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Lebanon's Wine Industry: New Face for Country Once Known for War

Lebanon's Beka'a Valley was long known as a fertile region for drugs and terrorists. Today the eastern valley is a showcase for the country's thriving wine industry.

Laborers from surrounding villages are hard at work picking the grapes that will be fermented and aged, and turned into another fine wine for Kifraya winery.

Just ask foreman Abu Eid, who is keeping an eye on the harvest.

"It's going to be one of the best," he says, "because we've had little rain, and when we have little rain, it's a better grape for making wine."

The consistently temperate climate and fertile soil in Lebanon's Beka'a valley's are essential to wine-making. That's what attracted Frenchman Yves Morard to to the area more than a quarter of a century ago.

The wine expert remembers his first vision of the undulating green hills of Beka'a. Rich soil, enormous grapes, clean, without disease. And, he says, "I thought to myself, I can really do something wonderful here."

So he stayed, even through 15 bloody years of civil war. His decision was not without repercussions.

"I was taken by the Israelis when they invaded Lebanon," he says. "They thought I was a spy. I told them I was a wine expert, nothing more. So, they made me explain in detail how to make wine to prove who I was."

Mr. Morard says he was released after 15 days.

As much as his help is appreciated, though, Lebanese winemakers are quick to say the French did not bring the business to Lebanon.

Charles Ghostin is managing director of the Ksara Chateau vineyards. He says Lebanon's wine business dates back to the time of the Phoenicians.

"And we know our ancestors made the wine travel to the Pharaohs of Egypt," he notes. "And some of the most famous grapes are originally coming from Lebanon, like Chardonnay. When Lebanon was under Ottoman occupation for four and a half centuries, I think the wine production was not very well known."

In more recent times, Mr. Ghostin says, the industry was revived in the early '90s, after Lebanon's civil war ended. Today, Lebanese vineyards are producing more than six million bottles a year, worth about $25 million.

"Lebanon is now exporting 45 percent of the production, and it is increasing," he adds. "It will continue increasing. And the future is very promising for the wine sector in Lebanon."

The manager and part owner of the Cave Kouroume winery Samer Rahal agrees. He is a trained chemical engineer, but gave it up to begin making wine from the grapes his family used to sell as fruit.

"Before the war, we had three or four wineries. Now, we have 15. So, imagine how much it's booming," he explains.

He says Lebanese authorities have wiped out most of the illegal drugs that were being grown and sold in the Beka'a valley. Most of the terrorist training camps have also been removed, making it a safer place to live and work.

And, even though Islam frowns on the consumption of alcohol, Ksara winery manager Charles Ghostin says growing grapes for wine in a Muslim region of the world has not posed any problems.

"It did not occur until now, because more than 50 or 60 percent of the vineyards are in Muslim regions," he points out. "And even there are owners of large vineyards, and they sell the grapes, without any problem. They are not elaborating, they are not winemakers. But they have vineyards."

Mr. Ghostin says the wine industry boom is also making it possible for more young people from the area to stay home, rather than leave the country to find work. And, he says, earlier emigration after the civil war has actually helped promote Lebanese wines.

Many Lebanese who moved abroad have opened restaurants, which he says are a great showcase for Lebanese products. More than three million bottles of Lebanese wine now are exported to Europe, the United States and Asia.