They say drink the wines you love and love the wines you drink. It seems like the perfect statement to tell a wine lover, yes? Those who love to curl up in bed with a generous serving of wine after a long week or those who prefer drinking it straight from the bottle – hey, I don’t judge.
Then, there are the type of people who love the feel of a large glass. It usually feels quite generous in their hands because of how they swirl their drink. They usually recommend a clear, thin glass; with a long stem and a slight curve inward at the top, just like their Friday nights.
These are also the people who go for a specific type of wine, maybe a Sauvignon Blanc for the white wine lovers or a Cru Beaujolais (that’s quite hard to find) for the red wine lovers.
These are the people who know and appreciate their wine. People like Geoffrey Kariuki.
From a humble background of a family of 7, Geoffrey rose up the ranks from being a waiter to one of Kenya’s few sommeliers (wine tasters). He even recently represented the country (and continent) at The Wines of South Africa (WOSA) Sommelier Cup 2016, an international competition putting the world’s top wine tasters against each other for the global title of the world’s best sommelier that took place this August.
I was quite fascinated with his story, not just because I’m an advent lover of wine but also because this guy makes a living out of tasting wine! How cool is that?
Tell us a bit about yourself. Who is Geoffrey and what do you do?
I guess I could say I’m a simple guy with a huge affinity for all things wine. I come from a humble beginning in Uthiru, Kiambu County where everything happened at one place, there was no exposure to the world since everything from school to church was at one place, but when my chance came to see the world I took it and ran [chuckles]
Did you always picture getting into this line of work? Or what did you want to pursue as you grew up?
Something that most people don’t know about me is that I can sing. But that’s a story for another day.
However, I always knew I wanted to work in the hospitality industry. My mum showed me how to cook when I was still young and I fell in love with food. Later on when I learnt about wine and how the two perfectly complement each other, I fell even deeper in love.
I graduated in 2006, after a year of study at Air Travel and Related Studies Centre with a diploma in hotel management and I looked for work for almost two years with no avail but by the grace of God, I got an opportunity to work at Artcaffe restaurant. This was around July 2009.
I was then offered a two-week training on customer service and an exam on the same, from there I was hired as a waiter.
How was your experience as a new waiter?
It was quite intimidating and it was like nothing we were taught or what we had practiced in school. I especially remember my first day at work; It was quite the busy evening and I had two guests waving to get my attention – even as I had been trying really hard to ignore them. Why? I had never served a table before. But I gathered up the courage and I went to take their order. A Chardonnay, and at the time, I had no idea what that was.
So I quickly went to a colleague of mine and admitted to not knowing what the customers had ordered. He helped the situation, even when I couldn’t even pronounce the name ‘Chardonnay’ right. And that was my turning point. I decided to know everything I could about wine.
How did that work out for you?
I learnt a lot; from the types of wines to the climates in which they best grow to which food they are best paired with and I was stunned. I didn’t know the wine business had so much to grasp. Soon enough, I begun to grow, and I was offered bottles of wine to taste, putting to practice what I was studying mostly online. Towards the end of August 2009, I offered stellar waiting service to the general manager of Sankara, who I did not know at the time, and in just six months, he offered me a job.
I had no idea that I was serving such a guest at the hotel but that was my opening and I even shared with him my passion about wine. Then, Derrick Ouma, the food and beverage manager gave me the chance to work at the hotel wine cellar to learn all that I could about wine.
Derrick believed in me to the point where he recommended that I be given an opportunity to travel to South Africa to study more about wine.
How was your experience in South Africa?
It was a remarkably phenomenal journey. We had representatives from countries like Germany, Netherlands, Macau, Canada, United Kingdom, Sweden, U.S.A and obviously Kenya; we went for a whole week itinerary which mostly consisted of visiting various farms, educational sessions where we learnt about wine and we even sat for an exam! The test revolved around service; how to properly serve wine and menu recommendation and blind tasting. What happens with the wine tasting is you’re given wine, both red and white, but in dark glasses, and you rely on your palette to let you know what wine it is; you had to talk about the wine, its grape variety and which region it’s from.
Unfortunately I didn’t emerge as the winner but the experience and adventure I got from that was a valuable experience that no one will ever take away from me. I was both happy and humbled that I represented my country and motherland at large and I don’t take that opportunity lightly.
So far, how has the journey of a sommelier been seeing as wine hasn’t yet been fully accepted in the Kenyan market?
As the hotelier industry, we have a lot to learn. It’s very unfortunate that most hotel staff have either very little or no knowledge about the wines they serve. Some even rely on their guests to choose the right wine to go with their food and this should be the other way around.
When I was at Sankara, I would use any opportunity I had to teach my colleagues about wine from my research even at staff briefings. I would even offer my colleagues a gift if they sold the wine that I had taught them about that day and from this I also noticed that I get to learn more when I taught others, and this should always be the norm in this industry.
Always want to know more: In September 2013, I joined one of Kenya’s prestigious private clubs; Capital Club East Africa, as a senior bartender and acting-head sommelier. Thereafter, I went to work at The Wine Shop in Nairobi, as a head sommelier and as head of wine sales and marketing. One thing I have always embraced in all these places is the opportunity to learn more and become better at my craft.
How lucrative is it being a sommelier?
It’s very lucrative. You can decide to both plan events and parties around wine, you can use your services as an intermediary for hotels and restaurants or you can even choose to be a wine educator and teach individuals or institutions on wine; and the opportunities to travel are plenty.
To those who are interested in knowing about the basics of wine, it’s important to start in a restaurant so that you learn not just about wine, but also about food and how to pair wine with different foods.
What do you think is the one thing that people don’t understand about wine?
There’s a difference between drinking and tasting wine.
Tasting wine requires you to analyze the drink, you consume a bit of it and let your taste buds help you define its taste. It’s all in the tongue, because once it gets to the throat, you can’t get to experience the different tastes. Also, you have to take in the aroma.
The best way to learn is to taste two different types of wine at a time. Pour 30ml of each, swirl them, smell them, taste, and then analyze. You need to experience your wine, not just drink it.
Does Kenya have the potential to be a wine exporter in the next few years?
If we play our cards right, Kenya can rise up the ranks and be considered a wine-producing country. We already have people running wineries producing wine – for example Leleshwa wines. They have quite the range when it comes to wines and I’m proud that it’s all being done here, from the growing to the processing and packaging of the wines.
We are a young wine-making country at just 15 years of age; but we have the potential to do more and be more in terms of producing top-not wine, especially in the Eastern African region.
What should one look for when I’m buying wine?
Purchase wine that is at least three-five years old.
Also, look at different grape varieties such as Shiraz, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon. There are more than 10,000 grape varieties in the world; there is a lot to choose from. It’s a journey – still is for me.