November 2014 I was completely lost. The company was about to be restructured. I had been working long days in the office and long nights at events. My nights often involved too much leftover wine. I would drag myself out of bed every morning and did not recognize myself with a puffy face and bags under my eyes.
I had been in the wine industry my whole working life; and I felt I did not belong at all.
My job was about making wealthy men drink more wine. The type of men who treat you like a waitress no matter how much responsibility you had. Living in London by myself never left me with any money. I felt like I was simply living on scraps from their tables.
At one of these events, I had invited a friend. He bought fine wine for a wealthy press baron. He could find the wine he needed for his customer’s cellar at our Bordeaux tasting. It is always good to see a familiar face in the crowd.
“Do you want to go to Lebanon?”
He asked, unsure; he had his phone in his hand ready to make it happen.
The war in Syria had kindled into a wildfire by 2014. Refugees were escaping across every border. I only saw Beirut on the news; reporters at a safe distance from the Syrian war to file a report.
On the Road to Damascus
Three weeks later, I am on a plane for Beirut. I did not know what to expect. I could read parts of a book from through the seats in front of me. It was called, “Pity the Nation”.
We arrived after sunset. Beirut disappeared behind us as we drove to the Bekaa Valley. A highway sign pointed to the turn off for Damascus.
That’s what I wanted to know.
What would be my road to Damascus?
The lights disappeared outside of the city. I laughed to myself, how many times had I said, it was a “Damascene moment”? And about ridiculous things. Now here I was. On the actual ROAD to Damascus.
The truth is I wanted a conversion. A great change of ideas. What was going to be changed?
“This is us, here,” the Arabic driver said and we tumbled out into the dark streets into a power outage. The Christmas tree that could have been a bonsai Lebanese cedar was twinkling with lights.
The first thing we do after dropping our bags is have some wine.
The next day, my phone died.
That was my internet and my camera for the trip. Gone.
I had plugged the phone into the charger overnight. The next morning, I found the electricity shortages had short-circuited my phone.
Outside for the first time, I could see the Valley mountains in the light. We drove to Chateau Ksara. Founded in 1857 by Jesuit monks. They inherited a 25-hectare plot of land between Tanail and Zahle in the Bekaa Valley.
The monks planted Cinsault, Carignan and Grenache grape varieties brought from Algeria. We learned on the tour at Chateau Ksara, their planting had laid the foundations for the modern Lebanese wine industry.
I took notes; one eye looking for an electrical socket for a charger. The blank face of the phone stared back at me.
At lunch, we had skewers of chicken and roast potatoes. I happened to sit down next to the owner. He pointed out I had not touched the food. Was everything okay?
The owner called one of the waiters over and whispered in his ear.
I was not making a good first impression for anyone.
“Stupid phone”, I cursed, under my breath, “There’s more important things than you”.
Turning it on and off. Taking it apart. Putting it back together. I was running out of time. After lunch, we would be at the next winery.
How was I going to buy a phone in the middle of the wineries of Lebanon?
The waiter came back from the market. He handed me a second-hand Nokia.
“No, I can’t possibly take this!”
“No, it is too much!”
I wanted to throw all the money at him with happiness. He refused to take any money. It got to the point where my insistence felt insulting.
I humbly accepted the gift.
We finished the visit meeting the Syrian women picking the grapes. They had just arrived in Lebanon. We smiled and waved. They covered their faces with their scarves as they sat in the shade for lunch.
“I know you will have some great wines in Lebanon,” he said as he waved us all goodbye.
And he was right.
Note about the photo: I turned on my new phone, and this is the first photo I took.
How to help Beirut.
Buy Lebanese Wine and #BidforBeirut Auction
Last week’s blast in Beirut decimated the city with glass shattering across the size of Greater London.
There are 46 wineries in Lebanon with 24 are members of the “Union Vinicole du Liban” (UVL) – the country’s official association of wine producers for exposure to international markets. 50% of the production of wine is exported. 85% of Lebanon’s food is imported.
The Lebanese people are without a government. They need help from trusted organisations on the ground.
What you can do:
- #BidforBeirut” Online Auction Organised by Madeleine Waters on the Bank Holiday August weekend 2020. The auction of wine and experiences will go towards two charities: the rebuilding of Kamal Mouzawak’s Souk el Tayeb & Tawlet and Impact Lebanon who distribute funds to vetted NGOs. Buy Lebanese Wine and #BidforBeirut! To join the event:
2. Buy More Lebanese Wine.
Wild & Lees
Talking wines (Cirencester)
D. Byrne Fine Wines
Great Grog – Edinburgh
Wine Line Scotland
Cork of the north
Le Vignoble (Plymouth, Bath, Bristol)
The Wine Society
Majestic (Chateau Musar, Cuvee Pierrre Brun from Domaine des Tourelles)
Buy Lebanese Wine and #BidforBeirut