Farrah Berrou takes The Trip into Lebanon’s wine country.
It’s 6:45am and Farrah Berrou, host of the podcasts B is for Bacchus and A Better Beirut, is picking me up in her mom’s car to make the climb out of Beirut, past snow-capped mountains, dusty villages, endless military checkpoints, almost to the border of Syria itself, for a full day of Lebanese wine.
We’re going to Domaine Wardy, one of the great wineries of the Beqaa Valley, a winery whose roots started out actually in Aleppo, Syria, long ago. But before that, it’s time for an early-morning trip to Baalbek, the ruins of the colossal roman temple of Bacchus, the god of, among other things, wine and group sex. What a combination, what a testament to the eternal determination of the people in this part of the world to live, and live well.
This is my last episode from Lebanon, and I have been very taken by the daily fight of the revolution, and all these people, including our guests—who are pushing every day for the city and country they deserve. But it also seems proper to take this last look at Beirut from a bit of a remove, from the valley beyond the coast, from the distant past, through the belly of a wine glass.
Nathan Thornburgh: We’re drinking Domaine des Tourelles from the Beqaa Valley. Tell me about it.
Farrah Berrou: They’re the oldest commercial winery in Lebanon. The winery that we consider the oldest winery, the Ksara winery. is about 15 or 20 minutes away, but Domaine des Tourelles was our oldest commercial winery because it started out that way. The founder was a Frenchman recruited to work on the highway between Beirut and Damascus, and while he was in Chtaura, he just fell in love with the surroundings and decided to set up shop and start a winery.
Thornburgh: He did what French men do. He started to make wine. You can tell it’s old because it’s got Latin on the cork.
Berrou: They date back to 1868.
Thornburgh: Wine in Lebanon started as a monastic pursuit?
Berrou: It depends how far back you go, because we’ve been part of wine history for millennia now. Officially, it started with being part of the monasteries, but…
Thornburgh: But you took me to a 4,000-year-old temple to Bacchus here in Lebanon.
Berrou: It’s probably older. Throw in a couple thousands here and there.
Thornburgh: To make the point, among others, that wine is really fucking old in Lebanon.
Berrou: We’ve been at it for a while.
Thornburgh: The scale of those ruins at Baalbek is astonishing, and it’s a great rejoinder to anybody who would say that there was no wine culture here.
Berrou: Yes. I don’t know if you need all the wineries, the historical references, or even the Phoenicians to prove that there was a wine culture here. It’s enough to show people this massive temple, decorated with grapevines and poppies and Bacchanalian references to people being intoxicated and really happy.
Thornburgh: So among your many pursuits, you have a podcast about wine, and called it B is for Bacchus.
Berrou: I noticed this common thread across these different wine regions: a lot of them started with the letter B: Byblos, Beirut, Batroun, Beqaa, Baalbek. And it all tied together to the god of wine, Bacchus, who is also Dionysus in Greek mythology. It just had a nice ring to it.
Thornburgh: So all of B’s led you back to Bacchus.
Berrou: Yes. And it felt like something that a lot of audiences could understand. It’s easy in English, it’s not a heavy Arabic word that might not be understood by foreign audiences. It started out as a series of classes dedicated to Lebanese wine and giving locals and visitors a crash course of the whole history of our historical significance in the wine industry, and then through researching for more classes and special topics, I met a lot of people and got to hear their stories, and it just felt unfair not to share that with more people. That’s why the podcast was born.
It was also an excuse for me to learn more and meet more people. And I wanted it to be regional too, because I feel like not just Lebanon, but our neighbors and the Caucasus and the Eastern Mediterranean don’t get enough credit for what they’ve done for the wine industry, and where it started, and what they’re doing now, shaping new trends across Georgia and Greece. They’re all doing new things that are actually old practices—just bringing them back. And there were interruptions in this part of the world, whether it was religious or through conquering wars. So there was a pause, let’s say. So they did take it somewhere, and we did learn from that, too.
Thornbugh: Interruptions is a good catch-all phrase to give me the Cliff Notes version of some of the pauses in wine making.
Berrou: The Ottoman Empire, the civil war…
Thornburgh: Under the Ottomans, who were here for a long time, there was a special dispensation for Christians to continue to make wine?
Berrou: For religious purposes.
Thornburgh: But essentially the Ottoman Empire outlawed alcohol.
Berrou: Yes, but there were still people making their own Arak, the aniseed spirit, at home. Kind of like moonshine. But yes, the Ottomans prohibited alcohol for a big chunk of that time, and then through that, the monasteries were making wine. It tarted out as a religious activity, but gradually grew into something that had a lot more potential. The production was becoming more and more prolific, so at one point the Vatican said, “Okay you guys need to sell off all of these extra activities that are bringing in money, this isn’t what the church is about.” And Chateau Ksara is the one I’m thinking of here because they’re the oldest winery, and that’s where they started—they sold off the winery and it became a private business.
Thornburgh: So the monks were making too much money.
Some Lebanese wineries are trying to be ambassadors for Lebanon.
Berrou: Serge Hochar, the grandfather of wine in Lebanon, didn’t market Lebanese wine by pushing an exotic idea of wine in the Middle East. It was more about showing people that there was another side to the country when the media was associating it with war and destruction and death. It was about showing people that we actually enjoy life, there’s more to our country, we’re not a desert, we don’t have camels—just trying to break down these misconceptions. That’s what some of the wineries are still doing today: trying to be ambassadors for the country.
Thornburgh: It would be amazing if you did have camels. I’m a little disappointed.
Berrou: We have one camel, and it’s outside of Baalbek, just for photographs.
Thornburgh: Just kicking it. He’s like, “I’m in the wrong part of Arabia.”
Berrou: He should not be there, perpetuating the wrong idea.
Thornburgh: It is an incredibly lush and green place, it is not what your average Frenchman or American might think of as the Middle East in that sense. So it’s trying to express that this culture is unique and different and probably more like a Western culture in certain aspects than people would think.
Berrou: Parts of it, yes. I think some people associate it with Singapore, in the way Singapore can be somewhat of a gateway to Asia—a soft mix of Asia but also a little Western, so you’re not too uncomfortable. Beirut is bit like that: You have enough Western influence for it to feel familiar, but it is still different, and it’s a good starter point. But here are still conservative people here. It’s a mix of different values and different religions. It is a melting pot, and there are a lot of problems, especially right now, given what’s going on in the country. But what we’ve been trying to defeat for so long is this reputation of Beirut bring synonymous with destruction or chaos, or as this metaphor that people use: “Oh, it’s just like Beirut.” But every time we try to defeat that, something else happens.
Thornburgh: So it’s an uphill battle, when they keep on bringing back bad old Beirut into existence.
Berrou: Yes. As much as we try to push that it’s safe and friendly and hospitable and there’s great food and there’s a warmth here, like most Mediterranean countries, there’s always something in the news or something that happens that makes us have to start over again.
There is an element of hope in Lebanon that I haven’t seen in a long time.
Thornburgh: One of the things that I am getting the impression about this particular revolution is that there is a confidence that people must have in order to take to the streets to cause disruption in a place that fears it, and has feared it for so long. You’re saying, “You know what? We deserve better.” And even if it looks bad, even if it’s disruptive, even if it might upset this balance that the government has been trying to convince us we need, you’re still going to go out there and fight for a better future.
Berrou: There is an element of hope that I haven’t seen in a long time among the general public on the streets.
Thornburgh: Is that hope you don’t have, or hope you’ve always had?
Berrou: I’ve had it. But I haven’t seen it in others as much. There are certain friends or some people that feel the same, but it’s hard to keep that going and keep it replenished. And then to see the mass public suddenly share that is nice. People have kind of woken up. I wouldn’t say it’s confidence, exactly. I think it’s just that it’s gotten so bad that you can’t really argue against it.
Thornburgh: I’m mistaking desperation for confidence?
Berrou: No, I don’t want to put it as desperation either, because it’s really impressive, and it’s really beautiful to finally see everybody come together this way. For so many years people have been othering different cities within the same country, and feeling like there’s been this fear that is based on nothing. It’s just misunderstood, unknown, and this narrative has been perpetuated through misunderstanding. It’s been nice to see those boundaries melt away and people start to reach out to each other and try and help each other, and there’s this common ground that now—we have to look out for each other, and while the government and the ruling class don’t care, it all started before the protest actually began.
Religion can be a very individual, personal thing. It doesn’t have to be shouted from the rooftops, and it doesn’t have to be in policy.
I think the younger generation here is so grossed out by how much religion has to be a part of everything, and it doesn’t have to be. Religion can be a very individual, personal thing. It doesn’t have to be shouted from the rooftops, and it doesn’t have to be in policy, it doesn’t have to be in who your president is, or who your prime minister’s supposed to be. It’s not supposed to be about that. It’s supposed to be about merit, it’s supposed to be about being qualified.
Thornburgh: You sound like a protester.
Berrou: I can’t turn it off.
Thornburgh: This is the amazing thing that people are having to point out, which sounds so simple when you say it, but the very carefully constructed shit cake that they’ve created in government here is to apportion the spoils based on party, which is related to religion.
Berrou: Yes, and it has nothing to do with what they actually make it sound like it does: that it’s trying to make sure that everyone gets an equal piece of the pie. It’s not about that. It’s about lining your pockets. It’s about using religion to maneuver the people the way you want, and othering different religions so that you fear each other, and that you mobilize according to who they say is threatening your existence. No one’s threatening your existence. We’re all threatened now, we don’t have running water, we don’t have 24/7 electricity, we don’t have basic infrastructure, the country floods when it rains for a day. That stuff matters.