In Lebanon's hills, winery presses on after founder Carlos Ghosn's disgrace

Many Lebanese view Ghosn as a symbol of their country's large diaspora, and a prime example of Lebanese entrepreneurial genius, so have been shocked by his arrest.

BATROÛN - Nestled in green hills north of Lebanon's capital Beirut just a few kilometres from the Mediterranean coastline, a winery co-founded by detained tycoon Carlos Ghosn presses on with trade.

Arrested in November, the Franco-Brazilian-Lebanese high flier stands accused of under-reporting his income as chairman of Japanese automaker Nissan and is languishing in a Tokyo detention centre.

But the Ixsir winery seems undisturbed by the 64-year-old's dramatic fall from grace.

Above the coastal town of Batroun, employees busy themselves -- between the fermentation tanks, among hundreds of oak barrels, and in the decade-old winery's bottling room.

But they are reluctant to speak after their management refused to give an interview to AFP, and only talk on condition of anonymity.

"Everything is as usual. Nothing has changed," says a worker at the wine-making enterprise, one of the most visible of Ghosn's investments in the tiny Middle Eastern country.

In the boutique, where wine bottles are displayed, a salesperson says enthusiasts continue to flock to tastings.

The wine's name Ixsir evokes a rejuvenating magic potion, and is the Arabic word that gave birth to "elixir" in English.

Magic touch

Many Lebanese view Ghosn as a symbol of their country's large diaspora, and a prime example of Lebanese entrepreneurial genius, so have been shocked by his arrest.

But local distributor Ziad Karam says the wine Ghosn helped create is doing well in Lebanon, and should continue to do so.

Its various vintages are also exported worldwide, an anonymous employee says, to France, Switzerland, Britain, the United States, Mexico -- and Japan.

Japanese sales might take a hit, they admit, but those to Europe and the Americas should continue.

Producing around 500,000 bottles a year, the winery has shot to success since it was founded in 2008, competing with many well-established players.

In Ixsir's speedy market ascent, many see the magic touch of Ghosn, who revived Nissan when most observers predicted he did not stand a chance, and who was seen as the linchpin of a three-way auto alliance with France's Renault and Mitsubishi Motors.

A general view shows the vine terraces of Lebanon's Ixsir winery, co-founded by the detained businessman of Lebanese origin Carlos Ghosn, in an agricultural region above the coastal town of Batroun, north of the Lebanese capital Beirut, on January 25, 2019.
Vine terraces of Lebanon's Ixsir winery.

Each year, Ixsir's barrels welcome 600 tonnes of grapes from 120 hectares of vineyards across the country.

Even as Ghosn awaits trial in Japan, he is remembered fondly by colleagues in Lebanon, including for supporting small-scale independent vineyards.

"Whenever he came to Lebanon, Ghosn would insist that the grapes were bought from local growers to encourage them to remain on their land," the employee says.

Ghosn saw the wine venture -- as well as other investments in banking and real estate in Lebanon -- as the start of a return to his roots, acquaintances say.

Many in Lebanon see him as a glowing example of Lebanese business acumen, and the Beirut authorities in 2017 issued his image on a postal stamp.

Retirement plans

Ghosn is also a national of Brazil, where he was born, and of France, but before he was detained he had increasingly invested time and money in the tiny Mediterranean country where his parents were born.

In addition to the Ixsir winery, he holds 4.6 percent of the capital of Saradar Bank, whose assets and capital were worth $2.7 billion (2.35 billion euros) and $235 million respectively in September, according to data cited by Bank Audi.

In the real estate sector, he has invested in several construction projects including Cedrar, a project to build around 60 luxurious chalets near one of Lebanon's iconic Cedar tree reserves at a cost of around $30 million, according to a source who requested anonymity.

In 2003, the American University of Beirut (AUB) awarded Ghosn an honorary doctorate, and then made him a member of its board of trustees.

He is also a member of the strategic board at the University of Saint Joseph (USJ), a prominent French-speaking institution. In 2012, USJ opened up a teaching position and masters programme in road safety management in partnership with the Renault Foundation, and it has inaugurated a space on campus named after the businessman.

Over the past decade, Ghosn's name was whispered during two presidential crises in Lebanon. But acquaintances say he never expressed any interest in entering the country's politics.

Despite being a renowned figure, he kept a low profile on his visits to Lebanon, choosing to mingle with close friends and relatives.

"Rather than investment for profit, Carlos sought to invest in his ties to Lebanon in recent years," says retired magistrate Choukri Sader, a friend and bridge partner.

"He was planning to spend part of his retirement here -- probably looking for a little human warmth he couldn't find in Paris or Tokyo."

Ghosn is accused of using a Nissan subsidiary to pay for a personal residence in Beirut, sources close to the Ghosn investigation have said.