A Kenyan who makes wines in California

Dr. Chris Wachira, Chief Executive Officer, Wachira Wines, based in California, USA during the interview at The Social House on March 14, 2022. PHOTO | DIANA GNGILA | NMG

What you need to know:

  • When she started Wachira Wines in Eat Bay, California, the first Kenyan-American winery in the US, in 2017, it was unexpected but a desired direction in her professional life.
  • Every subsequent decision and every investment she has made has been driven by the need to fill a gap in the wine industry, she says.
  • Setting up a winery in a foreign country as a black person and as a woman is not one of the easiest things to do.

It is not often that someone goes abroad for studies and makes a detour to winemaking. It is even more uncommon that one would do so in a part of the world where less than one percent of wineries is owned by black people. Yet it is a gamble that Chris Wachira, the founder and CEO of California-based Wachira Wines, was willing to make.

Born and raised in Kenya, Wachira went to the US in the 1990s to study nursing, staying on to undertake her Master’s in public policy and later a doctorate.

When she started Wachira Wines in Eat Bay, California, the first Kenyan-American winery in the US, in 2017, it was unexpected but a desired direction in her professional life. The entry was tough, the investment substantially high. Then there was the initial scepticism.

But five years later, she is revelling in a season of full-circle abundance. The company now crafts six “Californian wine brands with a Kenyan accent” including cabernets, zinfandels, Muscat and Chardonnay, consumed in the US, Japan, and Canada. She was recently in Kenya to promote the brands.

But why wine for someone with a nursing inclination?

“My drive was as simple and as selfish as wanting to make a wine that would complement my mother’s dishes. I could not find a wine that would go well with the Kenyan dishes she made.”

Every subsequent decision and every investment she has made has been driven by the need to fill a gap in the wine industry, she says. That and the desire “to highlight the intentionality of representation of black people, especially women, in winemaking.”

“When people send their children abroad for studies, they want them to take up grand professions in law and medicine. But winemaking is also a viable option. I want young people to see that in me. It is a viable business,” she says. Kenya is not known in the world as a wine country. I wonder the kind of reactions she gets when she rises to talk about wine.

“Most times people are curious. People ask me: do you really make that wine? When I teach them how to pair it, they get pleasantly surprised.”

Others wonder why she named it Wachira. “The Robert Mondavi family in California call their wine Mondavi. The Kendall Jacksons call theirs Jacksons. I named mine Wachira because it represents who I am.”

Setting up a winery in a foreign country as a black person and as a woman is not one of the easiest things to do. Wachira says the wine industry is heavily white-male dominated. So how did she start?

“I had been meeting winemaking families. I also went for tastings in the vineyards for years, where I created networks.”

It is during these interactions that she met her husband Chadwick Spell, now the chief operating officer of the wine company. “We were five when we started; him and me, his brother and my two brothers. Now we are about 20.”

How does she source her grapes? Wachira says she has multi-year contracts with farmers in Napa, Lodi and Paso Robles regions in California who supply the grapes.

“The regions are different in topography, the soils, and climate. Each of the wines we make has grapes from two of the three regions. Our Cabernet has grapes from all the three, which creates a very unique flavour profile.”

Owning a vineyard, is it something she hopes to do someday?

“With global warming and climate change and their impact on agriculture, that is not my desire. I have partners who are going to fulfil that part of the business (producing grapes).”

If setting up a winery is difficult, marketing it takes the biscuit. When the company started, the focus was on festivals and social events such as parties. Getting her products on shelves was a challenge.

“Major distributors did not think I was large enough to support. When I met Spell, we built our distribution company, Soko. Soko creates access pipelines for minority-owned brands and small and locally-crafted wine brands,” she recalls.

What started in California as a distribution avenue for local beverages has now become the “Amazon” of minority winemakers carrying wine, beer, and liquor produced by minorities nationally.

Wachira Wines has also scaled to corporate events, and opened “Karibu” a tasting room in East Bay in California for wine experiences.

“The beauty about wine, people drank before the pandemic and during the pandemic. They will also drink after the pandemic. People drink both when they are happy and when they are sad,” she says.

The ongoing cultural shift, driven by the Black social awareness movement since 2020, has been pivotal to her growth.

“There has been intentionality among people in looking for specifically black-owned businesses. When this movement started, we were able to pivot and to target this opportunity since we were already positioned.”

Her being in this industry is serving another purpose: to address the exclusionary nature of wine. Out of about 11,000 wineries in the US alone, less than one percent are owned by Blacks. Even fewer by black women.

“I want folks to come and experience wine from a position of inclusion without judgment or fear of ignorance. I want people to have fun with it and learn about it,” she says.

Selling elsewhere in the world has been fairly smooth-sailing for the brand, particularly in Japan. Wachira says the Japanese, like the Chinese, like American products, which has made an entry of her wines less arduous.

So, why Kenya? Why now? Wachira insists that it has always been about Kenya for her. “There is a certain sense of nationalism everywhere in the world, including in the US. As a Kenyan, I want to be connected to my motherland.”

She adds that she has kept pace with the progression of the Kenyan wine market, and is she is impressed by Kenyans’ curiosity to learn about wine.

Like other minority wineries, her journey has not been without challenges, the main one financing.

“The wine business is capital-heavy, that is, buying the grapes, the machinery and storage facilities for the grape juice to age it. We are self-funded. We reinvest the money to help the business grow,” she explains, noting that few lenders have been willing to fund in the business.

The other challenge has been having to continuously convince the market about their products. This has yielded fruits, with the company being recognised during wine competitions in the US.

“We have a very loyal customer base. Our following is growing.”

On competing with more established traditional brands, Wachira says everyone has a flavour profile that appeals to their palate.

“At my tastings in Alameda, California, I serve different cabernets and zinfandels from other wineries as well. I do not try to make my wine like the Americans, Italians, or French. That [style] is taken. I am authentically Kenyan. I craft my wines using formulations that appeal to my Kenyan palate.” The only palate that is correct is yours, she adds.

After five years in the industry, the importance of branding has been one of her biggest lessons.

“People connect [with a product] visually before they taste it. If I do not like what I see, I won’t pick it up to taste it.”

There is also having a storyline that goes with the brand. “This makes it personable and relatable to people. Wine is as individualistic as the person who makes it.”

For her, telling the story of her brand is to tell the story of her Kenyan and African heritage as well. Nothing tells the story of her heritage better than the packaging that features one of the Big Five animals of Kenyan safari on each bottle.

“Each of the wines matches the characteristics of the animal depicted in its flavour profiles. The lion, for instance, which is the symbol of our sparkling wine, can start and end any party. A lion is commanding.”

She says this wine variety pairs well with lemon cake. ‘‘My mother makes lemon cake today as she has done since I was a little girl.”

She has also recognised the difference between working in the business and working on the business. Is there any? “When you work in the business, you are literally in the trenches. Working in the business means forecasting, strategising, building and creating.”

Does she have a private cellar? Two, she says. One at home another at the tasting room.

I ask the type of wines she stocks.

“If I had guests and I wanted to gift them something that is off the menu, I would go into my private collection. For a red, I would serve them Grenache, which comes from one of my favourite grapes. For white, I would serve them my Chardonnay. For Rosé, I would serve my own, Rose of Mourvedre.”

“I like my wines well balanced. I do not like them heavily tunic reds. I like them to be fruit-forward with some dryness. I do both reds and whites. But sparkling wine is my current obsession,” she adds.

Where she has failed, Wachira has taken it as part of the learning curve. Her debut production, for instance, was a disaster and never saw the market. With time, her craft has only gotten better.

On how far is she is from actualising her dream, Wachira says: “Some people have been making wine for generations. After only six years, we are still a baby that is still learning to crawl.”

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