by Adam Sachs
When you are a winemaker you have the luck to work with something that is alive and you should never kill it.” -Serge Hochar
The final seminar of this year’s Texas Sommelier conference was “A Vertical Tasting of Chateau Musar,” a Lebanese producer I had tasted a few years ago during a D Magazine Supper Club event at Samar by Stephan Pyles. I remembered it tasting like a straightforward and refined Bordeaux blend, and was about to discover much more.
Master Sommelier James Tidwell explained the special significance Cheateau Musar held for him and Drew Hendricks, MS, and why they chose it as their first seminar focused on one producer. He then introduced the presenters of this seminar, Chateau Musar’s owner and winemaker Serge Hochar, and Paul Grieco, owner of Manhattan’s Hearth and Terroir.
“I do not like to speak of my wine without drinking it,” Serge explained slowly. “So, I ask you to try the wines first, and then we talk. First, we taste the 1998 and the 2003 reds.” Volunteers were still pouring the wines. I had my 1998, and I swirled and sniffed in my usual manner, jotting notes: “earth aroma, sediment and orange hue, aroma of fermented raspberry.”
“Paul, would you like to say something?” he asked Grieco.
“Let me explain something to you,” Grieco began. “This tasting will not be like any other tasting you have done. You will learn why tasting with Serge is one of the most amazing and the most disconcerting things at the same time. He wants you to ask him questions in order to talk, and when you ask questions, he proceeds to ask you questions, or provide completely unrelated responses. You will notice flaws in these wines, but these wines represent the true smell and feel of a beautiful country far away. With Serge, you must listen to these wines in order to learn from them and learn from him. And sit at the front of your chair, not the back.”
I put my pen down for a moment and sat forward, trying to approach the seminar differently. I had found the first post to my blog, and was trying to figure out why we gravitate toward wine in all its manifestations was founded in 1930 by Serge’s father Gaston, who eventually told Serge he would take over the business. Serge studied at the University of Bordeaux, and returned to Lebanon where he has been making wine since 1959. It was because of Michael Broadbent that these iconic Lebanese wines were sitting in front of us, due to his chance encounter with them at the 1979 Bristol Wine Fair.
We concluded our tasting of the reds with a 1975 vintage, from the year before the Civil War began in Lebanon. When making the trip to harvest the grapes, Serge explained, they had to take an alternate route because roads were laden with bombs on their usual path. The next year was the only year they bottled no wine due to the country’s war-torn status. (1984 is also regarded as a missed vintage, but only because Serge considered its quality too low. He actually opened a bottle during James, Drew, and Paul’s visit to Lebanon, and is supposedly considering its release; “I say ‘maybe’ because I don’t want to say ‘no’ to Paul,” he remarked).
After a number of questions and responses, Serge and Paul noticed my hand raised, and I stood up.
“You’ve addressed a question about the relationship of you to your wine,” I began, “and you’ve answered a question about the relationship of your wine to your country. And, forgive me if I am ignorant, but in this industry we do not tend to think of Lebanon as a culture of winemakers or wine drinkers. So, why wine? How did that become your profession?”
Serge looked right at me, and answered as he had answered other questions: “Ah, well, let me tell you…” He explained that Lebanon had been producing wine since the beginning of their civilization, that the indigenous grapes Obaideh and Merwah used in his white wine were 800,000 years old. His father forced him into this tradition, but, he explained “if I make wine, I told my father, I go to Bordeaux to learn about winemaking.” Soon his children will be taking over the foundation he laid in 1959 upon his first releases as winemaker.
I am now looking through the pamphlet from the conference about Cheateau Musar, searching for insight into what made this tasting so inspiring. Serge, like no other winemaker I have heard speak, exhibits reserved exuberance for winemaking, because he sees vibrance in the practice, a holistic reflection of life. As we consume and consider these libations, many in this industry ask about the technical details of what sits in the glass. But Serge focused on the intangible results