When Carmen was a little girl growing up in Belhar in the Cape Flats in South Africa, she read about wines and winemaking in novels. The romanticized narrative that was articulated in these books, was hopeful and completely different from where she grew up and what she was exposed to. These stories took her to a world of abundance and prosperity where everything was lush and all elements coalesced, the food, the wine, the joy, all the things that she did not have as a young girl.
She learned of the possibility to study winemaking from a friend’s uncle and after applying to Elsenburg Agricultural Training Institute for two consecutive years and being rejected consecutively from 1991 – 1992 because she was not White, she pushed back and threatened to expose the agricultural institute’s racial discrimination to the media. As it turned out, she was eventually accepted to study with the institute and graduated in 1995 with a degree in winemaking. The period from 1990 – 1994 were some of the most tumultuous years for South Africa, a country in transition from apartheid to democracy. Carmen bears the cuts and bruises that come with being “a first” to break boundaries and shares how she has had to overcome the cultural biases that are woven into everyday encounters and experiences in the South African wine industry. She emphasizes that she was the first Black South African to study winemaking, not because no one before her was interested, but because of the marginalization and discrimination of the time.
Her wine brand, Carmen Stevens Wines was established in 2011 from venture capital that she received from angel investors in a company that invests in independent winemakers globally called Naked Wines, with her earliest vintage in 2014. Hers has been an extraordinary career, as a multi award winning winemaker, a trailblazing visionary and an advocate for inclusion and diversity in the industry. She describes the intention of her wine brand, as emanating from the need to share her skills and experiences with her community and to ensure that they benefit from them. She is carving out space not only for herself and her children, but for all Black and Brown people, taking ownership of her winemaking journey, broadening the footprint of her brand towards attaining financial freedom, pushing past stale industry norms, and empowering her workers. Carmen has created a space with her winery, that allows her to fully express herself and produce wines that she has always wanted to make.
Like most Black winemakers, producers, and entrepreneurs in South Africa, Carmen’s wines gained prominence in the international market faster than the local market due to the growing global interest in Black African wine brands. Internationally Carmen Stevens wines are available in the UK, USA, Belgium and Japan and locally via their e-commerce platform.
Over and above being a formidable wine maker and business owner, her non-profit organization the Carmen Stevens Foundation assists with providing meals to school children at schools and in communities where they live. By 2019 they were in 53 schools in 25 communities and served over 3 716 999 meals to children and adults. She also provides sponsorships for students interested in pursuing wine related studies.
At a time when transformation within the South African and global wine industries is moving at a snail’s pace, one of the brightest silver linings is to encounter someone like Carmen, who despite having faced and overcome her share of trials, she continues to advocate for inclusion and diversity in the industry and blazes a trail for those coming after her.
Seven Questions with Carmen Stevens
Nomad Africa: Congratulations on opening the first 100% Black owned winery in South Africa, what a feat! What has been your greatest challenge and greatest success with opening your winery?
Carmen Stevens: The greatest success has been not having to wait in line for space to be availed for me to work; but creating the space myself. I now have the freedom to experiment and explore, the freedom to take risks.
The greatest challenge has been entry into consumer markets to sell my wines. We, as Black wine producers really struggle to get shelf space in mainstream retail outlets in SA, despite Black South Africans being the driving force behind most wine purchases in SA. Then there’s also the extremely high cost of fruit that we pay in comparison to bigger wine companies that buy large volumes in tonnage and therefore can dictate what they pay for fruit. The same can be said for bottles, we use a mobile bottling unit that comes to our premises to preserve the quality of our wines while the bigger players have static bottling lines and are able to exploit economies of scale and bottle large volumes wine and get the benefit from the bottling companies on bottle prices.
Nomad Africa: How would you define your style as a winemaker?
Carmen Stevens: My wines are big in flavor and structure yet smooth and elegant on the palate; wines that you can talk about and that leave an impression. I work a lot on the mid-palate depth of my wines as I feel that is what brings the elegance and the wow factor to wines. Balance of all components including acidity, alcohol, fruit intensity, tannin structure and a good colour as per the grape variety contribute to a depth of character and complexity on both the nose and palate; a wine that has many layers that just complement each other with a length and depth of flavor and a mouth experience that stays with you long after you have taken a sip.
Nomad Africa: Is there a reason why you chose the grape varietals that you have for your white and red wines, and will you be expanding your wine range into other grape varietals in the future?
Carmen Stevens: For white wines, I choose Sauvignon Blanc as you can make it and sell it in the same year and is therefore a cash-flow product. For red wines, Merlot because people are familiar with the variety, and it is beautiful if planted in the right location. I also chose Petite Syrah and Carménère because I felt we need a point of difference to entice customers to visit and support us. I would love to expand our wine offering; however, we first need to expand our customer base and list our wines with retail shops that are committed to showcasing our brands.
Nomad Africa: Is Carménère a common red grape varietal that is grown in South Africa and why have you chosen this grape for your premium red wine (Is it a coincidence at all that the name resembles yours?)
Carmen Stevens: Carménère is a Chilean variety that I first tasted in 2009 at the London Wine Trade Fair. It was love at first sip and then I learned that it was called Carménère. Smitten! I started looking for this variety in SA but could not find any. In 2017, I stumbled on the variety at one of the experimental vine farms and decided to bottle it. At present Carmen Stevens Winery, along with one other wine brand are the only two wine brands that produce and bottle Carménère as a standalone wine.
Nomad Africa: To what extent has your environment, culture and heritage influenced the wines that you produce?
Carmen Stevens: My environment, my own wine facility has helped me to really express myself and has given me freedom to experiment and to produce wines the way I want to make them. I do not come from a winemaking family or heritage and have had to define my own wine making culture. I utilize my knowledge and attention to detail to identify the best fruit and trust my ability to make the best wines from that fruit.
Nomad Africa: What has been your greatest epiphany or surprise about the wine industry and/ or winemaking process?
Carmen Stevens: That a wine reveals so much more that what we think. In our winemaking process we can either enhance what the grape gives us, or we can hide it behind other elements, which is perhaps not a good idea. Wine has the ability to tell its own story if you know how to interpret what it shows you. If we can highlight the subtle characteristics of wine to the everyday wine drinker, without overcomplicating it, we will make wine more approachable for all and eliminate the stigma that a lot of people have – that wine is for the connoisseur. For example, a high alcohol wine is usually an indication that the fruit was grown in a warm climate area like Paarl or Wellington and a low alcohol wine is indicative of a cool climate like Durbanville or Elgin. Cool climate wines are usually less fruity, in comparison to warm climate wines that are more fruit driven, sweeter on the nose and sometimes also the palate.
Nomad Africa: What has been the greatest barrier to entry for you in this industry (both locally and internationally)?
Carmen Stevens: Locally:
- Land is an important aspect of growing as a wine brand. Part of what makes a wine brand or wine attractive to consumers is a home for the brand. A home where you can grow your own fruit and cultivate immersive wine enjoyment experiences for consumers. Many successful wine brands have a home for their wines, a tasting room and perhaps a restaurant to offer wine experiences to potential customers.
- Then there is funding structure that requires us to first have land before receiving funding from government. Most of us are not able to buy land, especially agriculture land in the winelands; yet we have municipal land that is under lease protection, land that is not even being used to its full potential. Additionally, funds to secure fruit and to expand our brands continue to have a major impact on our brands.
- Barriers to entering mainstream retailers: Entry into the local market is also very challenging and the local retailers use the excuse that Black wine makers, producers and entrepreneurs are unable to guarantee continuity and stability of product supply, as a reason for not listing their wines owned in mainstream retail outlets.
- Due to a lack of ownership of winemaking facilities, some wine brands that are owned by Black people are reliant on the industry to sell them bulk wine. This comes with contracts that are sometimes not honored or wine companies that increase price points once agreements have already been signed.
- One last important point is that I might own the equipment in my winemaking facility, and I might call it my cellar, but I am still at the mercy of my landlord. I still have to pay rent for the building I am in and although I have the knowledge, the skills, the experience and the equipment, I still do not own the land. Without the land, I am not eligible to receive funding from government and am unable to leverage economies of scale and this has a direct impact on my business balance sheet.
Nomad Africa: What role do you think consumers can play in challenging and shifting culture, within the local wine industry and abroad?
Carmen Stevens: It is important to be a conscious buyer and to look for and ask retailers for Black-owned wine brands. This will challenge retailers like Woolworths, Spar, Pick ‘n Pay in South Africa and others everywhere in the world to list our products. In my mind Covid-19 proved that the buying power for wine comes mainly from the Black Rand, so what is the incentive for supporting an industry, wine companies and retailers that keep Black wine professionals out, when Black people and the Black Rand is what contributes to their continued growth.