January 3rd, 2017
Snow in the Desert
In this season of unexpected obituaries, let me add one more name: Serge Hochar. He’s been gone two years now, but his story, his life’s work, is so deeply enmeshed with time and history that it seems somehow right to let him settle into history before turning to reflect upon what he accomplished.
Hochar was a winemaker of French ancestry who worked in Lebanon. I was surprised when I heard of his terroir but that was only demonstrating the depth of my ignorance, because Lebanon is as deep as you’d like to go in winemaking history. Viticulture has been part of the landscape there as far back as 3000 BCE, at least, and the wine of Lebanon’s soil makes multiple appearances in the Bible.
Hochar’s family roots are ancient as well; they were a French family who came with the Crusades, no less, in the 13th Century. The Crusader states fell in the centuries that passed, but Lebanon was different. The ties between this crossroads of the Levant and France were never broken and when the gears of history returned French soldiers to Lebanon during the First World War, the foundations of what would become Chateau Musar were laid.
In 1930, Serge’s father, Gaston, decided to plant a vineyard in the Bekaa Valley. Wine had never left Lebanon; every village had a few rows of grapes to provide for itself. But Gaston, inspired by a recent visit to France, wanted to do something a bit bigger. He called it Chateau Musar.
Serge was born just as the world plunged into another war, but Lebanon was fortunate in that they were a sideshow to the bloodbath that reigned elsewhere. After the war, young Serge returned to France to study engineering in college, a fitting profession for a world in ruins. But the speed with which Serge abandoned his slide-rule education and took charge of the vineyard makes me wonder if his heart was ever in anything else.
Beginning in the late 1950s, Serge began making wines very unlike what he would have found in France. He discarded the tools that might have softened the distinctiveness — some say funkiness — that emerges from the terroir of the Bekaa Valley. Instead, he embraced everything he could to capture the sense of place, using wild yeasts, barely applying sulphur, letting volatile acidity rise alarmingly high at times. He delayed bottling his wines, rendering them pallid by modern standards and he thought a lot about time, making wines that were designed to age, to become part of the history they had emerged out of.
At tastings, he liked to serve his whites after his reds, because they were simply bigger wines. Pressed from the Lebanese heirloom varieties obaideh and merwah, his whites only fulfilled their potential after 20 years of aging, achieving a complexity that makes them simultaneously dry and sweet.
He claimed to know less about making wine with each passing year, but it wasn’t, I think, a false modesty. Rather, it seems he was a man who became more and more attuned to the subtleties of the wine he shepherded into existence, his mastery growing in proportion to his knowledge of what remained unknown.
It’s likely that Chateau Musar wines would have remained a regional specialty except for the Lebanese Civil War, which destroyed 90% of Serge’s market and presented him with a choice of packing it in, or packing it up and sending his wines beyond the border. The next 15 years became a balancing act of trying to keep the winery intact — using the cellars as bomb shelters, harvesting by night, repairing the damage caused by the warring sides because tanks have a particular affinity for the wide roadways and camouflage afforded by vineyards — all while running a business that plays out over decades.
These were hardly auspicious ways to create wine, but many of the vintages created during the war were particularly powerful and from this, Serge drew a lesson, that wine has a life of its own, a will to life, quite separate from the winemaker. “I have seen wines die, and then come back to life later on,” he said. “This wine is dead, throw it away. Yet I was wrong.”
It was a telling revelation, and perhaps what lay behind an anecdote almost too cinematic to believe. In 1972 Beirut, Serge was in his apartment when an intense artillery barrage broke loose. His downstairs neighbor was killed and as the shells kept falling, Serge doubted he would survive. So what did he do? He poured a full bottle of his wine into Baccarat and spent the next 12 hours alternating between sipping the wine and wondering if it’s true that you don’t hear the one that gets you.
But it wasn’t a devil-may-care gesture on his part, it was a way of reaching out for what he’d captured in that bottle, a sense of his roots, of the taste of his country, an echo of his history. In the moment that the social and physical DNA of Lebanon was doing its best to destroy itself, Serge faced the prospect of his own doom by exploring those same elements distilled into life.
That, it seems to me, is what Serge’s challenging wines are about. They cannot be ignored, and they cannot be mistaken for what they are not. Their taste is, inescapably, the taste of an Other. Some find it beguiling, or challenging, or affronting or seducing, or maybe all at once, and that, I think, it what Serge wanted to bottle more than anything else. To drink the wines of Chateau Musar is to understand, sometimes embrace, and, hopefully, find a love — of tolerance.