Civil War + Chateau Musar's Fight for Survival

By Gavin Lucas

Jun 11th, 2020

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 wines.”

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 days.

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:

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

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