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Chateau Musar

Field & Main, the outstanding new restaurant in Marshall, Virginia, recently hosted a wine dinner featuring Gaston Hochar of Chateau Musar. Musar may not be a common household name among casual wine drinkers, but it's held in some reverence by hardcore wine lovers. There are probably a couple of reasons for that. Most importantly, the wine is really good. It's not quite like anything else. It's authentic. To use a phrase, it's wine with a soul. But the stories of the winery, and of what the Hochar family has gone through to bring the wine to the world, are also compelling.

Wine has a relatively long history in Lebanon. Chateau Ksara was founded over 150 years ago by Jesuit priests in the Bekaa Valley--but there is plenty of archaeological evidence that winemaking in the region dates back thousands of years to the Phoenicians. In 1930, Gaston Hochar (grandfather of the Gaston who presented wines to us), mindful of that history, founded Chateau Musar after being inspired by travels in and around Bordeaux. The Hochar family was originally French--dating back to the Crusades--but had been in Lebanon for centuries. Strong links between France and Lebanon also played a role (when the Ottoman Empire was broken up, France was given the "mandate" for overseeing Lebanon).

For the first ~50 years, the production of Musar was relatively modest and the market was primarily domestic. The vineyards were located in the Bekaa Valley. For those not familiar with Lebanon's geography, there is a mountain range running more or less north and south, just inland from the coast of the Mediterranean. It is known as Mount Lebanon. East of the mountains lies the fertile Bekaa Valley. And on the far side of the valley, the Eastern Mountains, often called the Anti-Lebanon, rise before the Syrian border. So the Bekaa is protected from coastal moisture by one set of mountains and from desert heat by the other. It's sunny, warm days and cool nights (from the ~3000' altitude) make it a good place to grow grapes. But most of the domestic wine market was west of the mountains--principally in and around Beirut--so rather than make his wine in the Valley, Gaston chose to truck his grapes across the mountains. He established his winery in Jounieh, a few miles north of Beirut. It's quite similar to the practice many wineries have adopted in the state of Washington--growing grapes in the Columbia River Valley and trucking them to Woodinville in the Seattle suburbs. The drive from the Bekaa to Jounieh is about two hours (again similar to Washington)--it's not all that far in distance, but slow going on twisting roads through the mountains.

In 1959, Gaston's elder son, Serge, told his father that he felt ready and willing to take on Chateau Musar's operations, but that he needed the freedom to make the wines the way he saw fit. Gaston concurred. As a part of his preparation, Serge studied oenology in Bordeaux under the legendary Émile Peynaud--arguably the father of modern winemaking--and Jean Ribereau-Gayon. There he was exposed to such "revolutionary" (for the time) techniques as separate harvesting and fermentation of distinct blocks within a vineyard, cool fermentation and active management of malolactic fermentation. He took the knowledge back to Lebanon and spent the next 18 years or so perfecting their primary wine--a red blend of cabernet sauvignon (the classic Bordeaux grape), carignan and cinsault (grapes from the south of France that tend to thrive in warmer climates). The wines showed consistent improvement--as did the business. Serge's younger brother, Ronald, joined, taking on business and logistics responsibilities. But there was trouble ahead.

One of the temptations in writing is to lay out everything you know--instead of what other people need to know. There can be a big difference (I'll let you decide which way I tilted). I know a fair amount about the Lebanese Civil War. I was a United Nations Military Observer in Lebanon in 1983 and the plans officer for the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization in 1984 (in essence, the contingency planner for UN peacekeeping in the Middle East). I spent much of that time working on a plan for a UN peacekeeping force to provide confidence and stability in Beirut (the plan was proposed to the Security Council but vetoed by the Soviets). I'll try not to go too deep into that conflict, but it's an important factor in why Musar is held in such respect by the world wine community.

First, Lebanon is complicated. It's not a historically and naturally cohesive nation-state. It was created by the western powers when they broke up the Ottoman Empire, kluging together a number of culturally, ethnically and religiously diverse groups. It never worked brilliantly (why would it?) but by the 1970s, cultural clashes disintegrated into civil war. If you weren't paying a lot of attention, you might be tempted to say: "Oh, that was the Christian Lebanese against the Muslim Lebanese, right?" Ummm. Nowhere near that simple. The dominant Christian culture was Maronite--but there were others. And, of course, the Muslims were divided into Sunni and Shia. But then there were the Palestinian refugees and the powerful PLO which had just been evicted from Jordan. The Palestinians were Sunni...but were a power center separate from the Lebanese Sunni. There were also factions within the Shia (this period saw the rise of Hezbollah). Within the Maronites, parties affiliated with the Gemayel and Chamoun families had their own militias that sometimes struggled with each other. And the relatively small Druze community in the mountains wielded power and influence in their local areas. And we haven't even mentioned outside actors like Syria and Israel (and later Iran) who schemed for influence (sometimes with bombs and bullets). During the period of the Civil War (generally described as ~1975-1990) the larger groups (e.g. the Christians, the Shia) sometimes came together for a period when they were under great pressure...and formed alliances with one or more other groups...but cohesiveness rarely lasted very long. The reality was that most of the time it was a swirling conflict, this militia controlled this port...that militia controlled that neighborhood...that militia over there controlled that village. And you needed a current playbook to know who was allied with who at any given time because over the long period it seemed that just about everybody was allied at some time with just about everyone else (not quite, but close).

Why does this matter? Because amidst all this chaos, Serge Hochar was trying to make and sell wine. The Bekaa Valley, where he grew his grapes...a swirling war zone. The mountains, through which he drove to deliver his grapes...a swirling war zone. The greater Beirut area, where he made and sold his wine...rocket, mortar and artillery fire lit up the sky nightly. Sales dropped dramatically. Serge realized he needed an external market. In 1979, he took his wine to the UK, where he caught the attention of Michael Broadbent, who declared Musar the "Find of the Fair." Given the chaos in Lebanon, Serge decided that rather than just sign up with an importer he would establish a company in the UK to handle marketing and distribution--initially in the UK, and perhaps in the future, Europe and beyond. Over the coming years, the business reversed from domestic-dominant to export-dominant. The wine was made in Jounieh, which was relatively sheltered in the heart of Maronite-controlled territory and was on the Mediterranean with easy access to docks. So the wine could move quickly from the winery onto a boat and on to the UK where it would be stored and distributed. It worked! And because it was good wine--and because Serge was charming in representing it--Musar gained attention.

But getting the wine to market was only the back-half of the civil war problem. The front half was perhaps even more challenging. The grapes had to be grown and harvested in the Bekaa...amidst conflict. Then they had to be trucked through the mountains at considerable risk. In the 1980s, there was a phase of the war called the Mountain War (primarily between the Maronites and Druze, though it's never that simple) that was particularly challenging. Serge and his brother, Ronald, and those who worked with them showed remarkable courage and determination. I can say that with the admiration of someone who was there at the time...I know how dicey it was. Sometimes this road would be safe. Sometimes that road. And we'd go weeks at a time when intelligence said no road through the mountains was safe--even for us (UN military observers). Yet the Hochars persevered. They grew the grapes. They delivered the grapes. They made the wine. It was partly in admiration of their courage and determination that Decanter named Serge Hochar "Man of the Year" in 1984.

And it was because I'd seen much of that--the rockets and the mortars criss-crossing Beirut--and because I'd felt the uneasiness of driving up into the mountains from the Bekaa, unsure of who or what might lie around the next bend, that I was so thrilled to have the opportunity to meet Serge's older son, Gaston, who took over as managing director on his father's passing. It's rare for Gaston to travel to the US. He tends to stay close to home to oversee production--his younger brother, Marc, does most of the traveling and marketing. I have it on good authority that Marc is absolutely charming--a worthy heir to Serge's legendary charm. I can tell you for a fact that Gaston is. We were thrilled to sit with Gaston and his wife, Marylene. They were both very warm, genuine and thoughtful. And they were passionate about Chateau Musar.

There's much to be passionate about. I won't go into great detail. You can google critics who will tell you all about flavors of damson plums and the like. There are bold flavors and there is considerable structure. But what struck me was that the wine seemed to have life force. It was constantly evolving, changing, engaging me in silent conversation. And that life force, that soul, is what mattered to me. That's what made it special.

For most wines I suppose the height of compliments is to quote a great rating bestowed by a famous critic. For Musar, there was a compliment I thought was more unique. Maggie Harrison, of Antica Terra and Lillian, is one of the very best, most passionate winemakers I know. She does something brilliant in her afternoon tastings at Antica Terra. She shows her wines interspersed among wines from around the world that truly inspire her. In July, the last wine she poured was Chateau Musar. When I told Gaston that, he thought for a minute...and then he sat back and smiled.

My thanks to Neal Wavra of Field & Main for creating this wonderful opportunity and for providing a delicious meal.

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