In 2016, South Africa was the seventh biggest wine producer in the world, focusing on varietals like chenin blanc, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, shiraz and pinotage. The numbers and vareitals are impressive, but they don't tell the whole story.
Cape Venture Wines aims to change that.
Cape Venture Wines is importing two wines that co-founders Charles Brain and Walker Brown believe are reflective of what's different about South African wines — a 100 percent chenin blanc and a Rhone-style red blend. But these wines, bottled under the label Lubanzi Wines, also have a social conscience.
"Walker and I met in South Africa a couple of years ago while studying at the University of Cape Town. Basically, we fell in love with South Africa," Brain told me when I interviewed both 23-year-olds about their new venture.
Their time in South Africa, where they spent their junior year abroad from their respective universities, was a life-changing experience. They had an adventure that included not only an education but also surfboards, a six-day backpacking trip along the coastline with a dog named Lubanzi, and a good deal of time in South African wine country.
Brain, Brown and their other traveling companions were joined by this dog, whom natives told them was named Lubanzi, on a six-day hike along the coast. Lubanzi joined them voluntarily, led them to explore places they wouldn't have gone, and then took off at the end of the journey. The wine label is named in his honor. (Photo used with permission from Lubanzi Wines)
For two years after they returned to the States, they worked on the idea of a sustainable South African wine business, something that would share success with the growers. They moved to Cape Town after graduation and met with family farmers, winemakers, negociants — those are merchants who buy grapes, juice, or finished wine from growers, selling the resulting bottles on the market wholesale — and others in the South African wine world.
A chance meeting with Bruce Jack, one of the region's best-known winemakers, led them to a collaboration in which he consults on their wines. Winemaker Trizanne Barnard is the hands-on creator of the two Lubanzi wines, and Fanakalo, a small South African design studio, created the bottle labels. Their design captures the adventurous spirit of South Africa that Brain and Brown want to share with the world through these wines.
Wine with a social conscience
Lubanzi sends part of its profits back to South Africa to help the winegrowers and their families. (Photo used with permission by Lubanzi)
"This whole project is about our love this country, these people," said Brown. "We're taking a piece of this place that we love and sharing it with people in our homeland."
They're also sharing the profits from the wine with the people in South Africa. Half of the profits from sales go directly back to Pebbles Project, an NGO that supports the families who live and work on the farms that produce the grapes.
"A lot of really good people are trying to provide the best living situation for their employees that they can," Brain and Brown said.
However, only a very small number of South African wine producers are profitable. Some break even, but most lose money. People on the farms are employed, generation after generation, under conditions that aren't ideal. It was heartbreaking for the friends to see communities that were really struggling as they traveled around South Africa.
"We want this to be a better situation for a lot of people, and that's why we want to be involved," said Brown.
Brain and Brown realize that the poverty in the country is complicated, so their plan is to address the issues in the long term.
Cape Venture Wines is only about 4 months old, and already it's making a difference through the Pebble Project. The company's website keeps track of the measurable impact it's had in the community. To date, 54 children have had improved access to dental services and 94 children have had improved access to medical services.
The clinic that the Pebble Project runs offers services to all children free of charge. Adults are required to pay a small, nominal fee.
The inclusive focus of the NGO is on building and growing families in a sustainable way. The most impactful way to do that is to focus on the children, with a special focus on the youngest who often need services the most.
Ultimately, Brain and Brown want to create a situation where families who have been working on the farms for generations and living alongside the estate can consider a different future, where workers realize "there is more out there for me."
"The goal for us is to expand the number of programs Pebbles can bring in the community. Right now we support transportation to local care. The next step is to bring in consistent oral hygiene," said Brain and Brown.
Access to education will follow, getting the children better school resources including the transportation needed to get them there. Expanding the nutrition programs in the schools is also a goal. It's a long and complicated process to set up all those systems.
As Cape Venture Wines grows, Brain and Brown anticipate creating more wines, working with interesting varietals and creating innovative packaging. The more wine they sell, the more profits they can send back to the workers in the vineyards.
So how's the wine?
Two-thirds of the chenin blanc in the world is produced in South Africa. It's the region's signature grape, and as they see it, South African wine's "calling card in the United States industry." Lubanzi's 2016 chenin blanc, made from 20-year-old vines, has all the minerality you'd expect from the soils of a coastal region and as such pairs well with seafood. This yellow/green, creamy wine gives off the aromas of peaches and citrus, and it has flavors of orange, lemon and melon.
I opened a bottle of the chenin blanc on July Fourth while I was enjoying the first Jersey corn of the season, and it paired nicely with the buttery, salty corn.
The 2015 Rhone-style red blend is made from 46 percent shiraz, 31 percent consult, 20 percent mourvedre and 3 percent grenache, making it a non-traditional blend. Friends and I easily polished off a bottle of this around the fire one night, and we enjoyed the dark cherry and chocolate flavors with a hint of smoke that came out after allowing it to breathe for a while.
"The focus for the red," said Brain, "was on producing something that was fruit forward, something that retains a certain level of South African smoke and tar because of the high iron content in the soil of the area."
Both wines are crafted to be "everyday sipping wines,' and I would agree that they are. They can be enjoyed without food, but they're also food-friendly. They are currently available in stores in the mid-Atlantic region, retailing for $14.99 and online for $18.