It was my interest in seeing Lebanon’s first Arabic printing press that took me to the Deir Mar Youhanna Monastery (Monastery of St. John) in Khinshara over a year ago. It was a sunny chilly November morning, and the Monastery was deserted. When I finally found one of the monks he explained that the room housing the printing press was not open for visitors on that day.
Since then I’ve been back to the Monastery twice, but I have yet to see the printing press. There is a little hidden treasure I discovered on that morning that kept me coming back: Abouna (Father) Charbel’s winery.
A wine tasting and chatting session with Abouna Charbel is simply a pleasure. He has guests almost every day, especially on Friday and Saturday nights when he serves cheese and bread along with the wine. He has never advertised his wine tasting sessions, but word has travelled fast through the surrounding hills, news of the charismatic priest who is in love with this land and with the wine he makes, and people keep flocking to taste and see.
The small out-house on the hill that houses the Monastery used to be a goat shed. It’s now Abouna Charbel’s domain, where he creates of some of the best wine and liqueur produced in Lebanon, and entertains his guests. He wants me to taste the cider first. Cloudy, fizzy, delicious cider, made from last year’s apples. ‘We didn’t have any apples this year’, Abouna Charbel says, ‘the apples where hit by the cold’.
He uses whatever grows on the Monastery grounds to make his wines and liqueurs. Walnuts, wild mint, lemons, lavender, and of course, grapes. He personally planted 5,000 vines when he started his wine-making set up in the Monastery. There are now 15,000.
I ask him, why wine? He explains that wine is intricately tied to the life of a priest. The oldest records of wine being produced in Deir Mar Youhanna date to 1720. But it was a primitive method of wine-making, mainly by hand and using very old equipment. Abouna Charbel discovered soon enough that his life was to be more intricately tied to wine that the other priests in the Monastery. He was curious to make wine himself.
When he was sent to Paris to study biblical theology, he had the chance to really get to know wine and wine-making. He knew then and there that this was his calling. He came back to the Monastery with a plan: to start a professional winery. ‘I’m a dreamer, no one took me seriously’, he says, ‘they left me alone but with hesitation’. Left alone to renovate the out-house and stock it with state of the art equipment, Abouna Charbel surprised everyone. Because of his hard work and vision, the Matn has its wine now. ‘I love my country,’ says Abouna Charbel, ‘my message is to awaken people, to get them to talk and share their culture and backgrounds’.
He is particularly excited about the red wine he made last year. The 2013 batch is apparently indescribable. Why is his wine so good?, I ask. ‘Have you ever been in love?’, he says. ‘This wine is passion. I had 7 operations on my leg this year and I went through a lot of pain to make this wine. I overcame my pain to make it with love. That’s why it’s good’.
Happily tipsy, I drive back down to Beirut, only to remember again, like every time, that I forgot to check out the Arabic printing press. Next time…