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After the Beirut Blast: ‘We will continue to make wine in these difficult times’

On 4 August the Saadé family, owners of Château Marsyas in the Bekaa Valley, were in their company offices on Pasteur Street in Beirut when the explosion happened.

The state of the office after the explosion

Karim Saadé recalled that the next thirty seconds or so after the huge explosion involved “screaming” as, deafened by the blast, he called for his father Johnny and brother Sandro amid the wreckage of the office, strewn with broken glass, upturned furniture, dust and dazed and injured employees.

It was, he says, “completely horrifying”. He eventually located Sandro in the next room. He and Johnny had started to leave through a door after an initial, smaller explosion, only to be caught by the shattering blast it sparked that followed moments later.

The shock wave sent out by the explosion, which had the power equivalent to perhaps 1 kiloTons of TNT, and which occurred a few hundred metres away blasted the pair several metres through the doorway and across the room on the other side.

When Sandro recovered his wits he couldn’t see his father and for a terrible moment even thought that the 78 year-old Johnny had perhaps been catapulted through the window on the other side of the room and fallen the nine storeys to the street below.

Thankfully he had not but he had been very seriously hurt. As Karim explained: “He had very serious injuries, blood in the lungs, a double fracture to his jaw and broken ribs.”

The office was completely wrecked and everyone there still working at 6pm, around 12 to 14 people, was hurt to some degree but no one was killed and Karim said it was, “a miracle we didn’t have more injuries”. He was only saved from more serious harm because he was behind a solid supporting wall.

But the brothers did have their father to look after. All hurt and he in real pain, they had to carry him the nine floors down to get out.

“It took 45 minutes to get him to the street,” said Karim, “and you cannot imagine [the scene]. The road was full of debris and destroyed vehicles and other things. People were badly hurt, it was impossible to find our way through. It was apocalyptic.”

With no ambulances in sight the pair flagged down a passing car and got to the hospital where their father spent 11 days in intensive care.

And when he came out of that, the harvest was upon them.

“The harvest was very early this year, so we were caught up [in it] quickly after the blast on 15 August,” said Karim.

With their father still requiring hospital treatment (he stayed a month in the end), their offices in ruins and with “too many challenges” all at once, the three decided to turn the hospital room into an “operations room” from which to conduct the harvest from, “decide the date of the harvest and put in place the whole process we normally do on site,” said Karim.

In a twist of fortune, however, managing all of this remotely is not new to the Saadé family. As well as Château Marsyas, they also oversee Domaine Bargylus in neighbouring Syria, a winery they have not been able to visit since the start of that country’s civil war almost a decade ago.

Instead, every year the on-site director there sends bunches of grapes over the border in a taxi for them to taste so they decided to do the same thing with Marsyas as well this year, and received fruit from both estates in the hospital.

Karim found it amusing when I pointed out to him at this point that it’s a tradition in Britain to take people in hospital bunches of grapes as a ‘get well’ gift.

This year’s harvest Karim thought was, sadly, “not so bad but not the best”. It was a very warm year, hence the early start, and the whole thing was finished by 15 September.

Unlike in California where terrible wildfires have been somewhat offset by what seems to be an excellent harvest, it seems a shame that the terror of the August explosion couldn’t at least have given way to an exceptional crop. On the other hand, coming so soon after the terrible events at the start of the month the activity was “maybe for the best,” thought Karim; a chance to take their minds off things and focus on something “normal”.

That said, ‘normal’ is perhaps relative in a country like Lebanon and even now, speaking to Karim almost three months after the event, he admitted it [the explosion] is, “quite difficult to process even now”.

He flicked our call over to video to show the state of the offices. Although much has been cleared up the windows were still glass-less and the frames running along the wall overlooking the nearby port were all uniformly bent inwards by the force of the explosion, as if an enormously fat giant had passed by and rested its bulk against the building for a brief, destructive instant.

Karim (right) and his brother Sandro in the company offices with the site of the explosion in the port behind them.

Karim passed down the office a little way until he reached a window level with the site of the explosion, a large expanse of brown dirt flecked with ruins and the apparently indestructible white grain silo still standing on the left hand side, seemingly much, much closer than the 18 minute walk Google Maps suggests it is.

Cars rolled by on an overpass in between. One hates to think what it must have been like to have been driving past when all those tons of ammonium nitrate went off. Being inside a building doesn’t seem to have lessened the blow if you were close enough as a video taken by one employee, Mourad Achkar, makes clear.

Karim said the whole situation was “absurd” (the negligence required to leave almost 3,000 tons of volatile ammonium nitrate in a flimsy warehouse next to a major city for six years alongside fireworks boggles the mind) and it made one, “extremely frustrated to see how careless people running the country are.”

He added that if winemakers in other countries ever needed advice on crisis management they could always call up producers in Lebanon.

“In an ironic way we have developed some skills in managing vineyards in very difficult times and at a distance and we’d be happy to share our insights and advice with other producers,” he said.

Johnny meanwhile is out of hospital, “resting at home, tired and recovering slowly. Thanks God he had the strength to overcome the whole ordeal,” said Karim.

As for the family and its business, while the blast may have knocked the stuffing out of their offices and left them bruised and battered it doesn’t seem to have dented their resolve in the slightest.

“The only way to go is to persevere and build,” said Karim. “It did not discourage us, we’re very determined and we will continue to make wine in these difficult times.”

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