Wine-makers in Syria and Lebanon soldier on despite civil war, Islamic extremism

In his high-rise office in Beirut, Sandro Saade carefully chews a merlot grape from a vineyard hundreds of miles away in war-ravaged Syria, trying to determine if it is ripe enough to order the start of the harvest.

It's too dangerous for him to travel to the vineyards of Domaine de Bargylus, which is nestled in verdant hills where wine has been produced since ancient times. But despite the bloody conflict and the threat of Islamic extremists, he is determined to produce world-class wines, and to help preserve a Levantine cosmopolitanism imperiled by decades of war.

In Syria and Lebanon, boutique wineries mainly run by Christians have endured despite decades of unrest and the fact that Islam — the majority faith in the region — forbids both the production and consumption of alcohol. The challenges have mounted since the eruption of Syria's conflict in 2011 and the rise of the Islamic State extremist group and other jihadist organizations.

For families like the Saades, the production of wine is not only a business but an affirmation of their roots in a region increasingly hostile to Christians and other minorities. Their winery's name derives from the classical Greek for the Syrian mountains overlooking the Mediterranean, and the tradition of wine-making stretches back to ancient times, when it flowed at bacchanalian festivals that would horrify today's dour jihadists.

"We are passionate about this, and we aren't stopping. We will continue as much as we can," Saade said. "The challenge is not just to make wine, but to maintain a high quality wine."

The winery is in a relatively secure part of Syria still controlled by the President Bashar Assad's secular government, which tolerates alcohol. But stray mortars occasionally crash into the vineyards, including one that destroyed 15 chardonnay vines in June.

Transportation presents other obstacles. As well-off businessmen, the Saades are at risk of being kidnapped by militants or brigands on the increasingly perilous roads crossing the Syrian-Lebanese border. The grapes are shuttled back and forth by taxi drivers, who are occasionally forced to turn back when security forces close the crossings.

The Islamic State extremist group is far from the wineries, but it has captured a third of Syria and Iraq, including in lightning advances that took much of the region by surprise. Other powerful Islamic militant groups, including a local al-Qaida affiliate, are much closer. As a security precaution, the winery keeps most of its finished product in a Belgian warehouse.

The enterprise is tiny, with Bargylus producing just 45,000 bottles a year. Like its Lebanese competitors, it tries to market premier boutique wines for around $35 a bottle.

In a 2012 article discussing Bargylus wines, international expert Jancis Robinson was "particularly impressed by the 2007 Bargylus red, a well-judged blend of syrah with cabernet sauvignon and merlot with real savour and depth of flavor."

Saade said surprising Europeans with the provenance of his wine was part of his marketing strategy: "They are smiling when they discover that. It's definitely a good surprise."

Saade said in an interview last month that this season's grapes were "nearly ready." Another taxi would fetch more grapes in three days' time — if the border was open.

Lebanon's own wineries have thus far been spared from the conflict in neighboring Syria, but the war is never far off. In August, it spilled across the border when militants from Syria briefly overran the border town of Arsal, killing and abducting several police and soldiers. Two were later beheaded by the Islamic State group.

The Lebanese wine industry is concentrated in the eastern Bekaa region, a sweeping plain framed by Syria's mountains that has long been a stronghold of the militant Shiite Hezbollah movement. More recently, the religiously mixed region has come to host hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, fueling tensions.

Lebanon is fiercely divided over the war in Syria, and outbreaks of violence have seen Sunni and Shiite villagers in the Bekaa block roads and engage in tit-for-tat kidnappings.

"The situation is abnormal," said Zafer Chaoui, head of Lebanon's official association of wine producers, and the director of Chateau Ksara, the country's largest winery, one of 47 that produced some 8 million bottles last year.

Most wineries emerged after Lebanon's civil war ended in 1990, but here too wine-making is an ancient tradition. The nearby Roman complex at Baalbek features a temple to Bacchus, the god of wine and mirth.

Lebanon's sizable Christian community drinks, as do many liberal Muslims, but local sales have declined 10 t0 20 percent this year as part of a larger economic downturn.

In the vineyards of Chateau Kefraya, just a few miles from the Syrian border, women with scarves across their faces — protection against flies — snip dark bunches of syrah grapes.

Most of the women are Syrian refugees who fled from the eastern city of Raqqa, the de facto capital of the Islamic State group's self-styled caliphate. There the punishment for drinking is 100 lashes.

"This keeps my children alive," said 21-year-old Hiam, a mother of two, speaking of her $4 daily wage to pick 16 boxes of grapes.

The war is never far behind. Sometimes explosions from across the border echo like approaching thunder, and armed men conduct nightly patrols of the nearby village, fearing Islamic State militants might cross the border.

The supervisor at Chateau Kefraya, 53-year-old Nabhan Nabhan, takes it all in stride. "From the time I was born, it's been like this," he said, ticking off the long list of conflicts that have darkened this bucolic region during his lifetime.

Others are more fearful. "Who can say we will not be next?" asks Fabrice Guiberteau, the French technical director and a long-time resident of Lebanon. "The situation is dramatic."

At the nearby Chateau Ksara, employee Rania Chammas mapped out a longer, alternative route back to Beirut for visiting reporters. Armed Shiite demonstrators had blocked the main road with burning tires to protest against the government's failure to recover the abducted soldiers.

"You had better leave," she sighed.