Wine and war have never been far apart, from the beverage’s emergence in the ever-fractious Caucasus Mountains and Middle East to the Greek and Roman eras of conquest to the 20th century, when iconic European appellations were nearly bombed to smithereens during the World Wars. I reported on the link firsthand in 2004 when covering the postwar limbo of Nagorno-Karabakh, where vintners in one of the world’s oldest wine-growing regions were still clearing landmines from vineyards, making wine in bullet-hole-ridden barns, and coopering barrels in repurposed tank factories, a full decade after major fighting had ceased.
But not until the recently released documentary Wine & War have filmmakers aimed such a focused lens on this connection. Co-created by Santa Barbara resident Mark Ryan, the 95-minute film covers the history of winemaking in Lebanon, where determined vintners continued to ferment their juice over the centuries as wars raged.
The well-paced, engagingly educational, and often inspirational film showcases the handful of producers who persevered during the country’s brutal civil war of the 1980s, explores the turmoil of the 34-day battle with Israel in 2006, and briefly covers the winemakers who are plodding ahead with grape-growing in Syria amid that country’s ongoing civil war. But the broader tale is about the modern renaissance of Lebanese viticulture, in which more than 50 producers now exist in both the traditional Bekaa Valley and a newer coastal region in the Batroun Mountains.
“There are producers who don’t want to talk about the civil war, and there are the ones who do — that was perhaps the biggest challenge,” said Ryan, who worked on the film with co-creator Mark Johnston for 12 years, basing much of it on the book Wines of Lebanon by Michael Karam. For those that do reminisce, like the late Serge Hochar of the legendary Chateau Musar, their eloquent messages of perseverance resonate loudly.
“That’s the core of the film: resilience under fire,” said Ryan. “But other producers would just prefer to let things go and get on with it. And that’s true across most of Lebanon. It’s a wound that hasn’t really been reckoned with.”
Born and raised in Los Angeles, where he graduated with a cinema and television production degree from USC, Ryan started his career in reality TV, producing MTV’s Pimp My Ride. “That became an expected hit,” said Ryan. He went freelance more than a dozen years ago and now does a bit of everything.
“I film, I direct, I produce, I edit,” he explained. “Just like most people in my generation, I’m either like a one-man band or part of an entire crew, depending on the client and the scope of the project.”
His mom has lived in Montecito for almost 25 years. “I’ve been coming here since before the Funk Zone was a figment of people’s imaginations,” said Ryan. “Hiking was always my escape.” As he found more work covering the wine industry — producing all of the video content for Grape Radio for more than six years, among other gigs — the Santa Barbara pull kept growing stronger, and he moved here about two years ago.
His first trip to Lebanon was for a friend’s wedding, and he was immediately struck. “The hospitality, from the minute you get off the plane, is just A-plus,” said Ryan, who visited multiple times while making Wine & War, including nine months straight in 2017. “They’re the most lovely people.”
That goes for the wines as well. “I’ve never had a bad Lebanese wine,” said Ryan. “They all seem to be very high quality across the board.”
Part of that is due to a familiar geography. “Lebanon is like California in miniature, where you have a Mediterranean climate, a coast with mountains rising up quite quickly, and a Central Valley that’s hotter inland,” said Ryan.
Like California and much of the winemaking world, Lebanese producers are returning to their roots by reviving old-vine plantings of varieties well-suited for the climate, rather than just trying to make a big red wine. “Everybody seems like they went through the big, oaky cab phase, which thankfully is long gone,” said Ryan. “More and more producers are starting to embrace carignane and cinsault. Many are 80- to 100-year-old vines, and they’re all dry-farmed.”
What carries the film are characters such as Chateau Musar’s Hochar, who they filmed before his 2014 death. “He exceeded all expectations,” said Ryan. “He’s the most charismatic, soulful winemaker I’ve ever met.”
Then there are folks such as Naji and Jill Boutrous of Chateau Belle-Vue. “That’s a very typical story of coming back and rebuilding,” said Ryan. “A lot of [the new producers] are from the diaspora that have come back to heal their own wounds.”
Filming in Lebanon was a “relatively safe” affair, though there were parts of the northern Bekaa Valley that were “pseudo dangerous” due to the hashish trade; one winemaker they feature is also growing cannabis. “It’s like Los Angeles,” said Ryan. “You don’t want to be in certain places, especially at night.”
The country’s political situation remains tumultuous. “Long story short: Every five minutes in Lebanon, it’s a new thing,” said Ryan, noting high inflation, a trash crisis, Hezbollah saber-rattling, and politicians being charged with crimes. “COVID is the last of their concerns, oddly enough.”
They rushed Wine & War to release after the massive chemical explosion that rocked Beirut on August 4, releasing the film via Altavod.com on October 9. They’re donating every $12 screening fee to the rebuilding of the children’s wing of Beirut’s Saint George Hospital, which was badly damaged during the explosion. Wine & War will also be hitting the film festival circuit this spring.
“We’re trying to spread the word about Lebanese wine,” said Ryan. “We’re not on the payroll, but we love Lebanon, and we love the people.”
Every day, the staff of the Santa Barbara Independent works hard to sort out truth from rumor and keep you informed of what’s happening across the entire Santa Barbara community. Now there’s a way to directly enable these efforts. Support the Independent by making a direct contribution or with a subscription to Indy+.