Carmen Stevens

Where it started

Throughout the 300 odd years that wine has been made in South Africa, black people have assisted in the cellars, perhaps even making the wine. But until the demise of apartheid there were no qualified black winemakers. How amazing then, that the first person to break through the barrier, was not a man but young black woman. 

Carmen Stevens, grew up in the Kraaifontein and Belhar areas on the bleak Cape Flats, areas designated for so-called “coloured” people. As a young girl she read Mills and Boon novels, where most of the settings involved vineyards or cellars or wine. This sparked the idea of her making wine one day. 

No-one in her community knew that you could study winemaking, but an uncle of a friend worked in the lab at Stellenbosch Farmers Winery, and he showed her around. He told her that to become a winemaker she would need to study at Elsenberg College or at Stellenbosch University. 

There were no funds for university, but Stevens applied to Elsenberg. In 1990 and again in 1991 she was told that only white students were accepted. She began work in factory and then selling shoes as a hawker on Cape Town station to save funds. She applied again in 1992, as apartheid was finally crumbling, only to be told that she was being turned down because she had not proved herself through military service, nor did she have an agricultural background. 

By mid 1992, she had had enough. She had done an agricultural diploma by correspondence and she threatened the college with creating a huge fuss in the media if she were again excluded. So they admitted her to start in January 1993. 

Tough going

The three years at Elsenberg were tough. There were only five women out of approximately 100 first year students. There were only two people of colour, the other a man studying Pomolgy. Stevens endured racism, undermining and patronising confrontations from students and lecturers alike, until she began having panic attacks halfway through her second year. 

About to pack her bags and leave, she confronted the authorities, and matters improved dramatically.  She graduated in 1995. The first ever person of colour to qualify as a winemaker in South Africa. Looking back, Stevens believes this time made her tough, and taught her to deal with “difficult” people. She was the first black person to graduate in South Africa as a winemaker, albeit the three challenging years at Elsenberg. 

Two award winning top 10 Pinotages, a stint in California and representing Tukula abroad, all led her to believe she was ready for the job as the Zonnebloem white winemaker. But when she applied for the post, management told her she did not have the adequate skills for such a position. She resigned. 

Since then Stevens has gone on to make wine at Welmoed for Stellenbosch Vineyards, and for eight years at Amani where she won the Decanter 2008 International Red Bordeaux Varietals Trophy for her Amani Cabernet Franc/Merlot 2006. 

Big breakthrough

Her big break came when Rowan Gormley called her one Friday evening at home with the offer to become a winemaker for Naked Wines. Stevens  thought this was a prank call, thrown off balance by his posh voice and big promises. But when he persisted throughout the following week, she decided to go for it. 

Her initial fundraising on the Naked website broke all records, raising $166,000 in just eight hours, as folk warmed to her personality and her story. Carmen Steven’ wines then launched in 2011, with their maiden vintage produced in 2014. Today the brand is consistently among Naked Wines’ best sellers, both in the UK and the US. So successful, that in 2015 she was Naked Wines’  Winemaker of the Year, taking home a prize of $400 thousand to be spent on wine projects.  Her challenge today is to find enough cellar space to rent! 

In January 2019 Carmen registered the first 100% black owned winery in South Africa in the picturise Stellenbosch. 

What achievement are you most proud of?

There are so many but l will highlight just two. I am most proud of the fact that we have our own cellar facility. We registered as the first 100% Black-owned winery facility in the country in January 2019, owned entirely by me. (That is in itself very telling, when you consider that South Africa’s first democratic elections were way back in 1994. The wheels of change turn extremely slowly!) I’m also proud of being able to mentor the three men who work with me every day, giving them the prospect of a better future. 

Then, with the help of Naked Wines’ angels network, we have since 2016 provided a breakfast and lunch for 22,603 learners at school. During the 2019 school year alone we provided for 10,310 learners every school day at 53 schools from 25 communities and in doing so created 79 job opportunities for unemployed mothers in these communities. We are now working with community kitchens (‘soup kitchen’ has such a negative connotation …) since not all kids are at school yet due to the pandemic. This food assists these learners to focus in school and achieve better results, eliminating the short-term hunger that a lot of our learners are faced with every day. 

The Label

Our label display a “tiger” on closer inspection three figures are seen. A man on the right side of the “tiger”, a bird with a red beak on the left side of the “tiger” and a face of a dog between the man and the bird all taken together by the body and colour of the “tiger”.Our label is an expression of how different people experience wine. Some people pick up a glass and identify all characteristic immediately while others take time to “see” all the wine is expressing in the glass. The “Tiger” is very special to me. My eldest daughter, Caitlin, painted “tiger” at school when she was only 6 years old and I love it!