Almost seven years ago, South African businesswoman and fledgling winemaker Pia Watermeyer met German entrepreneur Paul Bath (whose family has a winemaking background in Germany) at a wedding on a Cape wine estate. A long-distance relationship emerged from this fortuitous happenstance, leading to many passionate conversations and bottles of wine being enjoyed over long lunches. The couple’s shared love of dancing and wine led to the purchase of a wine estate in Stellenbosch that would later be rebranded as Kunjani Wine Estate.
“Kunjani” is an isiZulu greeting that translates to “how are things going with you?”
An unconventional greeting lead to Watermeyer’s first encounter with Lydia Alfonso, who is now the estate’s Operations Manager.
“When Paul and Pia bought the farm, they purchased it as a working farm with a whole lot of wine, which was branded and exported to Germany,” explains Alfonso. The brand’s unique selling point was “a wine made for men, by men”.
Unimpressed by the brand’s blatantly chauvinistic stance, wine writer Marthelize Tredoux sent Alfonso a tweet with a link to the estate’s website, with the exclamation: “Look at what these people are doing!”
At that time, Alfonso was a Marketing and Sales manager at another Stellenbosch estate and took it upon herself to phone Watermeyer’s estate to express her indignation. By chance, Watermeyer answered the phone herself, and that first phone call lead to several conversations between the two women.
Watermeyer told Alfonso: “I love the way you sound over the phone, let’s work together.”
After three months of prodding, Alfonso accepted Watermeyer’s offer and joined the fledgling estate in September 2015.
She’s been working in the wine industry for around a decade. “I’ve worked my way up; I started in a tasting room, then worked in sales. From sales, I did some cellar work and exports and now I’m an Operations Manager,” she explains.
“As Kunjani’s Operations Manager, I run all aspects of the business, including the accommodation we have on the farm and the exports, because currently our biggest market is Germany,” she explains. About 80% of Kunjani’s wine is reserved for export to the German market, although the brand’s heart remains in South Africa.
Alfonso emphasises that great wine doesn’t have to be stuffy and exclusive, it can be exciting and inclusive, offering a great way to form new relationships with a simple “kunjani”. Kunjani intends to be an introduction to a new way of enjoying wine.
Winemaker Carmen Stevens joined the Kunjani team in mid-2016 as Watermeyer’s mentor and a winemaking consultant. Alfonso says the close-knit team works in unison: “everybody does a little bit of everything together.”
Stevens, who studied at Elsenburg College, has 22 years of winemaking experience. Her career began at Distell in Stellenbosch before she moved to Stellenbosch Vineyards on Welmoed Estate. She then worked at Amani Vineyards for eight years before going out on her own.
Stevens’ first harvest at Kunjani was in 2017. Alfonso says the harvest was a good one, but a lack of rain was a challenge. In addition, the team discovered soil types they hadn’t expected in the region, which meant the vines needed to be treated with special care. Carmen sourced expert viticulturists so that Kunjani could create wines that are expressive of the Stellenbosch region. Lydia says: “Carmen played a big role in ensuring that our vines are taken care of to the highest standard.”
The estate’s white wines all bear the Wine of Origin Stellenbosch appellation and were introduced by Stevens, who sourced the grapes from growers in the region. These wines include the 2017 Sauvignon Blanc and the 2017 Chenin Blanc.
What is now the Kunjani Shiraz 2014 – a spicy, full-bodied wine – was bottled in 2014, long before the Kunjani dream was realised.
In addition to the Shiraz, a Merlot and a Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard have been planted over the hill.
Kunjani has also produced Kunjani Red Blend 2014, a bold, ruby-coloured wine created with a blend of Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Malbec. A characterful Pinot Noir Rosé – Kunjani Stolen Chicken 2017 – was created as a tribute to Watermeyer’s late son, James, who passed away in 2016.
Alfonso reveals that Watermeyer’s sagacious approach to business has played an important role in the estate’s success. Watermeyer also runs a design firm, Vye Graphics, which is one of South Africa’s largest printing businesses.
With so many women at the helm, it’s only natural that they would aspire to provide growth opportunities for female entrepreneurs. “I’m trying to source gins and coffees created by women for the tasting room and restaurant,” explains Alfonso, adding that the team intends to provide opportunities for as many women as possible to learn viticulture, especially since Pia is in training to become Kunjani’s winemaker. “We love supporting women in the wine industry,” she says.