When Selena Cuffe sampled South African wines four years ago in Soweto, she didn’t wax poetic about their rustic radiance, about plum and berry notes on the nose or hints of vanilla on the palate. That would come with time.
What swept her off her feet were the stories behind the labels: black winemakers struggling to survive, post-apartheid, in an industry dominated by whites and in a market suspicious of new players.
“It was like a bright light went off in my head,” said Cuffe, a high-energy 33-year-old with a Harvard MBA, marketing experience at Procter & Gamble Co. and a desire, as an African American, to give a hand to black entrepreneurs in South Africa.
A month later, in October 2005, they launched Heritage Link Brands, the only U.S. company dedicated to importing and distributing wines produced by black South Africans.
They invested $70,000, most of it from savings, and borrowed the rest against their credit cards, at promotional rates. One of their first major decisions was to put the headquarters in Los Angeles, Selena’s hometown.
Today, wines imported by Heritage Link are sold at 835 restaurants, retailers and grocery stores, including Albertsons in Southern California, and are being poured in the business and first-class cabins of United Airlines and, soon, American Airlines. Total revenue rose to more than $1 million last year from a little less than $100,000 in 2007, and it’s up 50% this year.
“Our objective has always been to make the wines and the stories behind them household names,” said Selena, the company president, “and to change people’s perceptions of Africa by exposing them to all that’s beautiful coming from the continent.”
The Seven Sisters wines, for example, are produced by sisters who, during apartheid, were evicted from their home in a small fishing village on the western coast of South Africa. They returned 22 years later and now produce seven wines, each named for one of the sisters.
The Bouwland Cabernet Sauvignon-merlot blend comes from a winery that is owned and run by a group of farmworkers who banded together after apartheid and, with the help of a white winemaker, bought a prime 140-acre vineyard near Stellenbosch.
The M’hudi wines come from another Stellenbosch vineyard–the only black, family-owned vineyard in South Africa. Diale Rangaka, a former English professor, and his wife, Malmsey, a clinical psychologist, had long dreamed of owning a farm, but it wasn’t possible under apartheid. They bought the property in 2003 and moved there from Soweto.
In a research project for a would-be Heritage competitor last spring, UC Davis students concluded that American consumers weren’t willing to pay extra for wines produced by blacks in South Africa.
“That’s a niche market, but it’s not sufficient to sell very much wine at a premium,” said their professor, Robert Smiley, who is director of wine industry studies in the graduate management school. “By and large, the wine has to stand on its own two feet as far as quality goes. If it’s good and priced right, it will sell.”
As the company has grown, Selena’s view of who qualifies as a partner in South Africa has changed. At first, she wanted to represent only wines made by operations owned and run by black South Africans.
“I was hung up on the idea of making sure that everyone involved was black, because this is a $3-billion industry in South Africa and less than 2% of it is owned by the black majority population,” Selena recalled. “But that was silly.”
Color, she added, doesn’t matter as long as the wine maker is creating wealth for the black majority. “I want to do business with people whose hearts are in the right place,” she said.