''I'm sure we have much more in common than we have not in common. We all think it's a pity that we can't just hop in a car and go visit each other.''

Fabrice Guiberteau, a winemaker at Château Kefraya in the fertile Bekaa Valley of Lebanon, can see the border with Syria from his vineyards. Despite the worries of a conflict so close to home, leaving Lebanon would be difficult, he said. ''It's about having started something and wanting to see it through,'' said Guiberteau, who previously made wine in Cognac, France, and Morocco before coming to Lebanon.

The Saadé family has recently made new investments in material for Château Bargylus in Syria, he noted. As Karim Saadé says, ''Wine ties you to the land, and you cannot just pack up and leave. It's a signal to yourself and to others.''