On Aug. 4, just after 6 p.m., Johnny Saadé and his sons Sandro and Karim were meeting in his office on the eighth floor of a building on Pasteur Street in the Gemmayzeh neighborhood of Beirut. The family of vintners owns two wine estates—the 148-acre Chateau Marsyas in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley and the 30-acre Bargylus in Syria—but their business and management offices sit less than a half-mile from the port of Beirut. From their windows, they had noticed a fire start in the port.
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“We could obviously see it from where we were standing but could never have imagined that an explosion of such magnitude could take place a bit later,” recounted Karim Saadé to Wine Spectator.
The explosion was triggered when the fire reached 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate. The resulting blast flattened sections of the city. Beirut shook like it had been hit by a 3.3 magnitude earthquake.
“When the blast hit, my father and my brother were thrown several meters from where they were seated,” said Karim. “My brother thought my father was catapulted through the window.”
In shock, they took stock. Karim had been standing behind a structural wall and escaped with minor bruises. But many members of their team were badly hurt. Sandro’s right foot was seriously injured. It was their father who had suffered the worst. Though the blast had not thrown Johnny from the building, it had left him with a double fracture to his jaw, blood in his lungs and several broken ribs.
“It took us 45 minutes to carry him out of the building, clearing debris as we went and finding our way despite the falling walls around us,” recounted Karim. “It truly is a miracle that we all survived this explosion.” On the street, chaos reigned. They eventually flagged down a car that carried them to the hospital.
Officials have been aware of the danger for years. The ammonium nitrate was the abandoned cargo of a Russian-owned freighter that had taken an unscheduled detour to Beirut in 2013 when the owner ran out of money and the crew mutinied over lack of pay. Authorities knew of the danger but failed to dispose of the chemicals. The blast killed 204 people, injured 6,500 and left 300,000 homeless. Damages have been estimated at $15 billion.
“The Beirut blast has left the city in such a state of destruction that we are still not fully conscious of what happened,” said Karim.
Johnny spent 11 days in intensive care, and another two weeks in the hospital. During that time, harvest began. Showing the same stubbornness that has steadied the family through wars and political and economic turmoil, Sandro and Karim transformed their father’s hospital room into an unofficial winery command center to manage the picking.
“In a ‘normal’ year, we would go to Chateau Marsyas, our vineyard in the Beqaa valley, at 5 a.m. to proceed with the harvesting,” said Karim. “This year we had to supervise the whole process over the phone!”
Then there was the already complicated logistical situation of harvesting vines in northwestern Syria, in a nation still caught in a civil war. When conditions made it impossible to travel to the vineyard, Sandro and Karim began managing the estate remotely.
“Bargylus is fully operational and the production has not been interrupted even during the toughest days of the Syrian war—the vineyard has been shelled many times,” said Karim.
Despite the danger, they refuse to relinquish their plots of an ancient terroir of limestone, flint and clay where they grow Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. Their workaround has included transporting small batches of freshly picked grapes by taxi to their offices in Beirut in order to taste the samples and determine the harvest date for each plot.
“This year, due to the destruction of our offices, we had to taste the Bargylus grape samples in our father’s hospital room in Beirut,” said Karim.
“As a family, we are used to such very complicated situations. We have been remotely managing Bargylus from Beirut since the beginning of the war there; we have been dealing with the banking capital control in Lebanon,” said Karim. Current banking laws in the country prevent money transfers outside the country, making it hard to pay Europe-based suppliers of bottles, labels and oak barrels. “We also have been dealing with the insecurity in Lebanon, which culminated with the port explosion, and finally we have been dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Due to the pandemic, employees at both wineries have been working on a shift basis, keeping the number of employees on hand small. “Between the war in Syria and the various instabilities in Lebanon, we feel that we have ‘unfortunately’ acquired skills and a sort of ‘war wine expertise’ in managing vineyards in very unstable environments, an experience we have already started sharing with some of our fellow winemakers abroad,” said Karim.
Under these extraordinary conditions, the Saadés make 4,000 cases at Bargylus and 12,500 cases at Chateau Marsyas, including the main labels and a medium range of reds and whites they produce under B-Qā de Marsyas. They export their wines to 26 countries.
Johnny is out of the hospital now. And they have begun rebuilding the offices in Beirut, renting temporary premises. And they’ve resumed traveling the hour-long drive to Chateau Marsyas in the Beqaa Valley. “As for Bargylus, only the future will tell.”