From Kansas City, Missouri, and from near Roanoke, Virginia in the U.S., two Americans in their twenties met in Cape Town while exploring South Africa. They spent almost a week hiking 100 miles across the ‘wild coast’ of the country, beginning at Bulungula lodge west of Folokwe and heading northeast through Hole in The Wall, Coffee Bay, Mdumbi and Hiluleka. When they began their trek a dog named ‘Lubanzi’ by locals decided to follow, and stayed as their companion until they slept their final evening. The dog then vanished as mysteriously as it first appeared.
Yet Lubanzi, friend and fellow explorer, was not forgotten.
The pair, Charles Brain and Walker Brown, then formed Cape Venture Wine Company in 2016 in collaboration with independent South African winemakers Trizanne Barnard and Bruce Jack. Their Lubanzi wines (‘From where the mountain meets the ocean…’) include two new canned wines—one a Chenin Blanc and the other a red blend (Syrah/Shiraz dominant, with Cinsault, Mourvedre and Grenache), as well as bottled wines. They now sell in 26 U.S. states and Canada, and will soon begin selling in South Africa. They are based in Washington DC, and the surrounding region—including Virginia and Maryland—is also a primary market.
Brain recently told of me about their venture.
We started alongside two independent winemakers who live in Cape Town. We’re sourcing all grapes from one group and using their facilities to produce the wine. The two of us didn’t exactly have the capital to build our own winery when we created Lubanzi, but wanted to be sure the wines were consistent, overseen by experienced winemakers and sourced from their same vineyards to ensure continuity in style and quality. We created Lubanzi almost entirely because we love South Africa, were hungry for adventure and thought South African wine deserved a better seat at the table than it was getting. People connect with the story and appreciate the idea was done out of personal passion.
The blending and bottling take place at Swartland Cellar, located outside Malmesbury in South Africa. The canning, due to the need for specialized cans and industrial equipment, is done in the U.S.
Brain talked of the challenges.
We function both as a virtual South African winery and as a U.S. importer. It’s an interesting model. We do have a direct to consumer channel, and have all the licensing, but that’s a smaller part of the business. We produced two varietals at about $17 a bottle and learned early that direct to consumer works best when you’re able to offer real variety consistently. For us the main focus is with our distributors.
Their total production now is 3,500 cases [12 bottles a case] for each wine. The pair constantly travel to market their product.
Like everything in the wine business, it doesn’t come easy. But our experience has been better than expected. South African wine is definitely a niche. In a lot of American cities, people coming into wine shops don’t have a working knowledge of South Africa or South African wines. They might know that they hosted the World Cup a few years ago. They know comparatively more about California, Oregon, French, Italian and Spanish wines. We’re very diligent about visiting all the markets we work in, twice a year. We meet sales reps and clients and educate them about South African wines. You have to really put in that work to keep the ball rolling. Our presence in the U.S. is essential to the success we have had.
We launched the cans a couple weeks ago. The reception has been better than we ever imagined. Certain parts of the country [the U.S.] are very excited and embracing it completely, while others have been a bit slower to understand and see the value in cans. Overall, the response continues to be positive and encouraging.
We want to grow and make more wines and connect more South African winemakers with the U.S. We want to be successful in our own right, but also to grow the profile in the U.S. When we do events, we spend a lot of time talking about South African wine. The simple solution is just to get out there and talk to people. It’s a lot of work and honestly exhausting, but necessary to succeed in the U.S.
Brain’s family owns a wine distribution business in the U.S., which provided him with insight into how the business works. He and Brown received advice from their families, friends and from Doug Frost, a Kansas City author who studied to become both a Master Sommelier and a Master of Wine. The confluence of different circumstances aided in their launch of Lubanzi. These included, according to Brain:
Being being passionate about wine and social entrepreneurship, about having this amazing experience in South Africa, and feeling there’s a pretty enormous untapped potential. We love when people appreciate the wines and tell us. That’s connecting with wine and sharing.
Brain studied social entrepreneurship at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. He was fascinated by businesses that could meld profit with purpose: a hybrid world between business and non-profits. Today 50% of their business profits go back to the Pebbles Project in South Africa, which works with laborers on South African wine farms to provide better access to education and health care, including oral hygiene.
Both of us are passionate about wine and social entrepreneurship. To witness that impact is definitely gratifying.
Their efforts are helping to propel South African wines in the U.S.; they may also better educate Americans about that country. Their story reflects a confluence of experience, education and exploration. It also shares an appreciation of how mysterious events and beings—including a wandering, curious dog—can enter life and alter its trajectory.