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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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FOCUS: Israel-Palestine War

Why The U.S. Lost Its Leverage In The Middle East — And May Never Get It Back

In the Israel-Hamas war, Qatar now plays the key role in negotiations, while the United States appears increasingly disengaged. Shifts in the region and beyond require that Washington move quickly or risk ceding influence to China and others for the long term.

Photograph of U.S Secretary of State Antony Blinken  shaking hands with sraeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant.

November 30, 2023, Tel Aviv, Israel: U.S Secretary of State Antony Blinken shakes hands with Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant.

Chuck Kennedy/U.S State/ZUMA
Sébastien Boussois


PARIS — Upon assuming office in 2008, then-President Barack Obama declared that United States would gradually begin withdrawing from various conflict zones across the globe, initiating a complex process that has had a major impact on the international landscape ever since.

This started with the American departure from Iraq in 2010, and was followed by Donald Trump's presidency, during which the "Make America Great Again" policy redirected attention to America's domestic interests.

For the latest news & views from every corner of the world, Worldcrunch Today is the only truly international newsletter. Sign up here.

The withdrawal trend resumed under Joe Biden, who ordered the exit of U.S. forces from Afghanistan in 2021. To maintain a foothold in all intricate regions to the east, America requires secure and stable partnerships. The recent struggle in addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict demonstrates that Washington increasingly relies on the allied Gulf states for any enduring influence.

Since the collapse of the Camp David Accords in 1999 during Bill Clinton's tenure, Washington has consistently supported Israel without pursuing renewed peace talks that could have led to the establishment of a Palestinian state.

While President Joe Biden's recent challenges in pushing for a Gaza ceasefire met with resistance from an unyielding Benjamin Netanyahu, they also stem from the United States' overall disengagement from the issue over the past two decades. Biden now is seeking to re-engage in the Israel-Palestine matter, yet it is Qatar that is the primary broker for significant negotiations such as the release of hostages in exchange for a ceasefire —a situation the United States lacks the leverage to enforce.

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