Carmen Stevens’ journey to becoming an award-winning winemaker is one of determination, resilience and undeniable brilliance. Stevens grew up on the Cape Flats and as a young girl, fascinated by the vineyards and cellars depicted in Mills and Boon Novels, always dreamt of one day becoming a winemaker herself.
“I’ve always known I would be a winemaker. But truth be told, as a young girl living in the Cape Flats, I had very limited knowledge of how to make my dreams a reality,” says Stevens. “In addition to my limited access to information on the industry, let alone the art of making wine, I had never heard of winemakers that look like me,” she quips.
Faced with the hurdle of lack of funding to further her education, Stevens turned to her friend’s uncle who worked in the lab at Stellenbosch Farmers Winery, for advice. “He told me to apply at Elsenburg College or Stellenbosch University. So I applied to study winemaking at Elsenburg Agricultural College in Stellenbosch twice in 1990 and 1991, but was told I could not study there because of the colour of my skin.”
Cognisant of the socio-political climate in South Africa at the time, Stevens applied again in 1992, but was turned away again because she had no military experience. “I was finally accepted in 1993 and graduated as the first black winemaker in South Africa.”
After cutting her teeth in the local winemaking industry with stints at Distell, Kunjani, Welmoed, Naked Wines and Amani, including 10 years in California representing Distell’s brand, Tukulu, Stevens established her own label in 2011.
Carmen Stevens Wines is an independent, small batch winery and the only black-owned brand in South Africa. 95% of her wines are exported to the UK and USA under the Catoria label (a blend of her daughters’ names – Caitlin and Victoria) and marketed via online wine retailer, Naked Wines. From humble beginnings, the business today processes 150 tons and in 2018 had a turnover of R8.1 million.
Stevens attributes the business’ success in an already saturated wine producing 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.”
Stevens’ goal is to have a home for her wine and her own vineyards within the next five years. “I’d like my customers to be able to experience what we do and taste our wine with us,” says Stevens.
Deeply committed to her community, Stevens is aware of the importance of a good education and healthy nutrition. In the year she established her own label, she knew she wanted to give back and make a difference, so she started the Carmen Stevens Foundation.
Working closely with Naked Wines and her extensive network of overseas clients (“Angels”), Carmen started supporting the efforts of the Peninsula School Feeding Association (PFSA) with a soup kitchen. Her investment in really getting to know her customers through her strong online presence and inspirational story has resulted in many of them becoming regular supporters of her Foundation. “The generosity of our ‘Angels’ and our ongoing fundraising campaigns over many years have raised millions for the PFSA. Over the last two years, more than one million meals have been served to over 6 000 learners affected by poverty in 11 communities in the Western Cape, including Kraaifontein, Belhar and Elsies River. The initiative also employs 42 women who prepare the food,” she adds.
Stevens concludes by admitting that her journey hasn’t been easy – “but I hope that it inspires young girls that look like me to follow their dreams and keep knocking until all the doors open”.
Carmen Stevens is a finalist in the 2019 Entrepreneur of the Year® competition sponsored by BUSINESS/PARTNERS. For more information on her business, please see her profile of the Naked Wines website: https://www.nakedwines.com/producers/carmen-stevens.