South Africa is home to some of the world’s finest wines. With an overwhelming 80 percent of the population being Black, the country’s wine industry has been dominated by a few white elites. It was almost impossible for a Black person to be a winemaker during apartheid. Then came Carmen Stevens, the country’s first Black winemaker in the mid-1990s following the collapse of apartheid.
She got interested in winemaking after reading Mills and Boon novels where most of the settings involved vineyards or cellars or wine, according to The Buyer. She then started to entertain the idea of making wine one day.
Before taking steps to realize her dream of making wine, she was fortunate to have a friend’s uncle working in the lab at Stellenbosch Farmers Winery show her around their facility and encourage her to become a winemaker by enrolling at Elsenburg College or Stellenbosch University.
Money became a barrier to attaining a university education at Elsenburg, where she got admission to study winemaking. To raise money, she hawked in Cape Town and also worked in a factory.
She eventually went to Elsenburg following the collapse of apartheid although she was initially rejected because she could not show proof of herself through military service and also had no agricultural background.
At Elsenburg, she was one of only two Black students in her first year. She faced racism and confrontations from students and lecturers but eventually graduated in 1995, making her the first qualified Black South African winemaker.
Her wine-making journey started in the Distell cellars and later as an assistant winemaker for Zonnebloem white wines. Stevens was also offered the role of winemaker for the new Tukula brand, a “Black empowerment project of Distell, and the first such wine project”, according to The Buyer.
After a fast-rising career in the wine industry, she applied to Zonnebloem for the firm’s top job but she was turned down on the excuse that she did not have the adequate skills for such a position. Her breakthrough came when she was offered the opportunity to become a winemaker for Naked Wines. And to release her own label, she raised $150,000 in just eight hours.
Today, Carmen Stevens Wines, which was first launched in 2011, ranks among the best sellers both in the UK and the U.S. She was subsequently named by Naked Wines as the winemaker of the year with a prize of R6 million ($328,000) to be expended on wine projects.