Serge Hochar, Lebanon’s Guru at Chateau Musar

July 17, 2012 § Leave a comment

In today’s column in the Portland Press Herald I — finally — attempt to wrap my head around Chateau Musar. It’s the second thing I’ve written about these transcendent, crazy wines.

The first thing I wrote never got published, because it, itself, is crazy (though not transcendent). I submitted it to the newspaper but of course they didn’t feel they could run it. It’s about 1,000 words long and not even, technically a single sentence. But that’s what these wines, and their poet-philosopher of a vintner, Serge Hochar can do to a man like me.

Anyway, as I say in my column today, the editor at this here blog has blissfully low standards, so below is the full text of my unpublishable (?) attempt to get at some sort of truth as these wines express it. Today’s column reads nice enough. But it’s pale shadow of the heart and soul encompassed within Chateau Musar. You enter the worlds created by these wines and you end up saying things that make no and/or total sense. 

Read the column that got published. Then read below. Or vice versa. Or neither, just drink the damn wines!

and that when I first tasted the wines of Serge Hochar, I felt embarrassingly late to the world’s best party, where history’s greatest DJ had already seized and transformed the crowd, edging them each minute toward ever higher states of ecstasy and wonder, for such is the hold the winemaker of Lebanon’s Chateau Musar – the body of one man containing souls of Lao Tzu, Allen Ginsberg, Miyazaki, Yoda, Brillat-Savarin, Tim Burton, Khalil Gibran, Picasso, Dylan, Gary Snyder, Beck, Basho, Whitman, Beethoven – enjoys over the senses and imaginations of a secret worldwide society of wine appreciators: young, old, urban, rural, Christian, Coptic (…Jew, Hindu, Zoroastrian…), nerd, stoner, hung-up, let-loose, smart, dumb, visionary, traditionalist, dilettante, obsessive, right, wrong, lover, fighter, ready, not, you, I; all of whom have access right now, today and tomorrow and for years to come, to not only the current-vintage, less-expensive wines from Musar, but the “Chateau Musar” line itself with vintages dating backwards from the current 2004 to 1954 (not a typo, and prices vary), stored in the Musar library-cellar dug deep enough under the winery near Beirut to protect it from four decades of mortar shells and bomb fragments and torment raging directly overhead (there are photos of tanks driving around the vineyards), available thanks to an international distribution network that includes the Musar enterprise itself (which releases just roughly one-third of its production each year, storing the rest for special orders), its American importer Broadbent Selections and its Maine distributor Easterly Wines, and maybe even someone you know or could get to know who is holding some of these in her or his own (usually continually augmented) cellar, but

it is the flavors and aromas of these wines, which spread in hundreds of directions, looping and repeating or not repeating, nonetheless expressing somehow a unified vision – for instance in the Hochar Pere et Fils 2007 red ($27), flavors of cinnamon, figs, incense, smoke, aromas both stinky and fresh, a body both shimmery and fathomless; or in the red Jeune 2009 ($18) deep cherries, vanilla and cardamom and caramel, impeccably rigged, so firm, spicy, brittle and sinewy all at once, offering all the youth we in our ignorance claim is wasted on the young; and in the white Jeune  2009 ($18), drunk at nearly room temperature, subtle oxidation and its attendant marmalade, hazelnut richness cut by preserved lemon and salt; or the rose Jeune 2009 ($18), also oxidized, with cinnamon toast suggestion but then sun-dried tomatoes and aromas of salumi the first day out, emerging from my refrigerator three days later as alive as ever but now fleshier, with tastes of black cherry and licorice both red and black – which

along with the inextricably bound stories of how these wines have come to be – their “terroir”, yes, the specific geologic and climatic situation of Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, surely, but something even deeper and holier which is the entirety of life’s circular, seamless, never-ending rhythms despite all surface rupture – recall for me my seven-year-old’s recent assertion that it’s rather silly to eat food when it’s just going to emerge as poop, followed by additional related riffs culminating in his extrapolated query, “Why do we even start to live if we’re going to die? I mean, why are we alive?”, to which, pardonably, I didn’t have a satisfying response other than to note that humans have been asking that question, in numerous ways, ever since there were humans and that the only way to gain an answer would be to stay alive because if one decided not to live one would probably (though we don’t know for certain) never find out, of which sentiment I’d hope the philosopher-winemaker Serge Hochar himself would approve since he told Elizabeth Gilbert, who before she published “Eat, Pray, Love” wrote an article on Chateau Musar based on three days she spent with him at his vineyards and winery, that “life – more than anything – is an eternal impulse to create. Life wants to live. Life wants to meet with life. Life wants to create more life. That is all there is.”

and you shake your head wondering how this has anything to do with wine, but to my seven-year-old child I would say you are a life and out here are other lives, various concatenations of energy – some currently in human form, others other animals, others a head of lettuce or a sunrise or yes, a wine but only some wine, in this case wine made in such a thoroughly natural way that all that is not life has been rejected: on vines that have been organic since they were first planted in 1930, suspending grapes from Cinsault, Carignan, Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon to Vermentino, Viognier, Chardonnay, and then the indigenous Obeideh and Merwah, hand-harvested and transported carefully to the winery (a journey that takes two hours if there’s calm but at some points during these wars has consumed 10 days) where they’re vinified with ambient yeasts over three years in, alternately, concrete and used oak before being blended and bottled with minimal sulfur, unfined and unfiltered, un-toyed-with in any way, just the pure thing itself, followed by several further stages of global commerce until they appear on a shop’s shelf or restaurant’s cellar when you arrive and either choose a different wine or

not – but, my seven-year-old child, no one but a damn fool could fail to see that each of these life forms is part of one and only one web of lives, a story with no beginning or end, and so the food comes in and the poop goes out and our bodies live and die but the real life being lived lives us and is not ours to question, no: our only role is to receive, to stay open to sensations and impressions and pass them on, to nurture relationships that will grow inside us and outside us for our entire

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