Making Wine Under Conflict
“You talk of war, and of civil war. There is nothing civil about war. What happened in Lebanon is that people fought their wars on our land.” - Serge Hochar
Between 1975 and 1990, Lebanon was a mosaic of wars caused by complex shifting
political, geographical, and demographical factors. When 16 years of Civil War
were finally over, the foundations for a new republic had been laid, but at a
considerable cost. Over 100,000 people were dead, nearly one million had been
displaced, and billions of dollars worth of property and infrastructure had
been destroyed. Chateau Musar’s vineyards had suffered damage from fighting in
the Beka’a Valley, but although the winery in Ghazir had been subject to
intermittent shelling, it had escaped significant damage.
The fact that Musar only missed one year of winemaking during this period is no
mere miracle – but a testament to the family Hochar’s dedication and devotion
to their vision in the face of the most horrendous ‘working conditions’
imaginable. For Serge Hochar, protecting the family business his father had
established was paramount. “If you ask me on which side I fought during these
15 years,” he once said, “I can only tell you that I was fighting for my
And fight, he did. The effort required to get the Musar grapes from the vineyards
to the winery each year during the Civil War was nothing short of Herculean.
The pickers, who would often pick under artillery and gunfire as the dug-in
militias bombarded each other, emerged as heroes. As did the truck drivers, who
risked their lives when running the gauntlet of a journey that in peacetime can
be made in two and a half hours, but during the war had sometimes taken several
The story of Musar’s 1984 vintage in particular highlights the adversity Serge
Hochar and family faced during the conflict – and also vindicates the passion
at the heart of their decision to keep diligently making wine. In 1984, there
was almost no vintage as there were only enough grapes to fill two trucks which
proved to be a good thing as there were only two truck drivers brave enough to
attempt to get them back to the winery. Each went a different route. One took
five days, the other seven. All the while, the grapes in the trucks were piled
up, squashed, heating up in the hot sun each day and starting to ferment. A
delivery of warm grapes can result in musty, unappealing wine but – such was
his philosophical outlook – Serge defiantly made wine with them anyway,
bottling it and cellaring it to let it “become whatever it decided to be”.
Chateau Musar’s 1984 red should, in theory, have been a terrible wine. But against all
odds, given the right conditions and no small amount of time, has become not
only a drinkable wine – but a delicious, complex, exciting one, brimming with
life and hope. The small amount of the vintage that exists was released to the
marketplace in 2014 (exactly 30 years after it was made) and the bottles that
occasionally appear on the market are very highly prized.
This wine – and all of the vintages made during the Civil War – represent the Musar
legacy Serge Hochar left in the capable hands of his sons Gaston and Marc, and
his brother Ronald and his son Ralph, along with viticulturalist and winemaker
Tarek Sakr. These wines were made during a time when simply driving to check on
your crop or to pick up supplies meant dicing with death.
“We did our best with what we have, as always. This is the Lebanese way. You give me grapes, and my job is only to help them to be the best wine they can be.” - Serge Hochar
Chateau Musar: the Civil War years (1975-1990)
Read more about life at Chateau Musar during the Civil War years with the timeline below:
On a good day, the ride from the Chateau Musar office in Achrafiyeh in the centre of
Beirut to the airport might take 15 minutes. But good days were rare in 1975.
That August, there was peace in the Beka’a Valley but fighting had broken out
in downtown Beirut. The Musar wine press had broken down just before the
harvest, and the replacement part was sitting over at the airport. Without it, there
would be no wine.
Serge set off in his car and remembers, “it was a beautiful day and, en route, I
noticed that outside the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps there was a militia
checkpoint. We called these “barrages de mort”, killing barricades. If
you had a name like mine, they’d kill you – finished.” Serge didn’t slow down.
He didn’t speed up either. He just drove straight through the checkpoint while
the militias were busy dragging other motorists out of their cars and executing
“I carried on to the airport, picked up the machine part and sat quietly by myself for 15 minutes. I thought, I know my faith. This is not a religious thing. But it is the same faith I have in my wines. So, I got back in the car. By the time I drove past Sabra and Chatila, the checkpoint had disappeared.”
Serge’s wife had an even closer brush with militants in Beirut but similarly lived to
tell the tale. The Civil War had begun.
30,000 Syrian troops move into Lebanon ostensibly to restore peace, but in reality,
this was Syria’s attempt to claim the lands (including the Beka’a Valley) it
believes it was owed when Lebanon became independent in 1943.
“In 1976 there was total war in Lebanon. We had no electricity. No fuel. No
transport. No harvest. No nothing. 1976 was the only year in which we failed to
make any wine. For others, the weather is a problem – for us, it is war.”
Without the ability to reach the grapes, to pick them and bring them back to the
winery, there could be no new wine. Even if there had been, there was nobody to
buy it. So Serge saw the opportunity to reach out and find new markets for the
wines he had in his cellars. His father-in-law had a travel-agency in London
and agreed to start importing his wines in the UK.
From 1977 to 1990 (and during plenty of small dirty wars since) the
Hochar family successfully made wine each year – often plucking grapes from the
barbed wire zones of the frontline. “During times of war, we have to put all
our belief and all our assets in wine!” said Serge. “We have to keep going with
the things that are our essence. By now, I was used to war. So I kept on making
wine; I was making it for a market I did not yet know existed.”
The UN steps in with peacekeeping troops and Israel is forced to withdraw from Lebanon.
Syria steps in instead, targeting the Christian population in the ‘Hundred
Days’ War’, the worst offensive for two years.
Serge: “There was very heavy shelling in Beirut. The Syrians shelled Achrafiyeh, where our office is [in central Beirut]. At the time, my wife Tania was running the Godiva chocolatier
nearby. She took the kids to the winery cellar in Ghazir in shock. There were
many dead in Achrafiyeh. My secretary hid in the strong metal filing cabinet.
Many people here were psychologically affected.”
Revolution in Iran leads to radicalisation of the Shi'ite movement in Lebanon, and the
creation of the Amal party, the ‘movement of the dispossessed’.
Bashir Gemayal unites Lebanon’s Christian military factions, creating
the Lebanese Forces political party.
Serge: “This was one of the worst years of the war for us. I used to write a harvest report, but have mislaid it for this year.”
Chateau Musar UK was officially established this year.
Relations between Syria and Israel deteriorate.
Serge: “This was a year of terrible hardship. Tania and the kids left for London. They had to. I could not guarantee their safety. They came back, then left again in 1983. I promised
that I would join them the moment the war ended. We did see each other every
few months when I could get a flight.”
Israel invades Lebanon again intending to dislodge the PLO. Some 18,000 people, mostly
civilians, lose their lives as the battle-zone moves towards Beirut. Italian,
French and US troops assist in the evacuation of the Palestinians.
In the Beka’a, 80 hectares of Musar vineyards become the frontline between the
Syrians and Israelis, whose tanks faced each other over the vines. Serge
calculates that he will not be able to harvest grapes from them again until
1985. But he does. In the confusion that ensues after the invasion, the loyal
Bedouin pickers collect what fruit they can, and the Hochar trucks manage to
make their way to the winery.
Serge: “The 1982 is a pure wine of war.”
Times darken further as suicide bombing reprisals shock Beirut and its suburbs. In
the Chouf mountains, the Mountain War begins. That summer, Serge took his
family on holiday to the US. During a stop-over in Paris on their return
journey, war broke out again so the family decided to settle in France.
Winter is severe in the Beka’a, with metres of snow coating the vineyards; summer is
barely warmer, and the Hochars’ harvest was late. A break in fighting,
instilled by the American fleet anchored off Beirut, came at just the right
time for the vineyard manager to pick a few grape bunches and smuggle them into
Beirut for Ronald to check. They were good: there had been no rain, no
heatwave, and the grapes had reached perfect condition.
Ronald put in a call to Serge, who was visiting the US, and the brothers decided to match the bravery of their vineyard manager and order the harvest in. “It was very dangerous,”
admits Ronald: “Serge flew to Cyprus, then took a six-hour hovercraft crossing
to Beirut; he arrived at the winery in Ghazir moments after two rockets blasted
the coast road he’d just been driving on.” The truck drivers, with their
precious loads of hand-cut grapes, carefully negotiated the capillary-like
country roads that would lead them to the winery, relying on a network of local
gossip to learn which roads the militias were controlling with checkpoints and
which route between the Beka’a and Ghazir would be the least bloody. They were
successful. As Ronald said, there were two advantages: “Our usual headache, the
traffic jams, were gone. And the harvest, just like that of 1982, was excellent!”
The Lebanese Forces, having controlled the capital since 1982, are expelled, and
the Amal Party takes control of West Beirut. Peacekeeping forces (from the US,
Italy and the UK) leave Lebanon.
Serge: “We did our best with what we have, as always. This is the Lebanese way. You
give me grapes, and my job is only to help them to be the best wine they can
be. In 1984 the sun was very hot, and the fighting was hotter. After waiting
and waiting for a break in the shelling, and more than a month after the last
day of the harvest should have been, we quickly picked whatever grapes were
left on the vines. Most were very ripe and sugary. There were enough grapes for
only two truckloads, and only two of our drivers were brave enough to attempt
the journey to Ghazir.
The first truck managed to find a way through the cedar forests in the northern
Beka’a and get eventually to Tripoli, near the northern border with Syria. In
five days it was with us. The second truck drove south over mountain tracks to
Jezzine, then crossed the battlefronts on the way down to Sidon. From there,
the trucks needed to avoid Beirut, so they waited for a boat. There was a
terrible storm, which delayed the ferry to Jounieh. Eventually, the storm was
quiet enough and the ferry sailed slowly up the coast. The trucks arrived at
the winery after seven days, on October 20th, 45 days after what should have
been the end of the harvest – 45! So, in 1984 the grapes that we received were
hot, bruised, sticky and very much fermenting. As an act of defiance, and as an
act of faith, as a way of showing that the Lebanese spirit can never be broken,
we made those grapes into wine. I made the 1984 to declare war against war.”
Fittingly, 1984 was the year that Serge Hochar was named as the
first ever Decanter magazine ‘Man of the Year’ - for his unswerving commitment to
The Israelis continue their withdrawal from the south of Lebanon under armed
pressure from Hezbollah. They keep an occupied ‘security zone’ along their
border. In the War of the Camps, Palestinian refugee camps are targeted by
Shi'ite and Amal militia.
Serge: “The Israelis continued to withdraw from Sidon, but it was still difficult to get the grapes from the Beka’a to the winery. After this year, things started to settle down, on our terms.”
Serge: “Military action destroyed some of the vineyards on Mount Lebanon. Our white grape Obaideh was, and is, grown on the slopes of the Anti-Lebanon and was still available – but we only ever used this grape for Arak (Lebanon’s aniseed-flavoured aperitif). Prior to 1986, the Chateau white was only produced from Merwah grapes. From 1986 we began to blend Obaideh with Merwah and the combination worked. We were the first to use these two local varieties in a unique new style of wine.”
Close to four decades later, Musar is still the only one.
Anger at the continued presence of Israel in Lebanon is augmented by the first
Intifada (Palestinian uprising against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and
Following Amin Gemayel, Lebanon’s new interim president is announced as Michel Aoun.
Serge: “Life in Lebanon was not so hectic in 1988. It was a normal year, politically
President Aoun declares war on Syria. After seven months of fighting, with 800 dead, the
Arab League negotiates a ceasefire. The Taif Agreement is signed, with the ethos ‘no victor and no vanquished’, in an attempt to end the Lebanese Civil War. Meanwhile, life is beginning to return to normal in the Hochar vineyards. In an impressive vintage, Carignan grapes begin to win Serge’s heart.
The terms of the Taif agreement are legalised, with reforms including a larger
parliamentary assembly, an even Christian to Muslim ratio and reduced power for
The final Syrian offensive on October 13th forces President Aoun into exile, and a
new unified government under President Elias Hrawi begins the delicate job of
piecing Lebanon back together.
Serge: “We were told that the war had ended, but my nose said there were problems. We
usually started to harvest our red grapes at around September 15th, but I was
afraid of the situation as the Syrians were threatening General Aoun in
Lebanon. So, we started harvesting on September 5th. Lucky we did, as 20 days
later the Syrians attacked and blocked all the roads. We had finished
harvesting the day before.”
In 1990, with peace in the air, the EU asked for evidence that Lebanon was a ‘wine
producing country’ in order for Chateau Musar to be able to officially
export. EU bureaucrats seem to have been oblivious to the hard fact that
Lebanon had produced wine for 6,000 years! This EU directive required a law to
be passed in Lebanon giving winemaking the status of an officially sanctioned
business – a sensitive subject given that the Minister of Agriculture was a
Hezbollah member of the Shi’a community. But the law was passed, and Serge
became Lebanon’s delegate to the OIV (Office International de la Vigne et du
Miraculously, in the 16 years of Civil War in Lebanon, not a single one of Chateau Musar’s
employees was killed – even though many of the Hochar’s friends and neighbours
lost their lives in sniper attacks, bombardments or car bombings. The winery
escaped serious damage and, in retrospect, seems to have been the safest place
in Lebanon. Thousands of bottles stored deep underground in Musar’s cellars
carved in the limestone heart of Mount Lebanon slept peacefully during the
years of conflict. The Hochars even converted part of the cellars into a bomb
shelter for refugees fleeing Beirut. And they took any opportunities they could
to distribute and ship their wines while all the madness of war enveloped them,
steadily growing Musar’s reputation around the world. By the end of the Civil
War, Chateau Musar was so much more than a maker of exquisite wines. It had
established itself as an icon of national endurance and hope. And who wouldn’t drink to that?
[All extracts from 'Chateau Musar: The Story of a Wine Icon' have been published online with the kind permission of the Académie du Vin Library. For the full story, click here to buy the book with our exclusive promotional offer.]
Image credits: © Lucy Pope