FACES OF THE ECONOMY: Jill and Naji Boutros
There are 1.4 million workers in Lebanon – this is the story of two of them.
BHAMDOUN, Lebanon – It is a festive evening at Le Telegraphe restaurant, the eatery owned by the Chateau Belle-Vue Vineyard – with many couples up from Beirut and the largest table taken up by a multinational group of journalists.
“What began as the lonely efforts of a handful of individuals has blossomed into village-wide support and excitement as we better appreciate the wisdom of the Arabic proverb ‘One hand alone cannot clap’.”
Hosted by the Samir Kassir journalism foundation the various correspondents are enjoying the evening immensely; being brought to a well-appointed, out-of-the way restaurant that boast wines described by one connoisseur as, “…deep, intense and complex, with elegance and great refinement.”
There is a fire roaring, making for a cozy setting and Belle-Vue wines are being served liberally. Playing personal hostess for the night is one of the vineyard owners Jill Boutros (nee Johnson,) who introduces herself in a Minnesota accent to the Americans and then in perfect Arabic to the Lebanese present.
The attractive redhead with freckles personifies the old saying from the States as being “the girl next door.” Except that Jill, who is an educator, and her husband Naji Boutros, an investment banker, (and co-owner of the vineyard) are not your stereotypical Midwestern couple, having met in college after Naji Boutros arrived in America during the dark days of the Lebanese civil war.
The narrative of how Naji Boutros met Jill Johnson, fell in love, married, had children, and ultimately returned to the Levant in order to start vineyard — all started with the war. Boutros, along with the other Greek Orthodox residents of Bhamdoun and nearby villages, fled in 1983 after successive militias had destroyed the town and expelled the population. At 17-years-old, he found himself in America with $2,000 in his pocket to last for an indefinite period of time.
In the years before the destructive Lebanese civil war, the town of Bhamdoun was a favorite summer resort of Lebanese and visitors from throughout the Middle East, particularly the warmer climes of the Gulf countries.
Naji was to receive a scholarship to Notre Dame University where he began work toward a BA in electrical engineering. It was 1987, Naji Boutros and Jill Johnson met at Notre Dame, were Jill was studying economics. The mutual attraction was immediate, with Naji soon telling his mother back in Lebanon about meeting his soul mate.
After gaining a Master’s in Management Science and Engineering from Stanford, Naji was hired in 1988 by Merrill Lynch in New York as a fledgling investment banker and Jill went on the earn her Master’s in Education from Columbia University in NYC, while teaching in Montclair, NJ.
The couple married in 1990 and subsequently moved to London where Naji opened a new Merrill Lynch office and Jill taught at the International School of London. For the better part of the decade, they live and worked in London.
But something was missing. In an article appearing in the Minnesota Star Tribune, Naji said of his financial work, “Life was all about the next deal. I’d wake up on Monday morning, jump on a plane and be back Friday night.”
A fateful trip to Milan was to change the course of Jill and Naji’s life from that of cosmopolitan London to the rural farming terraces of the Levant.
“I was in front of the Duomo in Milan and just felt this big void, like I needed to go in. So I did and saw the cedars of Lebanon carved into the altar,” Naji recounted.
Moving back to Bhamdoun
In 1999, while Lebanon was still healing the collective wounds of the long civil war, Jill and Naji Boutros moved back to Bhamdoun. There, they set about their vision of reviving what had once been a lively summer resort town.
They bought a house in the mountain hamlet 15 miles east of Beirut and started renovating it, mapping out a few acres of Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon and planting the vines to the piped-in sounds of “The Four Seasons.”
“The people thought we were crazy, not only for planting but for doing it to Vivaldi,” Jill said.
They have been back now for over a decade-and-a-half, after returning in late 1999 to Naji’s boyhood hometown, which he had dreamed about all those years after his hurried leave-taking; with Jill sharing his dream of moving to Bhamdoun, starting a vineyard, along with a initiating a number of community projects, designed to help revive a village that was given up as almost a ghost town for many years.
The wine gains its name from the once-stately old Hotel Belle-Vue, constructed in 1860 and then destroyed during the 1983 decimation of the village. The couple’s plan was not only to start a vineyard but to use that as the leading edge to help revitalize the community.
Their life for the last 14 years back in Lebanon has been an adventure of sorts; starting Chateau Belle-Vue from scratch; putting down roots faraway from Jill’s homeland; planting their first vines in 2000 and raising their children in a new home.
An exercise in dreams and naiveté
“The first few years were an exercise in dreams and naiveté. And I mean that in all the best senses. With agriculture, your efforts have an immediate impact. You can see the results after a day of plowing; you can watch the shoots take root and reach towards the sky. There is a lot of satisfaction in that, certainly,” Jill said. “The other very noticeable by-product of our work was momentum. Of course, the beginnings were humble (three plots of land and a few thousand vines), but to know that the word spread and others became enthusiastic was comparable to a surge of positive energy.”
Their progress was of great interest to the Bhamdoun diaspora who from abroad wanted to see their town flourish again.
“Bhamdouni families living abroad called regularly in those first few years to ask whether we would plant their ancestral lands as well. Our territory expanded, and the very visible result was a valley brought back to life, green and productive,” Jill recounted.
“Asked about the inevitable challenges,” she noted, “Setbacks? Of course there were plenty of roadblocks, some even literal ones. But I think the force of our good will and energy for the work made light work of those early challenges.”
She added that the early years “were like a dream come true.”
Belle-Vue’s first vintage was bottled in 2003 and later the “Renaissance 2003” blend won the International Spirits and Wine Competition’s Gold Medal Best in Class award in 2005, and Jill and Naji’s wines have gone on to win a variety prestigious awards. From a small start, Chateau Belle-Vue is now available at restaurants and hotels on three continents.
Since putting down roots in Bhamdoun, Jill and Naji have slowly bought more plots of land from property developers and also “share cropped” rental plots, thus increasing the size of their vineyards. As part of their community development orientation, they only employ local craftsman and pickers, in order to repatriate profits back into the workers of the town. They have also established a community library and also donate $1 from every bottle of Belle-Vue sold in order to create a scholarship fund for Bhamdoun’s school children.
“In replanting its historic vineyards, we seek to salvage a heritage of viticulture before dispassionate developers can cover the valley with cement. This remains a continuing battle, but one in which we have largely succeeded so far,” Jill said.
“(Also) By employing local craftsmen, Chateau Belle-Vue enables more families to remain in Bhamdoun beyond the four months of typical summer tourism. These families, in turn, patronize shops, schools and businesses of all kinds, creating a ripple effect which benefits a maximum number of households.”
Jill Boutros proudly added, “The Belle-Vue Community Library now boasts 6,000+ volumes in three languages for adults and children. Our goal is to provide library services to the community summer and winter, providing a much-needed gathering space for local youth.”
Along with writing partners Marijean Boueri and Joanne Sayad, Jill authored a book for families in 2006, entitled “Lebanon A-Z: A Middle-Eastern Mosaic,” and has worked as an editor on a variety of other literary projects.
And, Naji has kept his hand in investment banking, establishing Edge Capital, a private equity firm recently featured in “Entrepreneur” magazine.
Jill and Naji Boutros have four children: Philippe, Hannah, Lauren and Ella – and for the whole family the move was a big one.
“Though one important intention behind our move to Lebanon was a renewed emphasis on family, I couldn’t have foreseen the extraordinary impact that living here, in this village with all the frustrations and difficulties we were to face, would have on the six of us,” Jill said. None of the children spoke Arabic or French when we moved, but that was nearly immaterial after just a few months of French Jesuit education.”
What was more important Jill observed was that “suddenly had an older generation in our lives (Naji’s family) which added a richness that London couldn’t offer.” Also, without setting out to do so, working as a family in the vineyards provided an example to the children of what hard work was all about, “harvest mornings require an early start–but we worked as a family.”
“It’s too early to say whether the vineyards or even Lebanon will be a choice any of our children will make in the future. We are careful not to put pressure on any one of them regarding this family legacy we are seeking to build. But what we’ve clearly been successful passing on is the knowledge that our family, and their upbringing, has been privileged in untold ways, and the necessary offshoot of that privilege is responsibility,” Jill noted.
“They understand that service to others is a part of who we are–and there are certainly plenty of opportunities to use our talents and gifts to help someone less fortunate than we are. Naji and I derive unbelievable pleasure watching them grow into hard-working and caring young people. I am very proud of them.”
Unusual terrain and fortunate combination of weather and soil
Once off the Damascus road and past the first part of Bhamdoun which is known separately as “Bhamdoun Station” from the railway that used to run there from Beirut, things become largely quiet, with an open vista where down in the distance is the linear layout of the vineyards. They are not quite like the orderly vineyards one finds in the Bekaa, stretching for miles on along low rolling hill. Instead the vines occupy terraces, amid olive trees and endless copses of wildflowers.
The late French poet Lamartine – who immortalized parts of Lebanon in verse – could no doubt spend many happy hours, strolling among the vines and flowers, stopping to shade beneath the olive trees.
Jill notes, “There’s a very secluded place down in the valley–a small seating area next to a spring-fed pond–where Naji and I love to go late in the day to watch the sun set. A couple of large, flat stones provide a table, and we sit under the trees with our feet up, enjoying a glass of good wine and hardly talking. It’s a peaceful spot where the loudest sound is frogs croaking or the occasional slap of a fish tail on the water.”
“Then, just as the sun sinks below the horizon, you can hear a distant call to prayer from across the valley. It’s a really beautiful reminder of where we have chosen to be during this portion of our lives.”
Peripatetic wine connoisseur and master sommelier Ronan Sayburn, notes knowledgeably in his viniculture blog the unusual terrain and fortunate combination of weather and soil that contribute to well-crafted vintage for Chateau Belle-Vue.
“The terroir where these vines are located define the style of these wines, high altitude, caught in the rain shadow of the mountains (that protect the fertile Bekaa valley) and with strong winds that keep these vines dry and pest free, they allow a very natural style of organic viticulture,” Sayburn blogged. “They receive five months of intense rain per year – 1,200mm – twice that of London, followed by seven months of drought with virtually no rain, the vines are stressed and confused; perfect for quality juice.”
Sayburn added, “Low density plantings of 3,000 vines per hectare because of the rocky, clay and limestone terraces and with the high altitude the skins are thicker and richer in tannin due to high UV exposure (according to Naji’s reckoning) and create full bodied and tannin rich Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot grapes.”
“After fermentation with natural yeasts and 18-24 month maturation in 90 percent of new oak in Seguin Moreau, and Radoux barrels – with 4-5 rackings – these wines are deep, intense and complex, with elegance and great refinement,” the connoisseur concludes.
The mere reading of his critique is rather mouth-watering and borne out by interviews with patrons of the Chateau’s Le Telegraphe restaurant and buyers of the wine in Beirut.
“What began as the lonely efforts of a handful of individuals has blossomed into village-wide support and excitement as we better appreciate the wisdom of the Arabic proverb ‘One hand alone cannot clap’,”Naji said.
“Adding value is the key, and here in Bhamdoun we have found plenty of opportunity to do so.”
By T.K. Maloy
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