When Lorna Kipkosgei, who talks about wine culture on her YouTube channel, “Sip with Lornzie,” received a call from Joy Adero, asking her to join Team Wine Kenya for this year’s World Blind Tasting Championship, she found herself in an unfamiliar situation.
While she is confident as a wine influencer, indeed she is among the first people in the country to specialise in the area, that call from Joy had her wondering if her wine-tasting skills were good enough to go against seasoned sommeliers who could tell a wine just by smelling it. She need not have doubted herself nor her skills considering that her life revolves around wine – as captured in her YouTube channel.
“It (wine) is a topic with a specific audience. Someone will only watch my content if they are interested in knowing about wine and learning more about it,” she says.
In addition to the channel, Lorna, has training in this area.
“In February last year, I decided to pursue wine professionally and help bridge the gap in wine knowledge in the Kenyan market. I started by learning about wine regions, grape varieties and wine-making techniques. I went on to obtain certification in wine education through the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) programme and even travelled to Cape Town in South Africa and toured some of the world’s most renowned wine regions to learn from the experts,” she says.
Now she finds herself in good company as a member of the five-woman Team Wine Kenya. Ahead of its debut at the annual Blind Wine competition in France last year, the Kenyan team of Victoria Mulu-Munywoki and Joy Adero had the misfortune of suffering wine fatigue – what with daily tasting sessions – that threatened to rob the game of the fun.
This year, that same team that came 26th in a field of 30, is more confident and tenacious, speaking of their readiness so much so that they have brought on board three new members — Lorna, Diane Chimboza and Judy Ngene – two of whom are also wine importers.
Lorna is one of the seven scholars selected for the Bordeaux Mentor Week with wine experts such as Jane Anson and Chinedu Rita Rosa of Vines by Rosa. It is a wine education programme funded by the Gérard Basset Foundation in Bordeaux, one of the most famous wine-producing regions in France with vast vineyards.
“I was the head of marketing for a company that sold wines. They brought some bottles from South Africa for selling. I looked through the wine list and was shocked at how many different types of wines were on it. I took it upon myself to learn about the different wines to be able to sell them and talk about them,” she says.
“This was a similar challenge I encountered whenever I went to the supermarket to buy a bottle of wine. I would ask the attendant to point me in the direction of a white wine that is not too dry and not too sweet, and they could not tell me the difference. They could not tell the difference between a Chardonnay and a Sauvignon Blanc and those are very common white wines,” she adds.
The second addition to the team, Judy Ngene, grew up around wine – not only was wine a common beverage in her home (her father enjoys good quality wine) but also a means of livelihood for her mother owned a wine-importing firm called Galina Kenya.
“I used to travel a lot with my mother when I first got into the business. I did not know much about wine other than what I liked to drink. So, I started going to the annual ProWein Trade Fair in Düsseldorf, Germany. It is an experience I always talk about because it is the largest wine fair where you will find all sommeliers, winemakers and producers. You get to attend masterclasses and taste wines of all kinds from all over the world, however, it is very exclusive, so you cannot attend unless you are in the wine business,” she explains.
Judy was impressed by the experts who were so eloquent in the language of wine and felt shortchanged because she usually bought wines for consumers back home in Kenya but knew almost nothing about them.
“I started my wine education with an online course by Wines of South Africa (WoSA), but South Africa is just a small part of the wine world. What I was interested more in was French wines because I always found them so complex, complicated and fancy. It was always hard to tell them apart. That is when I enrolled in the WSET programme. I started with Level 2 since Level 1 was basic. I already had that knowledge because of selling wine,” she says.
She is now the CEO of Galina Kenya and the co-founder of the Wine Fair which was held earlier this month. It mimics the ProWein Trade Fair that she admired in Germany. This year’s theme was ‘A Journey Around the World’ which was evident by the array of wines from countries that most did not know produce wine, such as Moldova, Serbia and Tanzania.
The event also had masterclasses held by the team with some of the profits from the event being contributed to Team Wine Kenya’s Ksh3 million ($20,587) Mchanga Fund to facilitate the team’s travel and accommodation costs. So far, they have raised about Ksh45,000 ($308) with less than 30 days to the competition.
“We are going up against people who grew up in countries where it was okay to sip wine at a young age while we were not allowed to drink until we turned 18. For some, it was even after they turned 21. It is new for us and that makes it exciting,” she says.
Judy believes that their training sessions will push them ahead, but she is still ready for whatever curveballs the competition throws their way.
Diane Chimboza was a big supporter of Team Wine Kenya last year and hosted them for a blind wine-tasting training session at her office, 'Under the Influence'. This year, she gets off the bench not only as a player, but also as the coach.
“Victoria was the coach last year, but this year, she chose to be a participant. The coach’s job is the hardest. You have all these different personalities, palettes and opinions that you need to get to one consensus. I met one of the members of a rival team recently who told me that the biggest issue would be alcohol fatigue. He said the team will start dropping like flies, one by one. That is why when we train, I try to put everyone in competition mode. We time our tastings just like what will happen in France next month. I think it is about strategy and learning everyone’s strengths,” she said.
Even though she is from Zimbabwe, she says she is Kenyan by heart. Her only expectation is that they do better than last year and hopes that they secure a position in the top 10, which she believes would be a big win for an all-female team in a male-dominated competition. The World Blind Tasting Championship, organised by La Revue du Vin de France, was born following the European wine-tasting championship in 2013. The event, to be held in early October, will bring together more than 30 countries.
“The only African countries in this year’s competition are Kenya and South Africa. We are also representing East Africa. Zimbabwe recently backed out probably because of financial constraints since participants have to facilitate their own flight tickets to France and accommodation. It is a very expensive affair since a ticket to France from Kenya now is around Ksh200,000, ($1,400)” Victoria explains.
During last year's competition, Victoria and Joy did not expect to get a 2014 Chardonnay from England, which is not on the list of popular wine-making countries, a factor that cost them a point. Participants get 12 glasses - six with red wines and six with white wines. The group is given 10 minutes to give their answer for each glass before the buzzer goes off and an official takes their sheet for marking. After each glass, the marks are tallied to show how each country is performing. For each wine, they are expected to give the following information about the wine: the type of grape, country, region, producer and vintage which is the year the wine’s grapes were harvested.
“I think we got a bit nervous in the middle of the competition because there was a moment where we were placed sixth, overall, which was after the fourth bottle out of the 12. We were not aware that they were only going to provide us with palette cleansers such as crackers and bread, that also helped us not get drunk since we had to taste 12 wines non-stop. They only gave us water. At least this time round, we will be ready with our own supplies,” Joy explains.
She adds that they now emphasise cohesion using a system that has them working like a well-oiled machine.
“When we do our ratings, we aim primarily to figure out whether the grape is from the old world, which is Europe with a cool climate, or the new world, such as the Americas or South Africa where it is warmer, and the wine tends to have flavours and aromas of ripe fruit. This time we are more purposeful in identifying the markers that will direct us to be as precise as we can,” she said.
All the five women have gone through the WSET programme, a four-level international qualification for wine professionals and enthusiasts. Through the programme, they have learned how to identify the main types and styles of wine through sight, smell, and taste, while also gaining the basic skills to describe wines accurately.
They are also equipped with knowledge of the principal and regionally important grape varieties of the world, the regions in which they are grown, and the styles of wine they produce. The programme has helped the women develop a detailed understanding of grape growing and winemaking, how and why wine production and business factors influence the style, quality, and price of wines.