Nothing was going to stand in the way of Sami Ghosn when he went to reclaim the lands owned by his family in the Bekaa Valley.
Fearing for their lives, the Ghosns fled their sunbathed holiday retreat when Lebanon’s bloody civil war broke out in 1975. It was heart-breaking to leave the idyllic Tanail property, where the family relaxed together and gathered grapes grown on the estate to produce arak, a potent aniseed flavoured spirit.
Sami says: “It was where we had our summer house. It is where we would go to play. We had wild orchid and vines. We would have lunches on Sundays after hunting. I had my childhood dreams there.”
Squatters took over the house and the family dog was killed. A bit of paradise had been lost, or so it seemed.
Seventeen years passed when Sami, by now a Los Angeles-based architect, vowed to win back the lands acquired by his father, Michel, in the early 1970s. Sami was prepared to risk everything when he returned to the Bekaa Valley, but he made sure he took along some personal protection.
“Honestly, I had a gun,” he says. He is being modesty – it was an assault rifle, owned by his driver.
“My father was very worried for me. But I just said to the squatters, ‘It is our land – you must go!’ I had an AK-47, and I still have it. They could see I was nuts.”
Sami is recounting the story of post-war derring-do in the bar of Birmingham’s Opus restaurant, last week named top restaurant in the Heart of England Excellence in Tourism Awards 2008. He must sense my deepening concern because it is at this point that a smile breaks out across his face: “I didn’t have to use the gun. I got rid of the squatters in a diplomatic way.”
Once arak production was up and running, Sami and his brother Ramzi dreamed of cultivating the land to produce wine. After all, the Bekaa Valley is reputedly the birthplace of wine, the ancient Phoenicians tending vineyards here some 5,000 years ago, well before the Greeks and the Romans got in on the act.
It was in Lebanon that Jesus turned water into wine, at a wedding in Canaan. As endorsements go, it’s difficult to top the son of God.
Although wine production may have started in the Levant, the French, relative latecomers, have been playing a decent game of catch-up. It is no coincidence, then, that the rather suave man sitting next to Sami is a Frenchman, Daniel Brunier.
Daniel has been instrumental in turning the Ghosns’ dream of making high quality Lebanese wine into a reality. It helps, of course, that M Brunier loves his wine and is hugely knowledgeable. It’s also a bonus that his family happen to be one of the top producers in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, having produced acclaimed wine on the Plateau de la Crau since 1898.
Today, Domain du Vieux Télégraphe represents 173 acres of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The Bruniers also own Domaine La Roquète, covering 79 acres, and Domain Les Pallières, a single 309-acre estate in Gigondas with 62 acres of wines.
The Bruniers decided to invest in the Ghosn brothers’ fledgling Massaya Wines in 1998, the French connection extending to a third investor, Dominique Hebrard, a winemaker in St Emilion.
Judging by the wines we tasted over a splendid dinner of monkfish and Balmoral venison at Opus, the three-way partnership has been an unqualified success.
Over the course of the evening, we try the exquisite Massaya Rose; the easy-drinking Classic White 2007 (a blend of local grape variety obeidi with sauvignon blanc and Clairette); the Gold Reserve 2004 red (50 per cent cabernet sauvignon, plus mourvedre and syrah); and, with cheese, the Silver Selection 2005 red (grenache noir, cinsault, cabernet sauvignon and mourvedre), which tastes of the freshness of snow-capped mountains. (The Massaya vineyards, set between the Mount Lebanon mountain range – protecting it from the Mediterranean’s heat – and the Anti-Lebanon range – buffering it from the Sahara – are at an altitude of 900m to 1,200m. The vines do not require irrigation, relying instead on the pure melting snow for liquid sustenance.)
Alongside the Massaya wines – Massaya being the Arabic description for the beauty of the Bekaa Valley at twilight – we are also treated to three Brunier family wines.
We taste the Vieux Télégraphe 2007 white; the sumptuous 2004 Vieux Télégraphe red; and 2005’s Telegramme. Distinctly old world, the wines are imbued with the heat and magical terroir of the southern Rhone.
Both chef David Colcombe’s food and the variety and quality of the wines is little short of a triumph, and the company of Sami, who is 42, and 47-year-old Daniel, is inspirational, underlining the extraordinary way that simple grapes can permeate lives.
Daniel explains that he and his brother Frédéric were partly motivated by curiosity, partly by a desire to do something different, when they agreed to back Sami and Ramzi a decade ago. “The biggest change during this past ten years is that we have become friends,” says Daniel.
“That was not in the marketing plan. But really we have become more than friends. We are like brothers now.”
Sami adds: “They have been through everything with us. They tried to get to us once and the airport was closed because of bombings. It’s part of life.”
Fortunately, Daniel is not unduly concerned by mortar attacks: “I am not an anxious person. I am cool – a bit too cool.”
He’s red hot on his wine, though, and one needs little encouragement to raise a glass to the day when Danny met Sami.
In the unique style of their Franco-Lebanese double act, they recall that fateful day. Sami, who says he knew nothing about Vieux Télégraphe’s “aura,” was put in touch with Daniel through a mutual contact, a design engineer.
“I went to France and one day I just knocked on Daniel’s door,” says Sami.
Daniel responds: “Unfortunately, I opened it.”