In 1990, the political landscape of South Africa was extremely unstable. Riots were happening everywhere and the future of the country was uncertain. With this scenery, it is hard to imagine that somewhere along the Cape Flats; a young Carmen Stevens had plans to enter the wine industry. An industry that was then not only hostile to women, but also significantly hostile to persons of colour.
Growing up in Kraaifontein Carmen’s only dream was to be a winemaker, an idea she got through reading her mother’s novels and guidance she received from a family friend who worked on Stellenbosch Farmers Winery. After matriculating from Scottsdene High in 1990, Carmen applied to study at Elsenberg Agricultural College, but was rejected because; the college only accepted white students. Hoping to get a different result Carmen applied again in 1991, but was rejected for the same reason.
That year Carmen began to sell chocolates over the Easter period, and shoes on Cape Town station, while working at a factory that manufactured padlocks. “I’ve had so much experience working with padlocks, I’m sure I can bust open a few locks myself,” she jokes.
After applying to be admitted in 1992, the college rejected her again, because she did not do military training and had no background in agriculture. “I was confused by this, what on earth did military training have to do with winemaking,” she says.
Following yet another disappointment Carmen continued working at the factory and during this time, she completed a diploma course in agriculture, which she did through correspondence. Confident that she would finally be accepted, Carmen applied again and was finally accepted to start in January 1993. She also threatened to expose the college if they denied her application again.
Carmen’s student life was not any easier. Being a woman of colour made her an easy target for racial attacks and insults from both students and lectures. The insults often led to panic attacks and almost caused her to drop out. She however, confronted the school management and the bullying soon stopped. “It wasn’t an easy journey, but when I finally graduated from Elsenberg in 1995 I was overjoyed,” she says.
Her rise to the top began at Distell working in the cellar. Distell, also launched Takulu Wines (a black empowerment initiative) around that time and Carmen led the project. During this time, she won double gold in the National Veritas selection for her Tukulu Pinotage, both in 1999 and in 2001. Her Pinotage ranked in ABSA’s Top Ten Pinotage category in 2000. In addition, she has two harvest internships under her belt, one in California, and the other in France.
Her award-winning career did not end there though. When she joined Zonnebloem White Wines as an assistant winemaker, she initially had her eyes set on the white winemaker position, so when the position became vacant she applied immediately. She was unsuccessful – management told her that she was not qualified for the position – and so she resigned.
Following her resignation, Carmen began bottling some of SA’s finest wines for Stellenbosch Vineyards and Amani, acquiring a few more awards along the way. She won the 2008 Decanter International Red Bordeaux Red Varietals Trophy for her Amani Cabernet Franc/Merlot 2006 and the 2007 National Female Entrepreneur in Agriculture award, but she was far from done. She had plans to create her own wine brand.
Creating a brand is not cheap and despite her obvious talents, the banks would not give her a business loan. It was in 2011 that she received a call from Rowan Gormley of UK-based Company, Naked Wines, offering her a job as a winemaker. Even though it took Carmen a year, she finally said yes, which may well be one of the best decisions she ever made.
Her collection, which includes a Shiraz 2017 and Chenin Blanc 2018, is consistently among the top ten sellers of Naked Wine brands. It has been described as “insanely popular”, especially in the US and UK. Her remarkable career came to a climax in 2015 when she was named the 2015 winemaker of the year, an award that comes with a R6 million cash prize.
Over the years, the South African wine industry has grown fond of her story, but it is perhaps her generous heart that is most indicative of who she is. In 2009, she started The Carmen Stevens foundation, which aims to feed hungry children in the Western Cape. She says schoolchildren faint in class, because of their lack of nutrition. Carmen believes that the foundation has achieved a lot, but is quick to point out that she cannot take all the credit. She says that she was “part of a group of people that have collected over R2 million to feed more than 12,293 schoolchildren every day.”
When Carmen is not creating award-winning wines or raising funds for children, she can be found spending time with her two beautiful daughters. The three love cooking together and often go “restaurant hunting.” Looking towards the future, Carmen plans to expand into Asia and Africa where she is sure to harvest a few more awards along the way.
Note: A special thanks to Carmen Stevens for making time to speak with us.