Business Food & Drinks

Making wine in a war zone

A journey around the world looking at what I takes to put a bottle of wine on the table.

Making wine in a war zone July 28, 2017Leave a comment


The Californian wine industry faced a desperate shortfall in labor for the harvest in 2017. Sales are up as is the harvest, but profits are coming under pressure from the twin menaces of immigration and marijuana cultivation. Things could be worse though, in Europe vineyards continue to bottle despite the odds, and often the gunfire.

California’s winemakers have two problems, “the wall” and marijuana. Widely reported in the press, the US administration is currently implementing a crack down on illegal immigrants. The vineyards of the Golden State have long relied on an easy supply of cheap labor from across the border to do the work it seems American’s don’t want to do. A great number of Mexican’s, skilled in farm and agricultural work, would travel to California for the harvest in spring and work for 6 months before returning home to Mexico over winter.

This once reliable pool of people is drying up and so wages are creeping upwards. As the vineyards try to fill vacancies, the price of labor which was once $11 or $12 an hour has soared to $20. Stricter border controls are no doubt keeping would be economic migrants out, but with the increase in rhetoric, the threat of deportation and promises to “build a wall” along the Mexican border, many migrant workers are staying away through choice. The shortfall in labor is causing problems for the Californian wine industry. In addition, the legalisation of marijuana for recreational use in some U.S. states has resulted in a rise in the demand for agricultural workers.

Explosive growth in the U.S. cannabis industry, and the farms of California and Colorado in particular, mean that there has been much more demand for a dwindling workforce than in previous years. And the cannabis growers pay more. Although serious enough for the profits of the vineyards affected, California’s wines are world renowned and the harvest is enjoying an excellent 2017 with the crop likely to rise by 6-7%, and sales forecast to grow accordingly.

California’s labor shortage issues look tame compared to some of the Vintner’s below who deal with bombs and violence daily.

Domaine de Bargylus – Syria

Sandro Saade is forced to sample the grapes of his vineyard from the safety of an office in downtown Beirut. His is a family run, boutique operation, managed from a distance necessitated by the civil war raging in Syria and all that goes with it.

The grapes are picked in the morning, packed in a small chiller and taken from the vineyard on a 200km journey from the vineyards in Latakia by taxi. The taxi will do this trip every 3 days during the run up to the critical harvest. This can delay the harvest by a day or so but for Saade it’s the only way to keep in touch with whats going on on the terraces of the vineyard.

Saade and his brother Karim took over running the vineyard from their father who built it from scratch after buying a plot of land in 2003 in an area known to have produced wine since Roman times 2000 years ago. The first bottle came in 2006 and then the war came in 2011. Bargylus has a low output in comparison to those in Lebanon but it remains a priority for Saade and his brother Karim who says, “”It’s an act of resistance, and at the same time it is a symbol of perseverance”.

It is difficult to cross the border, both he and his brother risk kidnap since their family is relatively wealthy, the result of extensive vineyards in Lebanon in addition to Domaine de Bargylus across the border in Syria. Then of course is the more practical threat from the bombs and bullets of a war zone.

Domaine de Bargylus has had its ‘Chardonnary field’ bombed, losing five vines in the process, though its not clear whether this was a target or a mistake. The brothers assume the latter though concede that, “the first thing that would be targeted is the vineyard because this is wine, and wine is prohibited by such people”. Its a problem the world famous houses in Europe’s quieter spots haven’t had since WWII. For now they manage from a distance, the threat of kidnap for a wealthy family and the risk of violence too great.

One day they vow to return in person and pick the grapes they sample direct from the vines.

Pelter Winery – Israel

The Golan Heights was seized from Syria by Israel in 1967 during the Yom Kippur war. Israel settled the area and, placing it under civil rule, turned it into a major wine producer. The combination of high altitude, sunshine and generally dry climate makes it ideal for growing grapes and the Pelter Winery is one of many in the region.

Tal Pelter, co-owner of the vineyard, recalls some of the difficulties. The winery was hit by an airstrike, the shrapnel ripping through the tanks holding wine and spilling tens of thousands of bottles. Fortunately only one person was injured and the equipment was patched up and production continued.

Fighting between Syrian government forces and opposition fighters has intensified in recent days in the region of Quneitra, a province of Syria making up the (roughly a third) of the Golan Heights still within its borders. Regular air raid sirens warn of impending danger and send workers searching for cover. Tourists used to visit the area though

The winery employs a mix of Israeli and Arab workers to harvest the grapes and although much of the process is automated, the operation and its neighbours are an important employer in the area. Pelter has even diversified into Whisky. A few years ago a still was bought from Remo Martin and shipped from Cognac in France and is enjoying a second life here within earshot of the fighting.

Artwinery – Ukraine

The conflict in eastern Ukraine shows little sign of resolution and is far from ‘frozen’ in the manner the media have become used to using. This week Kurt Volker, the U.S. special envoy for peace negotiations in the region, said, “The level of cease-fire violations on daily basis is astonishing..” before adding, “This is not a frozen conflict, this is a hot war..”

Volker was speaking in Kramatorsk in the industrialised east of Ukraine, just 50km from Yuri, a winemaker at Artwinery. The caves he works in are relatively safe, despite being just 15km from the frontline. Artwinery was opened in honour of Stalin’s birthday in 1950 and the 1/4 million sqm caves lie 80metres below the city of Bakhmut, deep enough to be safe but unnervingly the sound and vibrations of vehicles and artillery are still audible.

More than two hundred workers beaver away down here, bottling wine produced from grapes from the Ukrainian Steppe. They used to use grapes from the Crimean peninsula which enjoyed warm sun and cool sea breezes. That, as with so much in the region, has had to change. Many workers either fled or joined the fighting and of course there are the supply chain problems you might expect in a war zone.

Artwinery still manages to produce around 10 million bottles a year, however this is little more than half 2013 output of 19 million. The outlook is bleak, coupled with the strains of changing the grape harvest and the practicalities of war, the Ukrainian government pushes ahead with a ‘decommunisation’ program which forces the cave to change its name. The city of Bakhumt used to be called Artemivsk after a famous Russian revolutionary. Legislation forced the former Artemivsk Winery to adopt the Artwinery name. The change, coming on top of everything is unwelcome and claims Yuri, difficult for their European market to understand.

The bottling continues despite the problems. The rare Krimart brut red sparkling wine has been produced here for four decades and if Yuri has his way, for the next four.

Judeka – Sicily

The level of security at Cesare Nicodemo’s vineyards in Caltagirone, Sicily provides a stark contrast to the vines nestling in the pleasant rolling hills of South Eastern Sicily. Closed Circuit TV cameras and high fencing around the buildings sit a little uncomfortably in idyllic surroundings.

The security is essential for Nicodemo who is conducting his own very own battle with the Mafia. The Sicilian Mafia are an organised crime syndicate so successful they have exported their model around the world, with America a large recipient of their nefarious skills. As the name suggests, Sicily is infamous as the Sicilian Mafia’s stronghold in Italy, and the island has long struggled and largely learnt to live with this organised crime syndicate.

Cesare Nicodemo says that he is simply trying to run a modern business in an archaic feudal system. The problem hinges around the land. Nicodemo legally acquired the vineyard and the land but despite the letter of the law the Mafia lay claim to the area as their own.

The stakes are high, it’s not the land itself that has the value but the money to be made from cultivating it. Giuseppe Antoci, co-ordinator of Federparchi Sicilia, the Federation of Sicilian National Parks, claims to have uncovered serious fraud. In a complicated process involving illegal claims and documentation he says the Mafia use a web of contacts through which claims are made for EU agricultural grants and rural development funds.

Mr Antoci’s car was once shot at by a volley of gunfire on this way home. A further 2.2bn Euro’s are allocated from both European Union (EU) and Italian government funds for agricultural development for the period 2014-2020. Meanwhile the EU’s anti-fraud office has started 9 criminal proceedings against organised crime. The stakes are high.

Cesare Nicodemo just wants to make wine, he continues amidst personal threats, damage to property, the vineyards and the trees surrounding them.

In all of these tales of making wine under adverse conditions, whether economic problems, corruption or in the midst of bombs and bullets, there is a humanity. Wine has the power to cross borders and exert a common hold on the people who produce or consume it. To maintain production and put bottles on to tables is to defy those who seek to destroy, its a unifying process.

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