In the wine-producing areas of northern Israel and Lebanon, the only people still on the battlefields are the vineyard workers, eagerly pushing to complete the 2006 harvest. Less than two months ago, having a vintage of any kind seemed impossible. But in a welcome relief to both regions, the ceasefire allowed wineries to begin picking in the second week of August, and some are still going.
"There is a real sense of optimism and determination," said Jane Sowter, the U.K. director of Lebanese wine producer Chateau Musar, in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, which began harvest a few days before the Aug. 14 ceasefire. She said company employees worked in the fields even while Israeli fighter jets swooped overhead and bombs dropped in the distance. "They took enormous risks being out there, so it was lucky the ceasefire came when it did."
The wine industries of northern Israel and southern Lebanon came to a sudden halt July 12, when Israel began an all-out assault on Hezbollah after it fired rockets into Israel from southern Lebanon and captured two Israeli soldiers in a raid. Israel has more than 100 wineries in five regions, the largest and most prominent being the Galilee, which covers northern Israel along the Lebanese border, extending down into the Golan Heights. Lebanon has seven wineries, all located in Bekaa, the 75-mile-long and 10-mile-wide valley running along the eastern side of the country.
If producers had been unable to harvest this year, it would not have been the first time, because war is not uncommon in the Middle East. During Lebanon's civil war, Sowter noted, Musar lost two vintages, the 1976 and 1984.
But Alex Haruni, owner of Daltôn winery in the Galilee, said his people planned to harvest no matter the danger. "We had stocked up on helmets and flak jackets," he said. But luckily, "the renewed quiet now allows us to conduct the harvest in peace." Daltôn began picking Sauvignon Blanc in mid-August, and once back in the field, Haruni found minimal crop damage, despite his vineyards being hit by Hezbollah rockets. Overall, he predicts 2006 will be an excellent vintage.
There are no reports of vineyard workers being killed during the fighting, but there were still casualties. "A tank rolled over my vines," said Lewis Pasco, winemaker for Recanati, referring to his vineyards at Kibbutz Manara, in Upper Galilee, where he sources his reserve Chardonnay. "The military simply closed the zone, so we couldn't even monitor the grapes, much less spray."
Pasco predicted that he may not be able to produce his reserve wine this year and that his overall yields will be less than half the normal output. However, the quality of his Barbera, Merlot and Zinfandel is high, he said. And Pasco shrugged off the conflict, saying it is just one of those dangers associated with being a wine producer in the Middle East. "Sometimes it's best to just roll with the punches," he said.