JOHANNESBURG – Carmen
Stevens is petite-sized. But this wine-making barrel-wielding dynamo does not let obstacles stop her.
This past week she walked away with Small Business Entrepreneur of the Year.
The single mother of two says is the owner of the first black-owned winery in South Africa.
The winery, Carmen Stevens Wines, processed 150 tons per last year with a turnover of R8.1 million.
She says the art of wine making includes selecting the right fruit and putting the right combinations together.
“You know every winemaker puts their personal touch on their wine. My wines are very big -big tannins, big colours – but elegant. When you put it into your mouth you know there is concentration and depth. Although it is that big, it is so palatable.”
The business is a long way from Delhar where she grew up.
She describes the area as a gangsters’ paradise with no greenery.
Regular shootings in the neighbourhood forced her to stay inside and read.
The books opened her mind to new worlds and changed her life’s trajectory.
A Mills and Boon depicting a California winemaker which led to the proverbial light bulb moment.
Having never tasted wine, Stevens decided to become a winemaker.
But how was a girl living in the Cape Flats in the latter years of apartheid able to break into a white and male-dominated industry?
She applied to study winemaking at Elsenburg Agricultural College in Stellenbosch twice in 1990 and 1991, but was turned down because her colour.
But the rejection spurned her to apply again the following year. This time she was turned away because she had no military experience or agricultural background.
She decided to do an agricultural course through correspondence.
“With those marks I applied. I did not mail my application. I arrived at the college and cornered the college head. I said if you do not accept me I will go to the newspapers.”
Stevens was eventually accepted and graduated as the first black winemaker in South Africa in 1995 – the only black student at Elsenburg Agricultural College.
After cutting her teeth in the local winemaking industry with stints at Distell, Kunjani, Welmoed, Naked Wines, Amani and Carlifonia she learnt a few lessons overseas.
“When you decide to pick grapes for wine, people try to pinpoint the different flavours. I could never pinpoint the flavours like blueberries. A Californian winemaker said stop trying to look for something that you aspire to. Taste for what you don’t like in your wines such as if the grapes are still green. It was a revelation.”
In France, she says, a sense of place is much bigger for them than in South Africa.
“There are areas they grow for Shiraz that tastes like pepper. Here we need to work so much harder to get expression into our wines.”
In 2014 Stevens decided to go solo and make wine herself.
She originally rented space from different wine cellars to produce with ten grape growers.
Like all startups she had to contend with finances.
She says wine making is not for the faint hearted and is very labour intensive.
“I lose 3kg to 5kg during harvest. You need to work- it is very physical. You run up and down. You go and taste.You are in the vineyard. You are outside. Inside you do barrel work.
” Wine is matured in barrels. Stevens describes barrel work as “moving the barrel, empty it, getting into a tank herself ” etc.
She says she is a great believer is leading by example.
“There is very little I can’t do in a wine cellar. I know 99 percent of how things operate. It is important to know what causes things to go wrong. I can’t expect my guys to do something if I didn’t show them.”
Stevens attributes the business’s success in the highly saturated market to constant innovation. “We are big on innovation! We even produce a vegan-friendly wine and have created two new offerings; a Petite Sirah and Carmenere, using Australian and Chilean grape varieties, respectively.”
She also makes Pinotage, Shiraz-Bordeaux blend, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc- all in small batches with a concentration of detail.
Stevens has not forgotten where she came from.
This year she took in a student to show her the ropes. She also sponsored two students to go to Stellenbosch University to study wine making.
To give back to the community Stevens also started the Carmen Stevens Foundation.
The foundation runs a soup kitchen together with Naked Wines to feed more than 10 000 children a day.
She says he goal is to have a home for her wine and her own vineyards within the next five years.
“I want to get to a point with my own tasting room”.
Stevens says although times are very different, it is still a very white-dominated industry.
“In South Africa there are only 66 black-owned wine brands,” she says.
* This story has been selected as study material for the National High Schools Quiz final. For more stories click here.