Maher Harb | The Inspiring Story Behind The Syrah Man
Such inspiring stories of persistence and the atypical ‘pursuit of happiness’ are rarely heard of in real life. Maybe because in such a turmoiled world, it is rare to hear of a human being, courageous enough (or crazy enough) to let his passion be the driving force to pursue a career path that’s totally different from what he was set to do earlier in his life.
From a financial consulting career in France and Saudi Arabia, Maher Harb followed his vision through a prestigious study program into great winemaking caves around the world, and then back to his homeland, Nehla, in northern Lebanon. Simply unhappy at what he was doing, Maher Harb decided to just quit a highly-paid job and go for what his heart desired the most. Wine.
Bound by his love for nature and winemaking, Harb is now settled in Lebanon, growing his own grapes, building his own wine label from scratch, and is very much determined to start a movement to “democratise wine” through an academy that helps people, especially young ones, discover their inclination towards this field.
This passion is evident from the way he describes the taste of the Syrah grape, to the extensive travels he made world-wide, and the impressive people he met along the way.
“The wine I’ll make will express my character, my way of doing, my way of thinking. I think this will give it its unique flavour.”
Judging by the little time we spent with this person so far, we can’t wait to taste the wine he’s making.
Hiba: Can you please tell us more about the masters specialty program you underwent to become a winemaker?
Maher: I studied at the Organisation Internationale de la Vigne et du Vin (OIV), which is an intergovernmental organisation that deals with technical and scientific aspects of viticulture and winemaking. It has 46 member states.
The OIV offers a Masters of Science in Wine Management in collaboration with Montpellier Supagro, which is the most renown wine school in France, and one of the most prestigious worldwide. The vocation of the OIV Msc is educating the future leaders of the wine world, at an international level grasping knowledge of the industry from all its aspects: Production, sales, marketing, regulations, etc.
H: What is the best part about this program?
M: The best part about this program is that you travel during your studies. We traveled to around 24 countries in 11 months; we did our own world tour. From France, Spain and Italy, to the rest of Europe, then Australia, South Africa, USA, China, Japan and many other winemaking destinations.
Now it may sound like so much fun to travel the world while pursuing your masters degree, and it truly is, but the concept of studying by experimenting and by meeting people is way more interesting. I think it’s the best way to learn. Each one of us in the group has an interest of their own. One wants to travel, another wants to specialize in marketing, others in export, production, etc. So through the human encounters you are facing, you learn from those who are ready to show you how it’s all done based on their own experiences.
H: How did you take the decision to pursue a higher education specializing in winemaking?
M: I was working as a consultant in France when I decided to become a winemaker. Since then, I started working on my own vineyard. I planted grapes with my own hands, read extensively about the process of winemaking, and tried to make my own batch for the very first time in my apartment in Paris – using grapes from Carrefour!
I literally started from zero, and by several trials and errors, I learnt the process on my own: How to grow vines, when to harvest, how to ferment grapes’ juice, etc. But I felt that I needed more knowledge and more experience. Something that is more academic. This is why I joined the OIV MSc.
I was thrilled because the experience exceeded my expectations. After this journey, I felt that I have enough knowledge, will, and confidence to become a winemaker.
H: So now after you’re done with your studies, you are trying to pave your own way here in Lebanon. Why come back?
M: I do have a lot more opportunities abroad, especially in Australia. I actually am trying to make it there at least 3 months a year, to work with an amazing winery.
But why stay here? Because I have already lived for 10 years in France, and I previously majored in something that is so distant from wine, which is mathematics, econometrics, and information systems. I worked in the field, and every day I felt that in order for me to be happy, I have to find my way – and consulting wasn’t it. What I love is wine and nature, and I can’t remember how I figured it out, but I finally did.
I was 27 at that time. This is when I decided to get back to Lebanon where I have a small piece of land that my father left us. Since I have a very special relationship with the history of my family and my father who died when I was very young, I wanted to get back and invest in that land in a way that pays him tribute.
I really took a lot of social, financial and personal risks in the past 5 years to pursue my dream, and it’s still not easy. It’s definitely not consistent and stable to work here in Lebanon, but my diploma gave me this chance to be polyvalent in the wine industry and I love that. For example, I animate wine-tasting events, I give wine courses and I am helping at Taillevent, a wine boutique that’s based in Beirut.
So yeah, it’s not easy to do all of this in Lebanon, but it’s very challenging, and now I have the confidence to delve in my job and develop my own winery at the same time.
H: Are you making your own wine now?
M: Yes I am. I started 3 years ago and the 2015 vintage will be the first commercialised production of my own making.
H: So you have your own grapes that are ready for production…
M: When you plant grapes, it takes 3 to 4 years to give full production. Mine are 3-year-old already, constituting around 60% or 70% of the production, which I will be making for the first year now. This year will be the first commercialised production of my vineyard in Nehla.
H: What were the actual difficulties you faced when you got back to Lebanon?
M: First thing I needed when I got back here was a job. So I knocked on everyone’s doors, from wineries to wine boutiques. I was motivated by the fact that everyone was welcoming and excited about my expertise and enthusiasm, but most of them were not willing to pay for it.
So I had a hard time finding a job at first, yes, but this gave me the time to study the market and get to know the influencers and the people involved in it. It also has introduced me to those people, which has given me more confidence to stay. Eventually I met with Paul Choueiry, we felt that we could collaborate, and I started working at Taillevent where Choueiry is the GM.
H: Since it’s an emerging market here, what can you bring to the Lebanese winemaking scene?
M: From how I see it, the winemaking industry has always been like a closed community of skills that not everyone can have access to. I envision things in a different way. I want to democratize the knowledge about wine. Wine is not for a selected few, it’s for anyone who loves to drink and enjoy the taste. I always encourage people to buy wine. It doesn’t have to be expensive to be good.
Also, young Lebanese people are not aware of the existence of this beautiful career of winemaking, that they can actually study in college if it’s their passion, instead of wasting their time on things they do not love.
So my idea is to try to be a positive element in bringing some academic winemaking education to Lebanon, not just leisurely one. This is what I will spend my whole life working on.
H: You have your own blog, Jus De Syrah that documents the journey you took around the world during your studies. Why Syrah?
M: Because my very first love affair with wine was in Côtes Du Rhône, south of France. In this area, the Syrah grape is the most planted, and most sought-after among grape varieties. You have the Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Côte-Rôtie, Côtes Du Rhône, and you have Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre etc… But the Syrah is the most important one in that region.
When you make wine with Syrah, the end product is both very fruity and very spicy at the same time. You have notes of white pepper, of blackberries, wild berries… And every time I taste Syrah wine I’m surprised by its complexity and character. That’s why I planted this grape in my own vineyard. The end product is going to be even more complex in that region, which is lovely.
H: Tell us more about your own production.
M: I would like to stress on the fact that, based on what I know about soils and the climate, I’m very convinced that the Batroun region is an amazing terroir for wine, because of its natural characteristics, of its exposure and rich nature, especially at high altitudes, and my vineyard is planted at an altitude of 950 m.
I have a very personal relationship with my vines, and my wine is going to be quite unique in its production methods.
You know, people generally tend not to waste their own time, and choose to adopt the methodologies of others who are already skilful in what they do.
I know what they do in Bordeaux, in Burgundy, and almost everywhere else in the world. However, the wine I’m making will express its own terroir, as well as my passion for winemaking.
Wine is a living liquid. It catches every influence from the vineyard to the winemaker methods, and even inside the bottle it keeps on evolving. When you understand this equation and you respect all its steps, you ensure positive influences.
This way the wine will be unique with a special character, and people will enjoy drinking it because they will taste and hear its story.