“Grapes will not replace cannabis in Lebanon anytime soon, if ever,” says Anthony Elghossain. But that doesn’t mean Lebanese farmers aren’t giving it a try, turning fields that were once illicit cannabis plantations into fields growing grapes for red wine.
Elghossain went to Lebanon in 2017 to write From Cannabis to Cabernet for Roads & Kingdoms.
It’s a great piece about what happens to a country that is trying to go the straight and narrow and replace an illegal cash crop with something that is a risky but worthy effort. It’s a story of survival.
As Elghossain notes, “By 1990, Lebanese farmers were producing 80% of the world’s cannabis and a significant share of its opium poppies—leading the U.S. Congress to hold hearings on “the world’s largest drug farm.”
An eradication campaign razed fields, burned crops and shut down processing facilities. Seven years later, the United States removed Lebanon from its list of narcotics-trafficking states.
Lebanon’s New Wineries
Elghossain introduces us to one of Lebanon’s newest wineries, Couvent Rouge, established in 2010, and backed by the Coteaux d’Heliopolis, a cooperative to help the region’s famers make the transition from cannabis to noble vine grapes.
In 2017, the Fairtrade certified co-op had more than 200 farmers, and created its own labels: Coteaux Les Cedres and Day‘aa, an Arabic-labeled wine that derives its name, and incorporates the imagery of, a Lebanese village.
The owners of Couvent Rouge decided to turn their own grapes into wine and now produces over three different wines: Al Dayaa, the first Lebanese wine to address the consumer in Arabic. Coteaux Les Cedres, the first Fairtrade certified Lebanese wine.
It’s one of 50 wineries that now operate in Lebanon, which is smaller than Connecticut, Elghossain says.
They’re like any winery in Napa or Mexico’s own growing wine region, offering visitors tours and tastings and selling to restaurants.
As the story notes, there’s Chateau Ksara, started by Jesuit monks in 1857 and now Lebanon’s largest winery, churns out 3 million bottles a year near Zahle—a town, in the foothills of Mount Sannine, which is home to a third of Lebanon’s wineries.
Other large wineries—Chateau Kefraya, which produces around 2 million bottles a year, or Chateau Musar, a family winery which churns out at least 600,000—produce wine at an impressive, though not yet global, scale.
It’s All About Marketing
People have been growing grapes and making wine in the Bekaa Valley for millennia.
But in order to grow Lebanon’s profile as a wine producer, the country needs to promote itself as a successful winemaker the same way nations like Argentina and Chile have raised their status in the field.
The thinking goes, those countries are known as great winemakers but few people can actually name a local winery they way they can cite a Robert Mondavi, from California, for example.
Weed is Still a Cash Crop
That’s not to say farmers have ditched weed.
Lebanon is still one of the world’s top five cannabis or cannabis resin producers. The industry generates around $6 billion from hash, heroin and synthetic drugs, versus the $100 million the country’s winemakers generated back in 2017.
Still cheers to wineries like Couvent Rouge for even trying to make a difference and try something new–something more legal.
We’ll always raise a glass to that.