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Syrian Winemakers Defy Revolt Taxing Grapes for Sampling

Winemakers Karim and Sandro Saade are bottling to preserve a piece of Syria.

From their base 150 miles across the border in Beirut, the brothers are defying the violent conflict that’s left more than 35,000 people dead by continuing to produce their Domaine de Bargylus from a Syrian mountain vineyard where the Romans made wine more than 2,000 years ago.

The Saades follow the winemaking process by phone and have sourced a two-year supply of bottles and labels from France to ensure the wines don’t rot in their oak barrels. Meanwhile their roughly 60 workers at the winery in Jebel al-Ansariye, the modern name for Mount Bargylus, send grapes in refrigerated containers by taxi four hours to Beirut, where they’re tasted and analyzed before the order goes out to harvest them.

“It is constraining because you need to do this over the phone, through a taxi shipping things,” Karim Saade said by telephone from the Lebanese capital. “But we’re quite proud of doing it despite what’s happening.”

While proving that business can be done during what’s become the longest and bloodiest of the Middle East uprisings, the Saades are counting on wine drinkers not turning against Syrian products as President Bashar al-Assad clings to power. So far, there’s no evidence of that, said Saade.

Beirut to London

They ship Domaine de Bargylus from Lebanon to European vintners including Lavinia and Caves LeGrand Paris in France and Philglass & Swiggot in the U.K. The wine website Decanter.com reported in March Bargylus’ arrival in London, where it said it will be sold for about 33 pounds ($52.90) a bottle.

“Things have not changed about the curiosity over Syrian wine,” Saade said on Oct. 11. “Thank God they are not linking any of it to the current events. Frankly it’s not linkable.”

War or no war, marketing a wine from Syria is tough because the country is not known for producing the drink, said Detlef Rick, a German wine importer. He said in the case of an unknown wine like Bargylus, he would typically approach international high-end restaurants to see if he can find a place for it.

“We try to convince the sommeliers in these markets,” he said from Kamp-Lintfort near Duisburg. “We also have the chance to sell at a price on a quite high level. If we go there, the volume is not big. But this is not the question. The question is just to get that position.”

Saade said the quest to get their wine on those tables reflects their pride in getting “quality out of that Syrian soil,” during violent times. Until November last year, the Lebanese-Syrian brothers visited the site at least once a month.

Spared Violence

Bargylus vineyard grows five varieties of grape, three red and two white, all of it for transit to Lebanon.

Production at Bargylus’ 12-hectare vineyard, 60 kilometers (37 miles) east of the coastal city of Latakia, has not been affected by the violence in Syria. The rugged and remote area has been spared the fighting and bloodshed that has reduced large stretches of the country to rubble.

With a production of 40,000-50,000 bottles a year, Bargylus is not as well-known as the wines produced in Lebanon. Yet, it caught the attention of Dutch tourists Martin de Wal and Monique van Opstal. They had just tried it at Beirut’s annual wine festival and considered it on par with the “more passionate and loving” wines produced by small Lebanese boutiques.

The Bargylus wine is a “complex blend between something with a lot of sun, something very ripe and a lot of freshness,” Stephane Derenoncourt, a Bordeaux-based winemaker and consultant for wineries including Bargylus, said by telephone on Nov. 6.

Challenges

Even before the war in Syria, the producers faced challenges unique to the country when they set up their enterprise in 2003. Many workers left because they couldn’t comply with the no-smoking rule on the vineyard, said Johnny Modawar, head of communications for the winery.

Getting electricity and other amenities to the no-man’s land was tough, said Modawar.

“We still get asked if we have the right to produce wine, maybe because in some people’s perception it’s an Islamic country and they want to make sure the wine is produced legally,” Modawar said.

One of the winery’s challenges is “keeping people on site,” he said. The company increased the wages of its 18 permanent and 40 seasonal workers after the Syrian pound depreciated about 30 percent against the dollar this year. Training replacements at such a time and in a country without a wine culture would be tough, Modawar said.

Even when the war in Syria eventually ends, Saade intends to keep his operation small, with a target of no more than 100,000 bottles a year to maintain high quality.

“We prefer to have a small production to be able to concentrate on quality,” said Saade. “If we have a million bottles it becomes a mass-intended wine.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Donna Abu-Nasr in Beirut at dabunasr@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at barden@bloomberg.net

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