I sometimes wonder if I am the first Kenyan wine maker, well soon to be a winemaker. I come from a small agricultural town called Nanyuki (directly translated from Masai it means: a place of red water) located in the Northwest of Mount Kenya. It’s also known as the high lands due to its extreme elevation in altitude. When people first hear that I am from Kenya and am studying winemaking they tend to ask me “Can you grow grapes for wine in Kenya?”
The answer is no, you cannot grow grapes for wine in Kenya. The key element is climate. South Africa has a Mediterranean climate, whereas Kenya’s climate varies from location to location and this will overall influence the quality of grapes. This question is usually followed by an exclamation of: WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING HERE? Honestly at first I had no idea what I got myself into; I chose a very strict and direct agricultural degree that would not really benefit me if I was to go back to Kenya. There are no stunning vineyards and beautiful estates back home. I grew up on a wheat and barley farm for Pete’s sake. Back home wine was nothing more than an alcoholic beverage, our geography is totally different, one would describe it as “the wild”. I mean like elephants trampling in your backyard searching for maize, the occasional howl of hyenas, or a leopard mauls your neighbor’s dog.
I cannot pinpoint what really got me interested in winemaking itself. I guess it’s all the garden parties that our family hosts, where the whole family gets together and there is food, fit for a king, like a ‘lekker’ leg of lamb that is slow roasted on the spit braai complimented with some roasted potatoes with fresh herbs from the garden. It’s obvious that with such good food we always had to have good wine. It was always wonderful to see everyone get together because we live so far from the main city, or civilization as some of my friends would say. I guess what I’m trying to say is that because of these parties I always had this idea that good wine and food brings people together.
So why come to Stellenbosch, a very prominent Afrikaans institute? Coming here was the best choice I ever made. If not for Stellenbosch I would have ended up doing bio-medical science at UWC (I shudder just thinking about it). If I could go back and do it all over, I wouldn’t change a thing. Stellies (as the students call it) is incredibly beautiful, especially the town and the architecture of University campus. Stellenbosch is the best place, in the whole of Africa to come study the art of wine making. Stellenbosch truly is the heart of the wine lands. South African wine is well-recognized world-wide, and it is slowly creeping out from the dark trying to reach the top. However, I feel the world needs something new (like a drug it keeps them buzzed), so South Africa and Stellenbosch need to make room for us “Africans” because people are tired of the old world wines.
Despite not knowing or understanding a single word of Afrikaans, it hasn’t stopped me from pursuing my degree. My first year was spent in an all male residency, which for me was a great experience, but also a learning curve. I still remember the first Afrikaans word I was taught, (keep in mind I was still adjusting to my new environment). So there I was standing in line in the quad with all the first years practicing dance moves for this thing called “Vensters”, there was a boy standing next to me, and I noticed someone had scribbled ‘doos’, so I asked him what that meant and he told me that it meant “you are beautiful in Afrikaans”, so the next time I meet an Afrikaans girl I should tell her that. I was totally clueless and was ready to try it at out at the next ‘skakel’. So I approached this girl and introduced myself then followed with the best pick up line; “jy is ‘n ‘doos’ meisie”. The girl asked me if wanted a slap, I was shocked, as if I said somethig wrong. Obviously I quickly explained my situation and was let off the hook, we laughed hard that night, funny enough we ended up dating, but thats a story for another time.
The point I want to make with all of this is that I came to Stellenbosch to learn winemaking from the best. So that one day when you pick up a bottle of finely crafted merlot and read the label it will say “ Made by a Kenyan” or even “Made in Kenya” on the back.
*In the interest of honesty I should add that some pioneers have started to attempt winemaking in Kenya and I shall be their guiding light. (click here if you want to find out more)