Grapes Of War: Sneaking Fine Wine Across The Syrian Border

Glass of Chateau Marsyas
Glass of Chateau Marsyas
Rémi Barroux

BEKAA — It's a typical wine tasting at the Château Marsyas in the beautiful Bekaa region of Lebanon.

We are trying a French Cabernet after tasting a Merlot and Shiraz. Bottles and glasses are scattered on a wooden table in the heart of the winery, which houses a dozen stainless steel vats and hundreds of oak barrels. In all, we've savored 17 wines.

But there's nothing typical about the wine we're drinking: It has arrived in plastic bottles straight from war-torn Syria by taxi.

We are in the wine cellar owned by brothers Sandro and Karim Saade. Wine expert Stéphane Derenoncourt arrived from France to taste samples from the brothers' property 200 kilometers away on the slopes of Mount Bargylus in Syria near the village of Deir Touma.

"We are not going over there anymore, not because of the fighting but because kidnappings are very common on the road," Sandro says. More than 270,000 people have died since 2011 in Syria's bloody conflict.

Derenoncourt says the 2015 Merlot from Bargylus has a nice acidity while the Shiraz is flowery and delivers notes of violets and licorice. The French consultant writes his impressions in a notebook. The brothers consider Derenoncourt's notes important because of the technical tips he offers.

The brothers have made a bet that may appear crazy producing wine in a country at war and bringing it through a volatile region as reflected in the Lebanese military checkpoint 100 meters away. The soldiers there watch the road leading to the Syrian city of Damascus and the route heading south toward the Bekaa plains, the Golan plateau and Israel. Each time you pass the checkpoint when you come from the Lebanese capital of Beirut, you have to stop and greet the soldiers gathered around their tanks.

The day before the tasting, exploding mortar shells could be heard on the mountain range that forms the border with Syria. War has a long history here. During one of the many conflicts in Lebanon from 1975 to the end of the 1990s, Château Kefraya, one of the nearby wineries, saw Israeli tanks camping in its vineyard. Israel even named one of its 1996 military operations in Lebanon "The Grapes of Wrath" after the famous American novel by John Steinbeck.

Sandro acknowledges that what they do is risky. "The fact that it's risky makes the work more valuable. We want to make wines of high quality against all odds', he says.

Temperatures often pass 35 °C (95 °F) on the Bekaa plain, where the brothers grow some of their wines. At night, the temperature drops to 2 °C (35 °F) and can go as low as minus 20 °C (minus 4 °F) in the winter.

The weather can be just as challenging at the Bargylus field in Syria, they say.

Watching over the Syrian vineyards from Lebanon and directing a team of 30 people on the Syrian estate is not easy. The brothers make daily telephone calls to the manager, Sebastian Khoury, and analyze photographs and videos of the wines and berries at each stage of growth. After harvest in August, the grapes from Syria come in different packages to Lebanon.

Derenoncourt, who lives near the town of Saint-Emilion in western France, comes to Lebanon four times a year to provide support and guidance to the Saade family. Although he works with 25 wine growers in 17 different countries, he is attached to the Lebanese-Syrian wine operation.

"Stéphane does not only come to help make the wine but he also comes throughout the year to check that the vines are growing nicely," Sandro says.

The 12 hectares of cultivated field in their Syrian property produces about 45,000 bottles. The grapes produced are mainly Shiraz but also some Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.

The Saade family has roots in both Syria and Lebanon.

In 1975, when war broke out in Lebanon, the family migrated to then peaceful Syria.

Karim was born in Lebanon and Sandro was born two years later in Syria. Their family history is written in both countries. Their mother Janine is Lebanese while their father Johnny is Syrian.

The brothers concentrate on their wines to forget the regional conflict. Their wines are complex and nuanced, smooth and fresh.

The message in a bottle from Syria strikes the right note.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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