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MK: We're not yet there. Importers of foreign wines currently pay around 70 percent duties, raising prices. Many importers reduce their fees somewhat by fiddling with the invoice value.
reason: In a few years Lebanese wines will have to compete with outside brands because of lower customs duties thanks to Lebanon's Association Agreement with the European Union. How will the local market fare?
MK: Prices will come down and hopefully make the invoice values on imported wines more realistic. Lebanese wine makers will have to be more aggressive in their marketing. So far the penny has not dropped. We should see more economies of scale throughout the whole sector if and when it does. This will mean cheaper wine locally and make producers more competitive abroad.
reason: What are the major problems facing the wine sector?
MK: The honeymoon period, during which many people were predicting substantial growth, has been replaced by domestic sniping among producers. The Union Vinicole du Liban (UVL), Lebanon's loose association of wine producers, has taken some body blows in the last year. Massaya walked out on UVL in mid-January after its initiative to establish a national wine marketing board and launch a nationwide advertising campaign was rejected by the other members. Massaya may be a young vineyard, but it represents the future of Lebanese wine: it is boutique, charismatic, aggressive and is backed by highly regarded French partners. It will thrive with or without UVL; its departure on the other hand has devalued the credibility of the association.
Making matters worse, in May UVL announced that a much anticipated congress organized by the Office International de la Vigne et du Vin, the wine world's governing body, scheduled for June 2005 in Beirut, was cancelled. No official reason was given. That was a pity. The event should have had a profound impact on the reputation, export potential and overall brand equity of Lebanon and its wine. I think it showed that some of the bigger members in UVL did not want to work for the national good if the extra effort only really benefited smaller producers. It's a very short-term approach.
reason: The local wine producing market is small enough that it still has some weird characters. Briefly describe a couple.
MK: Well apart from Hochar, a darling of the wine world for his wartime exploits, two people spring to mind: Yves Morard, the 50-something hippy wine maker, late of Kefraya, now at Cave Kouroum. Yves' looks got him arrested by the Israeli Army during the 1982 invasion and taken to Tel Aviv, where he was forced to sit through a wine exam to prove he was who he said he was. Then there is Dargham Touma, owner of Heritage, a new micro-winery. Dargham, or "Dr. D" as he styles himself, is a one-man show. He is wine maker, production manager, quality controller, marketing manager and sales manager.
reason: What is the best held secret in the wine sector?
MK: There are a few great reds that stand out. Chateau Clos St. Thomas (2000), Chateau Kefraya Comte de M (1996), Chateau Musar (1988, 1991 and 1993), Chateau Ksara Troisième Millenaire (2002), Massaya Reserve (2001), and Wardy Private Selection (2003). The Chateau Kefraya Lacrima d'Oro is a sumptuous pudding wine.
reason: In Middle Eastern terms, where does the Lebanese wine sector stand?
MK: No one else comes close. There are quality wines throughout the region especially in Israel and Morocco. However, the Israelis still have to shake off the stigma of kosher wines, while the North African wines have struggled, even though Algeria was once the world's fourth largest producer.
reason: What's your strangest wine encounter?
MK: Lunch with the Druze leader and onetime Lebanese warlord Walid Jumblatt. He is the majority shareholder in Chateau Kefraya, but admitted, like the good socialist he claims to be, that vodka was his preferred poison. At lunch he had a bottle of Egyptian beer instead of the very good wine he served to his guests. I suspect he had a hangover. I can spot the signs.
reason: Any final advice to the sector?
MK: Let's not kid ourselves. Despite a good product, Lebanon is still not a genuine wine-drinking nation and, given its religious makeup, may never become one. Hence the need to find new and sustainable export markets.