Despite a regional history of viniculture that reaches back more than 5,000 years, wines that come from Eastern Mediterranean countries like Lebanon, Palestine, and Turkey don’t carry the same cache on the U.S. market as their mainstream European counterparts. In D.C., a hit new wood-burning Middle Eastern restaurant is on a mission to improve their reputation among American drinkers.
At Albi, some of the city’s most accomplished sommeliers pitch customers bottles that are often difficult to find stateside. By working with small importers and distributors — and sometimes even sliding into vintners’ Instagram DMs to request tasting samples — Albi’s wine experts are steadily expanding an inventory from the Levant region that represents exciting developments over the past three decades. The overarching goal, according to co-owner and high-profile D.C. sommelier Brent Kroll, is to prove there’s demand for Middle Eastern wines in the world of American fine dining. Kroll and other experts think if a nationally recognized restaurant like Albi can move lesser-known bottles from the region, maybe more wholesalers, importers, and restaurants will follow suit.
“Albi is making a big enough impact where people are reading about it, people have heard about it, it’s winning awards,” says Jason Bajalia, managing partner of Levant-focused wine importer and distributor Terra Sancta Trading Company. “That by extension helps the wines that are being featured in the program. And other places are saying, ‘Wow, I didn’t know we could do this.’”
Despite its ancient history of winemaking, the Levant is still considered an “emerging” region in the global wine community. Just 30 years ago, Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, one of the region’s most fertile grounds for vintners, was better known for producing around 80 percent of the world’s hashish supply than it was for producing quality wines. Experts and importers say Levantine wine faces several misconceptions from a Western audience, primarily the assumption that the Middle East has no history of cultivating grapes for fermentation because Islam, the dominant religion in the region, does not permit drinking. Another bad rap for Levantine wines claims that they lack their own sense of identity and are merely bulk imitations of European styles. These ideas are becoming less relevant as more boutique producers are popping up everywhere from the West Bank to the Lebanese port city of Batroun.
“It feels ridiculous to refer to an area with a [5,000] or 6,000-year history of wine production as an emerging region, but that’s just the economy of it,” says Albi general manager William Simons, who shares wine director duties with sommelier Vanessa Cominsky.
For Simons, Kroll, and Cominsky, the goal at Albi is to build a wine list that represents multiple Levantine countries in the same way chef Michael Rafidi has referenced dishes from across the region to gain the rapid attention of critics. Albi won a place as one of Esquire’s Best New Restaurants in America in 2020 and landed on the Eater 38 in D.C. as soon as it was eligible. Rafidi first gained notice in D.C. for sprinkling Middle Eastern influences throughout French, Spanish, and North African cooking at Mike Isabella-owned restaurants Requin and Arroz, which have since closed. Rafidi wanted to take a more personal tack at Albi, which means “my heart” in Arabic.
Before Cominsky left her job as a sommelier at buzzy, Stephen Starr-owned tavern St. Anselm, Kroll and Simons began building a stockpile of Levantine wines at Albi. Today that list includes an entire page dedicated to white wines from the Levant, and another page and a half devoted to reds. When they were beginning to build their Levantine wine collection, they say, there weren’t really any other restaurants to look to as an example. Other D.C. restaurants that focus on the Eastern Mediterranean, like Maydan, Zaytinya, and the recently rebranded Ala, have stocked wines from the Levant, but the team at Albi team wanted the size and diversity of its collection to dig deeper.
Albi’s opening wine list included a dozen bottlings from Chateau Musar. The famous winery, founded in 1930, was the first producer on the modern world stage to export Lebanese wine. It has since gained a following for low-intervention, complex, and funky expressions of the country’s climate and terrain. Albi carries around 20 different bottlings from Chateau Musar ranging from the 2018 Musar Jeune, priced at $48, to a $700 red blend bottled in 1969. In some cases, Musar might be the best introduction to Lebanese wine for diners, but according to Kroll, after Musar “you have to go from there and create your own thing.”
Couvent Rouge is a prime example of a producer Albi wants to spotlight. The winery is an outgrowth of the Coteaux d’Heliopolis co-op that lifelong farmer Walid Habchy founded in 1999 to support colleagues who wanted to convert cannabis and opium fields into vineyards. The farmers were subject to sporadic government raids that could erase a whole year’s worth of income, and they wanted a safer business model. It’s not just Couvent Rouge’s story, but the taste and quality of their wines, that ultimately drew the attention of the Albi team.
Albi’s sommeliers are always looking to introduce their clientele to new wines from the Middle East, but for several reasons, the restaurant is still struggling to bring in products from the type of small, organic, and low-intervention wineries that represent the full scope of the region’s growers.
Since opening in February 2020, Albi’s wine experts have tried desperately to get “Leb-Nats” — the first sparkling pet-nat (pétillant-naturel) wines from Lebanon — on the menu. Bottles didn’t arrive in the market until March of last year, when Albi was closed because of an indoor dining ban to slow the spread of COVID-19. When it reopened, the restaurant was able to aquire white and rose Leb-Nats at various points over the spring and the summer, but it is again waiting for more to reach the D.C. market. Despite being scheduled to arrive in the beginning of the year, they were held up by lingering problems at the port and restrictive COVID-19 measures from the Lebanese government. Couvent Rouge’s debut 2019 vintage of the Leb-Nat, created by winemaker Eddie Chami, spanned 5,000 bottles that quickly sold out. That market success led Chami to increase production to 20,000 bottles from the 2020 harvest, this time under his own label, Mersel Wine. Now other Lebanese wineries are exploring developing their own pet-nats.
When Albi was up and running for limited indoor and outdoor dining in August, a massive chemical explosion at the port of Beirut interrupted the export of Lebanese wine to the U.S and shook the industry. The blast destroyed the offices of Château Marsyas, which were only 1,600 feet from the explosion, just two weeks before the yearly harvest was scheduled to begin.
Yet even without the impact of COVID-19 and the Beirut port explosion, the supply of Middle Eastern wines in the U.S. remains limited for more systemic reasons. Bajalia, the importer for Terra Sancta, says bringing in wine from Palestine comes with the difficulties created by the Israeli occupation. “Everything has to be done over borders and checkpoints with permissions” from the Israeli government, Bajalia says.
In Lebanon, he says, everything from wine bottles to ink for labels has to be imported into the country. Government-imposed restrictions on international money transfers often prevent producers from buying necessary items, like French oak barrels, from abroad. Despite these hurdles, smaller Lebanese wine producers, like Sept Winery, are still attempting to reach the U.S. market to grow their global profile. Based in Batroun, Sept claims the first skin-contact bottlings — an ancient technique of fermenting white wine in contact with their skins, adding an orange or amber color and tannins — made from obeideh, an indigenous Lebanese grape. Sept’s distribution is limited to Florida, New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, says Andreas Zinelis, the director of sales for Cava Spiliadis, an importer and distributor for the winery. Likewise, its boutique production numbers command high prices, around $50 retail.
Zinelis says that in order for Lebanese wines to continue making a dent in the global market, skilled wine sellers have to work on changing misperceptions and presenting labels to customers as “a quality wine that happens to be from Lebanon, as opposed to just a Lebanese wine.”
A huge part of selling customers on Levantine wines at Albi is determining what pairs well with the intensely acidic and smoky flavors coming out of Rafidi’s kitchen. Simons focuses on balancing the acid of the wine against the lemon juice, pomegranate syrup, and urfa chile oil Rafidi uses to make seemingly heavy dishes more vibrant. Cominsky, the sommelier, says that Rafidi’s dishes have so many components and flavors that she likes to choose one main element of a dish to pair with a wine to make that component “zip.” If a dish includes labneh — thick, strained yogurt — she might choose to highlight bright, tangy, and creamy flavors. With the recent menu addition of manti dumplings, Cominsky might serve the 2017 Thalvin “Syrocco,” a fruit-forward syrah from Morocco, or the Lebanese Syrah du Liban from Domaine des Tourelles, both of which pair well with the slight spiciness of the manti.
Cominsky asks customers questions like, “Do you like French reds? Do you like wines from California?” She then decides which wines from the Levant would have similar characteristics. Simons searches for “parallels,” too. He might explain to the customers that there are “similarities to be drawn with the Bekaa Valley and the Napa Valley” in terms of topography and climate; both regions have long, dry summers with plenty of sunlight. Then he would highlight the differences that make wine from the Levant unique, such as the varied soil compositions, or that the elevation in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley is 3,000 feet higher than the Napa Valley, which is around sea level.
Cominsky thinks all the attention on Albi can help steer the U.S. market toward adopting Levantine wines in the same way that the rise of natural wines — a vague category that prizes low-intervention, organic, and biodynamic farming methods — has helped more small wineries flourish in France and Italy. She’s hoping Levantine wines can capitalize on increased media coverage for restaurants like Albi, creating a “symbiotic” relationship between wine sellers, customers, and the press.
“People come in now and ask about little esoteric things because they’ve read about it in an article or saw an Instagram video,” Cominsky says.
“Wine shops and restaurants play off each other,” she adds. “The publications and now, like, a lot of social media, a lot of internet media play off each other. You need the whole organism to get people into new things.”
Updated Wednesday, April 7, 2 p.m. This story has been updated to reflect Albi’s inventory of Levantine wines when it opened and that it was able to acquire “Leb-Nats” at some points in 2020.
Frank Faverzani is a graduate student pursuing a master’s degree in Arab Studies at Georgetown with a concentration on food and wine history in the modern Middle East.