Serge Gaston Hochar, the legendary co-owner of Chateau Musar, president of the Lebanese Institut de la Vigne et du Vin, and passionate ambassador for Lebanese wines, died Dec. 31, 2014. Hochar was on a trip to Acapulco, Mexico, with his family to celebrate his recent 75th birthday when he died in a swimming accident.
His absence will be felt by many. He was a popular winemaker, respected internationally for his excellent wines, and a tireless pioneer in winemaking in Lebanon. Even in times of war in his region, he was optimistic, finding humor in daily life.
"Lebanon--since its inception 10,000 years ago--has always had war. It will never be at peace. You have to accept it. I never worry. For the last five years, I've told myself, be happy, be positive, be funny,” he told Wine Spectator in early December, responding to recent incursions by Islamist militants from Syria into the Bekaa Valley, where Musar is located. "Lebanon is more than beautiful. When you are in Lebanon, you feel you are a different person."
Born Nov. 20, 1939, Hochar began working in 1958 at Musar, the Lebanese winery founded by his father, Gaston Hochar, in 1930. Serge worked alongside his father and brother, Ronald. While Ronald focused on marketing and finance, Serge was gradually drawn to winemaking, making his first vintage in 1959.
He studied engineering, then law, at St.-Joseph University in Lebanon, before his desire to produce the best wine possible took him to Bordeaux. There he studied under two of the greatest enologists of the 20th century, Emile Peynaud and Pascale Ribéreau-Gayon. After completing his studies in 1964, Hochar returned to Lebanon and Musar, eventually taking control of the winery in 1974.
Hochar was an early convert to organic grapegrowing, convinced that Musar could produce fruit of exceptional quality without using synthetic chemicals. Musar grows its grapes on 371 acres of mainly gravel and limestone soil in the Bekaa Valley, 25 miles east of Beirut and 3,000 feet above sea level, and in Mount Barouk, around Kefraya and Aana.
“I’ve always felt like I was a philosopher. I did not initially want to make wine, but then I felt I could bring something new to the table and produce completely natural wines. I wanted to make wines that respect nature,” Hochar once told a Lebanese magazine.
While primarily focused on red wine, Chateau Musar also produces white wine from vines that are 100 to 150 years old. In all, the winery produces 58,000 cases a year. It was challenge enough for any winemaker.
Then a year after Hochar took over, the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) broke out, and the young winemaker showed his tenacity, refusing to abandon the family operation. "When the war started, I didn't stop making wine. War does not kill yeasts,” he told Wine Spectator. He only lost two vintages, the 1976 and 1984, to the conflict.
At the same time, Hochar knew he had to look for new consumers. Chateau Musar was selling 75 percent of its production to a country now engulfed in war. He shifted toward exports, and within two decades, Chateau Musar was exporting 75 percent of its production.
“Serge Hochar undeniably put Lebanese wines on the international map, being one of the first, if not the only one to tackle exports when other wineries were focused on the local market. His charismatic approach definitely gave our country international exposure,” wrote Karim and Sandro Saadé, owners of Chateaus Marsyas and Bargylus, in an e-mail to Wine Spectator. Hochar was both a friend and mentor. “Sandro actually learned how to decant and serve wine from Serge for the first time when he was 10 or 11 years old.”
American wine consumers also had many opportunities to meet Hochar during visits to the United States, including when he poured at Wine Spectator's Wine Experience on more than one occasion. He was appreciated not only for excellent wine but his insight. “He taught us all to slow down a bit and pay attention to life,” said Catherine Miles, vice president at Musar's U.S. importer, Broadbent Selections.
The success of Chateau Musar acted like a beacon for other wineries in Lebanon which, due to its small size, Hochar believed, needed to focus on low-volume, high-quality wines. After the civil war ended, there were only five wineries left in Lebanon. Hochar was the first representative at the International Alliance of Wine and the Vine (OIV), after Lebanon joined in 1996. A year later, with the support of the OIV, he was the impetus behind the formation of the Union Viticole du Liban (UVL), of which he was a long-serving president. Today, there are 40 wineries in Lebanon. In 2013, the UVL created the Institut de la Vigne et du Vin (National Wine Institute), and Hochar was president.
In addition to his career in wine, Hochar was founder and CEO of a real-estate development company in Lebanon. He is survived by his wife, Tania, two sons, a daughter and seven grandchildren. He worked with his sons Gaston and Marc at Musar, as well as his brother Ronald and nephew Ralph.