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Lebanon: The Greatest Food And Wine Country You’ve Never Visited (Part 1)

I’ve decided to reprint my most widely read articles on Forbes this year. This two-part story on Lebanese historyfood and wine captured the attention of thousands of readers.

As the plane lifted into the sky above Beirut, the last vestiges of the city’s inky hills, flickering with the headlights of crepuscular movement, disappeared. The Lufthansa Airbus banked west over the Mediterranean towards Frankfurt. For a few minutes, the pale pink of dawn veiled the landscape in the foamy beige of a vintage or romance filter popular with Instagrammers. I squinted through my portal at the rising sun. It glinted eerily with the silver of a newly minted nickel. Clouds unspooled around it in sharp, shiny threads. Below, the sea spread into the corners beyond my vision like a pool of glittering mercury. What a strange sunrise, I thought, as I finally shut the shade and started to type.

The last nine days in Lebanon had been strange, but in an unfamiliar and surprising way. Sure, it’s a messy place. The burden of a violent past has contributed to the current contentious, and by most accounts, gridlocked, religion-based political structure. Unchecked sprawl and unfinished development projects devour the coastline and blight swaths of the interior. Syrian refugee camps seep into cities and countryside, threatening local security while straining resources. Traffic congestion that makes New York look like the wilds of Idaho forces locals and visitors to rethink their day-to-day schedules – or abandon plans wholesale. Regularly scheduled power outages force businesses and the affluent to run generators, leaving those without resources literally in the dark.

These points alone may be enough to convince someone not to go. Indeed, trepidatious tourists should avoid reviewing the U.S. Department of State’s list of warnings. They’d never board the flight otherwise. But beneath all the chaos of a country trying to modernize with little planning or restriction, subject to what some call a thinly veiled multi-theocracy, lies the true heart of Lebanon: it’s generous people, their hospitable culture, their curiosity, openness, and enthusiasm for sharing their rich traditions of food and drink. And for this, I found nine days insufficient to know this tiny mountainous country on the fringes of the Middle East – but I tried.

Before delving into why Lebanon deserves recognition as one of the world’s greatest food and wine destinations , it’s critical to have historical perspective. Thus, this article is broken into two parts.

History

Lebanon’s food and wine history extends back thousands of years. The Levant, as it was known generally before a series of contemporary political borders shaped it, was where humans first learned to farm. Moving from a hunter-gatherer existence to a semi-sedentary agricultural society gave people the freedom from day-to-day survival to pursue advanced interests like weapons, tools, and wine. But the history most Lebanese refer to as having the greatest implications for modern life, is that of the 20th century.

Before war erupted in the 1970s, Beirut went by the moniker Paris of the Middle East. “With its French Mandate architecture, its world-class cuisine, its fashionable and liberated women, its multitude of churches on the Christian side of town, and its thousand-year-old ties to France, it fit the part” wrote Michael J. Totten for City-Journal Magazine in his piece “Can Beirut Be Paris Again?” But in 1975, a nasty civil war broke out that shattered both city and country. As Totten reported, more than 100,000 people were killed – when the population numbered less than 4 million. And “civil” was a misnomer. “The war sucked in powers from the Middle East and beyond—the Palestine Liberation Organization, Israel, Iran, France, the Soviet Union, the United States—but no country inflicted more damage than Syria, ruled by the Assad family’s Arab Socialist Baath Party” Totten wrote.

When The War ended in 1990, as differentiated from a subsequent conflict between Israel and Shiite militant group Hezbollah in 2006, the country was in tatters. Bombs and bullets had decimated entire sections of Beirut as fighting split across the Green Line — the division between opposing religious groups. The Taif Agreement, negotiated in 1989, restructured the existing sectarian power-sharing scheme that favored Christians to divide governance equally between them and Shia and Sunni Muslims.

Knowing Lebanon’s history gives valuable context for new visitors. While Tuscany has a long, complex and even salacious past, the movie set magic of its landscape checks many of the sightseer’s boxes. They’d be forgiven for inquiring about the wine list rather than the power struggles between medieval era Guelphs and Ghibellines. But much of old Beirut and surrounding areas were destroyed, often rebuilt haphazardly or with an eye to luring monied Gulf Arabs with luxury consumerism. Heritage buildings continue to be demolished for high-rises; architectural footnotes erased. Thus, Lebanon requires a deeper look than surface level viewing.

Modern Life

Despite the pernicious tenacity of war, daily life in Beirut goes on, albeit on different planes. Consider the newly built Beirut Souks in downtown. The façade of this outdoor mall is meant to recall an old Middle Eastern market. But watching parents chase gleeful children next to women in platform stilettos walking tiny dogs in front of 5th Avenue shops, one can imagine being in any metropolis of the developed world. A few blocks away: Roman ruins abut the towering minarets and blue dome of Sunni Mosque Mohammad Al-Amin. Further afield, slums and refugee camps.

About a mile away, the Gemmayzeh zone attracts the young and outgoing, and is more down to earth than the sterility of wealthier, high-rise dotted districts. Rue Gouraud supplies vibrant street life rife with Parisian-style cafes, coffee bars, revisited Lebanese restaurants, and cocktail dens. Here, bits of former Ottoman and French-fashioned architecture remain, either reconstructed, reimagined, or in a state of florid Venetian-esque decay. Art galleries and book stores line unpaved streets with crumbling sidewalks, while electric cables strung like holiday lights, connect buildings.

It was deep on a Saturday night in Gemmayzeh that I understood Lebanese openness. A key metric of any city is the friendliness of strangers, and I met more on the streets of Beirut in a few hours than I have in New York City in a year. Walking along Gouraud revealed throngs of good-natured revelers spilled out into the night, the fragrance of apple-mint shisha clinging to the air. Striking up a conversation was easy. Most were curious about my presence in Beirut, pleased I knew of the city and wanted to visit. How other Americans perceived Lebanon was a question asked repeatedly in earnest. I replied truthfully: I was surprised by the torrent of positive interest in my trip; more than any destination I’d been to all year. And the most frequent comment was: “You’re going to love the food.”

Part 2: Contemporary Food and Wine Scene

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Five Tips on Finding Value Wines in Bordeaux

Château Beychevelle

Sun setting on Château Beychevelle in Saint-Julien.

New year, new you, right? How about new drinking goals instead, like finding ways to experience the fabled Bordeaux that sommeliers like to brag ignited their passion for wine — but without going broke. Left Bank or Right Bank, Pauillac or Pomerol, the finest bottles from the chateaux of these vaunted lands, at hundreds of dollars, occupy an aspirational category few can afford to indulge in regularly, if ever. Unfortunately, the cheaper wines miss more often than they hit since quality varies wildly by vintage and producer. Unlike the reliability of a $15 Chilean chardonnay, one needs guidance when shopping for Bordeaux.

Looking for tips on finding value (as defined by QPR, or quality-to-price ratio), I turned to Hortense Bernard. Bernard is the general manager of Millesima USA (1355 2nd Avenue; 212-639-9463), the American arm of France’s leading online wine retailer. Bernard knows a thing or two about wine, and not only because she grew up tasting it as a bébé. Representing the fourth generation of a venerable Bordeaux family, Bernard moved to NYC in 2011 to lead the company’s U.S. operations. Millesima USA offers an impressive selection of fine and rare wines from France, Italy, and the New World, both online and in the brick-and-mortar store on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

Bernard shared the following five tips, and does the homework for you by recommending wines she carries in each category. If you commit these to memory, however, you’ll be drinking better Bordeaux for a dime no matter where you are (well, more like a quarter).
(For an even deeper look at the region, check out the Bordeaux wine council’s website, which provides info on grapes, appellations, and deciphering a label).

Smaller Vintages: Smaller, according to Bernard, does not reference the actual size or quantity of production, but rather denotes a “classic” Bordeaux vintage that is perfect for drinking but did not make it to the investment market. These wines are ready to consume earlier, are less expensive, and easier to approach and understand by novices than the greatest vintages. Weather is a key factor in determining the characterization of the harvest, but winemakers also have a major impact. Bernard offers the 2002 vintage as an example: it did not get a lot of attention when it was released; the American market ignored it. However, she says 2002 is drinking “amazingly” right now. She adds that for some estates, the 2002 shows the typical aromas of mature Bordeaux without having to find (and pay for) a 20 to 30-year-old bottle. Bernard emphasizes that the wines won’t have the depth and complexity of long-lived vintages, but drinking them will help neophytes familiarize themselves with the pleasures of aged examples.

Chateau Haut-Batailley, Pauillac, Grand Cru Classé, 2006, $51.99
Château Grand Corbin-Despagne, Saint-Emilion, Grand Cru Classé, 2004, $37.99

Fifth Growth: The 1855 classification in Bordeaux is one of the most famous aspects of the region’s wine industry. All collectors want classified wines, and the top Grand Cru Classés like Château Margaux or Château Latour have prices commensurate with their prestige and demand. The historic ranking (commissioned by Napoleon III for a world’s fair of sorts) of Sauternes and top cabernet-dominant Left Bank estates into five classes, raises some contemporary issues like the exclusion of exemplary estates and appellations (for example, everything on the merlot-heavy Right Bank), and the fluctuation in quality by several ranked chateaux. Regardless, Bernard advises that it’s easier to learn about this very expensive category by starting with the fifth growths because “most of them are affordable and real treasures.” She offers Chateau Batailley in Pauillac as a fifth growth that consistently receives Parker scores ranging from 88 to 94.

Chateau Batailley, Pauillac, 2012, $43.

Cru Bourgeois: “They are the best-kept secret and most misunderstood of Bordeaux wines,” says Bernard, explaining “the Cru Bourgeois classification is a list of wines from the Médoc that were not included in the Classification of 1855, but are still of high quality and represent great and approachable wines that typically retail for under $40 per bottle.” The wines, she says, are all about fruit, perfect for everyday consumption. Cru Bourgeois gives drinkers the opportunity to experience a renowned vintage from a famous appellation and a famous proprietor, relatively (a key word) inexpensively. For example, one can try the highly-regarded 2009 vintage for $25 with Chateau Peyrabon, or a famed Bernard Magrez property (he is the sole owner of four Grand Cru Classé estates) with the 2010 Grand-Chênes for $35.

Chateau Peyrabon, Haut-Médoc, 2009, $25
Bernard Magrez Chateau Les Grand Chenes, Médoc, 2010, $35

MillesimaNYC

Inside Millesima’s NYC store.

Second Labels: Bernard says that one of the best ways to experience great Bordeaux without spending too much money (again, relative), are second labels. Drinkers can buy wines from top estates, top vintages, and top winemakers, at a fraction of the price. The concept of “second labels”’ came into being in the 18th century when winemakers were deciding what grapes to use for their first bottling. Instead of disposing of the leftover fruit or selling it in bulk, producers bottled a second wine, derived from the same terroir and winemaker. The grapes were not damaged; they simply did not make the flagship cut. Second labels used to be reserved for the family, but they are now a strong segment of the market. Croix de Beaucaillou is a good example of a second label. The first label, Ducru Beaucaillou, a Saint-Julien second growth, on average retails for over $200 per bottle and is consistently a top-selling and highly rated wine year after year.

Croix de Beaucaillou, Saint-Julien, 2008, $42. 
Lacoste Borie, (the second label of Château Grand-Puy-Lacoste, a fifth growth), Pauillac, 2004, $34.99.

Lesser-known Appellations: Bernard suggests looking for quality-minded estates in lesser-known appellations such as Moulis, or any satellite of Saint-Emilion, Barsac, Médoc, etc. Generally, those areas do not have the same reputation as the best-known appellations, since they lack classified estates, but they still have great terroir. Treasures can be found, but hunters should engage a Bordeaux connoisseur to help discover them as most estates will not have scores.

Chateau Beaulieu Comtes de Tastes, Bordeaux Superieur, $17

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Mindful Drinking Will Make Your Wine Taste Better

LittleFarmWines

Over the last few years, the term “mindfulness” has steadily crept into mainstream American lingo, becoming an accepted secular pursuit rather than a “New Age” hippie philosophy ripped from the pages of Eastern religions (i.e., Buddhism). Articles outlining the benefits of mindfulness and techniques for observing it in daily life are published across a spectrum of media outlets, from the Wall Street Journal to the estimable HuffPo, which felt compelled to declare 2014 the year of the timeless concept of “mindful living.”

Mindfulness, at its core, is a simple idea: It means to be present, in the moment, intentionally and non-judgmentally. Tasting wine can be an exercise in mindfulness.

Wine professionals are trained to engage their senses, noting the details of color, smell, texture, and taste, blocking out distractions to do so, while putting aside evaluation and conclusion for afterwards (even if it is a mere minute or two later).

How often do you actually taste what you are drinking?

Perhaps you recently gulped down a glass with a friend while rehashing last weekend’s drama or fretting about a looming work deadline, without knowing whether the red wine the waiter dropped in front of you was the Côtes du Rhône. Or did you ask for Rioja?

Our brain runs like an endless chyron, constantly distracting; our thoughts filled with agonies and regrets of the past or worries about the future. If last week no longer exists and next year is still fiction, why do we avoid the present so frequently?

The constant barrage of technology and social media doesn’t help us focus either, while supplying us with new ways to manifest guilt.

The growing number of wine apps encouraging users to photograph, record, grade, and transmit each tasting experience, while earning “likes” and “followers,” makes it difficult to just sit and be quiet with the wine. Can the bottle be as dazzling as we claim if we ignore it while submitting to the compulsion to tweet, Instagram, and Facebook the details of our good fortune? And if it was dazzling, and we — gasp — didn’t take a photo and mark our impressions, are we lazy failures doomed to repeat a cycle of self-reproach?

Moving on to tasting techniques: If you want to be a more mindful drinker, but don’t (yet) trust your ability to analyze wine, consider how you might engage with a pet.

When I need to disconnect from the overload of the world, I break to pet my red Dobie. She’s usually curled up (adorably) and dozing on her bed nearby. I sit down on the floor, observe the warm chocolate color of her fur, and run my hand down her soft head, feeling her warmth, her life, and perhaps catching the scent of her breath (which, admittedly, has its bad days, but I’m not judging, remember?). I pet my dog mindfully, and doing so delivers a few minutes of calm and awareness of the moment.

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Apply this same technique to wine tasting; “pet” your wine, if you will, noting its qualities without worrying about your lack of training or whether the wine fits some subjective notion of good or bad.

Consider the color: Maybe it sparkles in the glass, and mirrors the deep golden hue of straw bales or the Burmese ruby your grandmother wore on her finger.

How does it smell? Is it dull and lifeless? Perhaps a funky Roquefort cheese or barn odor floats from the glass, or a lively fragrance of flowers and citrus inhabits the wine.

Taste it. Do strawberries, stewed with rhubarb and baked in a pie, spring to mind? What about leather, or smoke from a campfire? Lemons and lime? (Highly unlikely you’d detect all of these flavors at once, unless someone mixed white and red in a glass and cruelly gave it to you blind.)

How is the texture? Are the tannins astringent, like oversteeped tea, or silky and smooth? Does the wine linger in the mouth a few minutes, or vanish like a phantom?

The truth of the wine lies in these details.

While you needn’t judge the wine while tasting — we are being mindful, not awarding scores — you should evaluate the experience afterwards. Did you like it? Why did you buy it: because of the price or brand or grape? If you discover you don’t like it (which you may, when drilling down into the details), then why not try something else next time?

Paying attention to your wine, consuming it consciously, will also reward you with another benefit: awareness of your level of intoxication. It’s easy to get carried away with a second or third round of drinks or crack that second bottle, so savoring each sip keeps you focused on your intake.

Along with the rest of your 2015 resolutions (how are those going, by the way?), consider adding mindfulness when drinking your next glass of wine. You may find you love — or loathe — that Chardonnay more than you’re now unsure if you remember.

(For more information on mindfulness, and meditations that help you achieve it, start by looking into the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn. He launched a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program back in 1979 at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He’s written lots of books on the topic that are easily downloadable onto Kindle for subway self-improvement sessions.)

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