“Flying is a dry career – I can’t live without making wine,” says former show-jumping champion turned commercial pilot of 41 years service, Habib Karam. He realised he wanted to make wine while in the cockpit of an A330 (a picture of the aircraft graces the wall of his makeshift tasting room). “After frequently gazing down on the vineyards, I decided to realise my dream.”
We meet at Karam Winery amid Serengeti-like pines in Jezzine. Despite records showing vine-growing occurred here before Roman times, it is the only winery in Lebanon’s south. Here, harvest can take place up-to a month-and-a-half later than the rest of the country.
A TV shows a cop film. While Karam’s website plays Puccini, his mobile regularly pipes into life with the James Bond theme. TV eventually muted, Karam talks of his pride, rosé, Arc En Ciel. “I was the first one to take it seriously,” he says, mentioning it comes from a dedicated plot. Unfortunately, the slightly new age label, brighter in colour than wine on blue-tinted glass bottle lets down liquid. It part features Syrah. “Syrah originally came from Syria,” says Karam.
Despite a small production of 60,000 bottles per year, Karam makes five reds. Almost Tuscan in feel, Corpus Christi refers to Karam’s rejection from Cambridge University. “’One day I will show you,’ I thought, and sent them a box!” Maverick, Karam, was the first to plant Viognier in Lebanon; he also planted the popular in Argentina, Torrontes last year.
A long lunch ensues, overlooking the Western mountain range. It transpires Karam’s long-serving, cheeky Filipina cook has defied him, preparing snails anything but “the Lebanese way” he requested. Saving reprimands for later, Habib explains unlike flying, “where everyone serves the captain,” selling wine has taught him “humility.”
Karam mentions he is “a better winemaker than a pilot” explaining “it’s easy to make wine with faults – but a challenge to make perfect wine with character.” He proceeds, the following day, to pilot me (and over 300 civilians) back to London thankfully without fault (4 hours 40 minutes of his 72 hours per month flying time). “It felt better when I flew you back to the UK,” he says afterwards, “as I believe you were at my mercy instead of my wines being at your mercy…”
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