In the world of winemaking, it’s not often that one comes across someone whose journey involves detours from their original path, let alone in a part of the world where less than one percent of wineries are owned by black individuals.
Chris Wachira, the founder and CEO of California-based Wachira Wines, embodies such a unique story that has defied convention.
Born and raised in Kenya, Wachira ventured into her American odyssey in the 1990s with a mere $500 (approximately Ksh60,000) in her pocket.
Armed with nothing but determination and resilience, she pursued a degree in nursing, marking the beginning of a remarkable journey.
Today, her story resonates with themes of triumph, bravery, and unwavering resolve, epitomizing the embodiment of success against all odds.
She continued her academic journey, attaining a Master’s in public policy and eventually a doctorate. Her initial career trajectory did not foreshadow the extraordinary path she would later embark upon.
Wachira’s foray into the world of winemaking began when she founded Wachira Wines in East Bay, California, in 2017.
This marked the establishment of the first Kenyan-American winery in the United States. Her journey was unexpected but a reflection of her determination and the desire for a new direction in her professional life.
Starting a winery in California is no small feat. The challenges were daunting, the financial investment substantial, and skepticism from industry insiders was a hurdle. However, five years into her venture, Chris Wachira finds herself in a season of abundance, reveling in the fruits of her labor. The company now produces six distinct “Californian wine brands with a Kenyan accent,” featuring cabernets, zinfandels, Muscat, and Chardonnay that are enjoyed not only in the United States but also in Japan and Canada.
What motivated a person with a nursing background to enter the world of winemaking? Her motivation was personal and profound. “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,” says Wachira.
Wachira’s journey in winemaking has been fueled by her desire to fill a gap in the wine industry.
Additionally, she is on a mission to champion the representation of black people, especially women, in the winemaking sector. Despite societal expectations for her academic pursuits, Wachira believes in showcasing winemaking as a viable and meaningful profession, a message she wishes to convey to young people.
Kenya is not traditionally associated with winemaking, so it’s only natural to wonder about people’s reactions when she talks about wine. Most often, people are curious and inquisitive. She elaborates, “People ask me: do you really make that wine? When I teach them how to pair it, they get pleasantly surprised.”
One might also wonder why she named her winery “Wachira.” Wachira explains, “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.”
Establishing a winery in a foreign country, especially as a black woman, is not a simple undertaking. The wine industry has long been dominated by white males.
Wachira’s journey began with networking, attending wine tastings, and building relationships within the industry.
During these interactions, she met Chadwick Spell, who is now the Chief Operating Officer of Wachira Wines.
The company’s journey started with just five members—Wachira, Spell, Spell’s brother, and Wachira’s two brothers. Today, their team has grown to approximately 20 members.
One of the critical aspects of winemaking is sourcing the grapes. Wachira shares that she has multi-year contracts with farmers in Napa, Lodi, and Paso Robles regions in California, ensuring a consistent supply of high-quality grapes. Each of the wines they craft features grapes from two of these regions, allowing for a diverse and unique flavor profile.
As for owning a vineyard, Wachira prefers to leave this aspect to her partners due to the challenges posed by global warming and climate change. Instead, she remains focused on perfecting her winemaking and brand.
Marketing a winery is a challenging endeavor, especially for a newcomer in the industry. Initially, the company’s focus was on festivals and social events such as parties, and getting their products on shelves was a formidable task. “Major distributors did not think I was large enough to support,” recalls Wachira.
However, when she met Spell, they founded their distribution company, Soko, which has evolved into a platform supporting minority-owned brands and small, locally-crafted wine brands.
Beyond distribution, Wachira Wines has expanded its reach to corporate events and even opened “Karibu,” a tasting room in East Bay, California, providing unique wine experiences.
The enduring appeal of wine lies in its timeless nature. People enjoy wine both in times of joy and sorrow, a fact that was exemplified during the ongoing global pandemic.
Wachira reflects, “People drink 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.”
Wachira acknowledges the cultural shift that has occurred in recent years, particularly driven by the Black social awareness movement since 2020.
This shift has significantly impacted her brand’s 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,” she shares.
Beyond her entrepreneurial journey, Wachira is also dedicated to addressing the exclusivity that has long been associated with the world of wine. Out of approximately 11,000 wineries in the United States, fewer than one percent are owned by Black individuals, and even fewer by Black women.
She wants to create an environment where people can learn about wine without judgment or fear of ignorance, emphasizing the importance of inclusivity in the industry.
While selling her wines around the world has been relatively smooth, especially in Japan, Wachira is motivated by her desire to connect with her motherland, Kenya. She recognizes the growing curiosity among Kenyans to explore and understand the world of wine. Wachira believes that her Kenyan roots have always been part of her journey, and she aims to maintain that connection.
Like many minority-owned wineries, Wachira has faced her share of challenges, with financing being a major hurdle. The capital-intensive nature of the wine business, involving the purchase of grapes, machinery, and storage facilities, has necessitated self-funding. Few lenders are willing to invest in the wine business, despite its growth potential.
However, the challenges have not deterred Wachira. She continues to passionately advocate for her brand, and the results are evident. Wachira Wines has gained recognition in various wine competitions in the United States and has developed a loyal customer base. Wachira attributes this success to her commitment to authenticity and her Kenyan heritage.
One of the most significant lessons she has learned in her five years in the industry is the importance of branding. “People connect visually before they taste it. If I do not like what I see, I won’t pick it up to taste it,” she emphasizes. Having a compelling story behind the brand is equally crucial. “This makes it personable and relatable to people. Wine is as individualistic as the person who makes it.”
For Wachira, telling the story of her brand means narrating her Kenyan and African heritage as well. This story comes to life through the packaging, where each bottle features one of the Big Five animals of the Kenyan safari. Each wine variety aligns with the characteristics of the animal depicted on the label, creating a unique and memorable experience for consumers.
Wachira’s journey has not been without its share of failures, but she views these setbacks as part of the learning curve. Her initial production faced challenges and never made it to market. However, with time and dedication, her craft has only improved.
When asked about her private cellar, Wachira reveals that she has two—one at home and another at the tasting room. Her private collection features wines that hold a special place in her heart. If she were to share a special bottle, it would be Grenache, a red wine variety she holds dear. For white wine, her choice would be Chardonnay, and for Rosé, her own Rose of Mourvedre. She particularly enjoys well-balanced wines that are fruit-forward with a touch of dryness. Currently, sparkling wine has captured her interest, making it her latest obsession in the world of winemaking.
Reflecting on how far she has come, Wachira humbly acknowledges that some winemakers have been perfecting their craft for generations. She sees her winery as a fledgling entity, still in the early stages of its development. “After only six years, we are still a baby that is learning to crawl,” she says, emphasizing the long journey ahead.
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