Walker Brown doesn't claim to be an expert on wines, South Africa, or social enterprises. At 24 he's only been legally allowed to purchase wine for a few years, and as the cofounder of a wine company that sends half its profits back to a nongovernmental organization in South Africa, none of that is lost on him.
"We've spent a lot of time trying to learn as much as we can," says Brown. "What we lack in experience, I think we make up for in authenticity and gusto."
Brown was a junior at the University of Richmond when he spent a semester abroad at the University of Cape Town. And for him, South Africa became more than just his temporary host country.
"There's no other place in the world quite like it," he says. "It has this way of romancing you, and I fell victim to that early on."
He was smitten with it all: the people, the culture, the land, the wines. When the semester ended, he and Charles Brain, a fellow exchange student from Vanderbilt University, traveled up and down the coast of South Africa, surfing, hiking, exploring wine country and dreaming up business ideas that would bring them back to the country. Even after returning stateside and finishing school, the friends "couldn't shake this bug." So after graduation they packed their bags and returned to Cape Town, where they launched Cape Venture Wine Co.
South Africa is one of the top 10 wine producers in the world, but it's traditionally held only a fraction of the market in the U.S.
"To us that felt a little criminal," Brown says.
Brown and Brain collaborate with independent South African winemakers to produce two wines under the label Lubanzi: a chenin blanc and a rhone red blend. But from the beginning they wanted to do more than produce wine. The goal was to build a company that gives back to the people at the very beginning of the supply chain — the farmers and winemakers themselves.
"There's a long, complicated, convoluted channel between the human hands that pick the grapes and tend to the vines in the wine country of origin, to ultimately the amount that you shell out of your pocket to buy a wine on a restaurant list or at a store here at home," Brown says. "The idea was to try to find a way to remedy that in some sense, or at least pay homage to it."
That's why Cape Venture Wine Co. sends 50 percent of its profits to the Pebbles Project, which provides services like health and dental care to low-income families who live and work in South African wine country.
As much as Brown would love to live in Cape Town full-time, getting his hands dirty with the growers and helping out in the cellars, he spends the bulk of his time traveling around the states, introducing the wines to wholesale distributors, restaurants and stores.
Lubanzi is available in more than a dozen states, including Brown's home state of Virginia. Here in Richmond, you can find it at Shields Market, Strawberry Street Market, J. Emerson Inc., Once Upon a Vine , the University of Richmond and the Boathouse restaurants.
"Ultimately we're trying to produce really kick-ass, fun, killer wines that consumers love and that they want to share with everyone else," Brown says. "And in doing so, share South Africa, share our mission and our story, and inspire a little bit of adventure."