I resisted being pushed into wine, now an expert

Kelvin Wanjira

Red and white. Many Kenyans imagine that these are the only wine classifications. Those with a bit more knowledge will add sweet and dry to the list. The fact is wine goes far deeper than that, as explained by one of Kenya’s top wine consultants and experts, Kelvin Wanjira.

Popularly known as Winejira, he has taken his passion for wine and turned it into a blooming business.

Kelvin, 34, is in the process of creating the first wine syllabus in Kenya and working with like-minded wine experts to form the Sommelier Association of Kenya. He speaks to Hustle about the curiosity for wine that led him to become a wine icon in the hospitality industry.

What does a wine consultant do?

A wine consultant, also known in some circles as a sommelier, is a wine master, which means they have in depth information about the art of wine. Wine can be broken down into several categories; white, red, rose and fortified wines. Those categories are then classified into either sweet or dry wines.

What are fortified wines?

These are wines that have spirits blended into them, like cherry or port wines, which are mainly used as desserts or palette cleansers.

Of what use is the knowledge of wine to someone who just wants to enjoy a drink?

It helps because you can be specific about what you want. Different wines respond differently to different people. So, if you know your berries and regions, you can identify which tastes you prefer, because the tastes are very different. A wine lover will, maybe, ask for wine from Chile and then specify a grape their like, for example cabernet sauvignon, merlot, shiraz and so on.

Wine is a niche industry in Kenya, what prompted you to get into it?

I was working as a marketing agent in a company that had a wine distributor as a client. This was six to seven years ago. My boss appointed me as the account manager of the brand, Nederburg.

At first, I resisted it and even tried to get pulled off the account, but my boss insisted that I give it a chance and take it as an opportunity to learn something new.

To familiarise myself with the wine industry, I went for a wine orientation at Parklands Sports Club. I was amazed that one beverage could have so many layers and humbled about how little I knew.

Before that, I had one box of sweet wine in my house, just in case a guest showed up and requested wine. I knew nothing about the different grapes, tastes, pairing wine with certain foods. Realising how intricate the industry was intrigued me.

What followed were three years of learning, growth and curiosity as I handled the Nederburg account. I was fondly known as Mr Nederburg.

How lucrative is this career?

Well, a wine consultant will do more than managing brands. For instance, I travel a lot to different establishments training their staff members about wine. A large part of our income comes from that. I’ve done trainings in many five-star hotels and other places.

I like events where we give talks to ordinary people at dinners, golf tournaments or launches.

I was once at an art gallery attended by (the late) Bob Collymore and Michael Joseph. My job was simply to pour wine and engage the guests if they asked me questions. I was paid for that.

The pallet of Kenyans is changing, and when someone walks into a high-end hotel or restaurant and asks for wine, they want their waiter to be able to guide them or understand their requests.

You are currently developing a wine curriculum. Do you believe there is enough demand to justify this?

Yes, particularly because we lack the in-depth training needed to be an internationally recognized sommelier. There are institutions that teach about wine, but most of them cover the basics, and the qualifications attained are not recognized by the international market.

Right now, most of our wine experts travel to South Africa or Europe to gain knowledge. My qualifications are from the London based Wines and Spirits Education Trust (WSET), a programme run in Kenya by Wanjiru Mureithi of Winejiru. She focuses her training on professionals who want to get in-depth in their knowledge.

My curriculum, on the other hand, will train mostly students coming fresh into the field.

How will you get word out about your curriculum?

Initially, we will work with the existing institutions that already offer hospitality as a course. Instead of Utalli, for instance, doing their own course on wine, they would hire us to train their students. It works for everyone because they don’t have to create a complete curriculum and we don’t have to struggle finding students to teach in our school. In the end, the output is highly marketable alumni, which is always a plus for the credentials of any institution.

How expensive is a venture like this?

Well, we will start small, especially because we will not need a physical school on the onset. To be honest the biggest investment is putting together the curriculum, which we are already doing. I received an investment offer from Joan Mwangi (KCB Lion’s Den) of Sh1. 5 million in exchange for 35% equity of my company, Yalagha Solutions.

Tell us about the sommelier association you’re interested in forming.

Because wine has been such a niche industry, we don’t yet have a body that speaks for us. We want to come together as wine enthusiasts and form a group that can champion our needs.

The group won’t only consist of sommeliers or consultants, but anyone that has an interest in wine, including hotels, restaurants, bloggers, vloggers, wine writers, trainers et cetera. If we can consolidate our data base, it becomes easier to reach any one of us when someone is looking for a service or product.

Most importantly, we can define the wine standards in Kenya, what does it take to qualify as a sommelier or wine master? What does it take to train others? What credentials do you need to hold talks and discussions on wine.

I believe the more professional we become, the more the industry will grow.

Have you had doubts along the way?

Yes. Most of it isn’t about today, though, wine has given me a very decent living. As a consultant I earn a comfortable six figure monthly income.

My doubts come for the future; if we can scale the industry. Will I have a vineyard, be holding talks with the government about provisions, taxes? What’s the longevity the industry, those are the things that sometimes flood my mind.

But I believe passion and follow-through open doors. It’s what I’ve done in my seven-year career, it’s what I’ll continue to do.

Tips on Building Niches

1.     Study, study, study: You can’t claim to be a food enthusiast and have limited information about food. Or a hotelier and not know what comprises of a hotel. Or a doctor and not understand patient care. It’s the same for wine or any other industry. Study. Especially if you’re in unchartered waters, be curious and learn.

2.     Be Humble: Pride kills people. Be willing to start from nowhere, knowing nothing and build on that. It’s okay that you don’t know, that’s why you are there. To grow.

3.     Be Where You Are: Don’t claim to have the ability to do something if you don’t. You’ll get there eventually, but don’t try to take glory where you don’t deserve it. Build it, then claim it.

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