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Why Massaya Is More Than Just Wine: The Ghosn Family Story

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This is a story of history, both ancient and recent, geography, family struggle, loss, tragedy, and redemption. Somewhere woven into this Biblical story, about this Biblical place, is the Ghosn's family story, that takes place in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon. Sami Ghosn describes his childhood, and the radical twist it took:

The Tanail Estate was acquired by my parents Michel and Amal in the early 1970s. We grew up there, playing in the fields, riding horses, chasing our dogs and pets, hunting, enjoying endless festive mezze and barbeque lunches with homemade arak. In 1975 (civil war had erupted) we were forced to evacuate from the Bekaa Valley estate when shooting started. We rushed away in my mother's white Volvo... uprooted, in tears and fears, leaving our childhood memories and dreams behind. I was eight years old, and my brother Ramzi was six.

This incident never left me, neither through my years studying in Paris; where I studied architecture, nor later when I had moved to the U.S. working as an architect in LA first and then NY. Early in the 1990s as my parents were pressingly approached to sell the estate, I went back to the Bekaa, leaving my green card behind at JFK (not to be tempted to take a U-Turn back to the US) and evacuated the squatters from our estate...

I was about 27 years old at the time and guess they (the squatters) saw and felt the drive and conviction in my eyes and guts. It was either them out or me, but with my feet horizontal. I made my choice clear, and they had made theirs. In the meantime, I had built a shelter on the rooftop of the house, slept next to an AK-47 before they finally were persuaded to evacuate. This is now history.

With the family estate back in control by 1992, Sami began producing arak from the native Obeidi white grape. First, he rented an old still and sold the arak as homemade and handcrafted. When he sourced what has now become the signature blue bottle from France, and named it "El Massaya" (The Twilight), he found commercial success by 1995:

Our countryside home was mainly planted with table grapes, and in 1992 we started replacing all the vines with grapes suitable for winemaking. We actually farm 40 hectares, owning 30 of them. We long-term lease eight hectares, and the rest comes from the spot market. The winery is human size, meaning that one person controls all the steps and no need for tight procedure and hierarchy.

After the commercial success of the arak, and the re-planting of the vineyards, Sami looked for technological advice and help. France and Lebanon have enjoyed historical close ties, and it was a natural for Sami to look to France for guidance.

It was 1998, where I first met Dominique Hebrard at his family's owned and run Cheval Blanc in St. Emilion, Bordeaux. He visited Lebanon and signed on, and later the same year I met the Brunier family in Chateauneuf-Du-Pape at their Vieux Telegraphe estate and again persuaded them to invest with us in Lebanon. They joined in after visiting the source of wine and vine... Then, my brother Ramzi joined in from France, where he was running a business in the food and catering industry. Ramzi had studied marketing and finance between Paris and Chicago, yet always was inclined for food and the culinary arts. Currently, besides being a founding partner, he is the winemaker at Massaya.

Attracting such French luminaries to invest in a Lebanese winery might seem a stretch, but Sami explains what attracts them:

Our main vineyard development is in the northern part of the Bekaa closer to Baalbeck and its Roman temple of Bacchus. The Bekaa Valley is a perfect terroir for 'lazy producers.' The generosity of the environment makes our task very easy. The weather is dry, warm, and sunny from May till the harvest; no storms and no rainfall. Yet, there is no need to irrigate. The sun induces high anthocianine content in the berries as a shield against the ultra violet rays of the sun. The daily wind improves the even maturity of the grapes. Even if the bunch is hidden behind a leaf, the wind will move it away, guaranteeing an even maturity of the grapes. We definitely don't need to remove leaves from the vines. Photosynthesis is optimized. The low temperature at night maintains a fair amount of acidity that compensates the high sugar and alcohol content. The dry weather during the vegetative season limits the diseases, the insects and the fungus that might affect the vines so the wines are almost organic, nature friendly... The mountains on the west (Mount Lebanon) shields the vineyards from any (humid) influence of the Mediterranean. Finally, the mountains surrounding the Bekaa Valley are snow capped and by melting gradually the vines are able to stretch their roots to fetch the necessary moisture within the soil to overcome the heat. So... there is no irrigation at Massaya to make wines with a good concentration of aromas and flavors.

Until 1992 there were only three wineries in Lebanon, and the international success of Massaya, along with Kefraya, Ksara, and most notably Serge Hochar and Chateau Musar; helped spur on a renaissance of wine production in the Bekaa Valley. Today there are thirty-five wineries in this burgeoning vibrant region.

Sami speaks of the influences on wine production in Lebanon;

In Lebanon, winemaking is inspired from the French varietals and techniques from Bordeaux and the Rhone. Until now, the dominant grape is Cinsault and Syrah, while Cabernet Sauvignon is clearly important. It is more of a red grape terroir than a white wines terroir.

Yet, he also makes sure to explain the historical paths of these grapes.

It is important to understand that we don't try to imitate either the Rhone or Bordeaux. In reality, they are mainly grape varieties that are originally from this eastern side of the Mediterranean and were afterwards developed in Europe; such as Syrah and Mourvedre. So, they are no stranger to our region, their source of origin. We don't know any more if they are not indigenous to the Eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. We suspect that all grapes that came through Spain to France and the Rhone mainly, are originally from the Levant. The ones from Bordeaux took a different route... Lebanon did not produce wines with tannins very straight like the one in Cabernet Sauvignon. The tannin structures have always been more disorganized. We always try to use varietals that reveal spices and the Mediterranean's aromas and flavors rather than just structure and body. Of course it is never a clear cut choice and it is always a blend at Massaya. However, they have to be suitable with Lebanon's cuisine and ingredients. Lebanese cuisine is much broader than the mezze you might have in a Lebanese restaurant. We have Moughrabieh (Lebanese pasta), Frikeh (Smoked Green Wheat), Kawarma (Meat Confit) and Cassoulet. We call these dishes our winter menu and these dishes are the main recipes that our ancestors had with wine. The tabouleh and mezze represent our summer cuisine.

Sami and his brother Ramzi run Massaya. Sami's role is Chairman of the Board of Directors; and Ramzi, his partner, elaborates the wine, heads the marketing and day to day details of the Tanail Estate. Ramzi also developed the vineyard restaurant on the estate. Their roles are complementary, and they share the same values and objectives; which they have helped grow internationally with their French partners.

Historically looking at the Bekaa Valley and Lebanon; Sami feels the wines of Israel, Cyprus, and Greece fit into the same basket; while Spain and Portugal really are a different region.

Winemaking started between the Black and Caspian Seas and gradually migrated to the Levant coast. Our ancestors then played a key role in the spread viticulture and winemaking around the Mediterranean Sea. Greece did the same later, but on a smaller scale. The Phoenicians were the real engine in the development of winemaking and vineyards spreading all the way from the Bekaa to Spain. It was not only wine trading, but it was farming and wine making... Then, the Roman Empire arrived and pushed winemaking to another limit. They introduced barrels and vitis vinifera all the way to the Rhine. This is the reason why we call the wines of Israel, Greece, Cyprus, Armenia, Georgia, Lebanon... the wines of the Ancient World.

We believe firmly that along with New World wines, and Old World wines (Europe, including Portugal and Spain); we will see, in this decade, the development and re-emergence of the Ancient World wine category, because of the quality improvements in this area and the natural curiosity of wine lovers.

Looking back at his family's legacy, the struggles in the Middle East, the pride in his homeland, wine has a very special meaning to Sami: "A glass of wine from Lebanon is more than an alcoholic beverage. It is a message of civilization, tolerance, and identity."

Maybe the whole world should have two glasses.

For more information on these soulful wines, and the mysterious powers of arak, please check out Massaya's web site: www.massaya.com

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