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Out of Africa--Kenya's Own Wine

May 20, 1990|BARBARA ELLIS VAN DE WATER | Van de Water is a free-lance writer who lives in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands.

LAKE NAIVASHA, Kenya — There is a place in the heart of Africa's Great Rift Valley where wine grapes grow. The Masai named this place E-Nai-Posha , "that which is heaving; that which flows to and fro."

It is perhaps an old ancestral way of describing Lake Naivasha, a remarkably beautiful spot and the home of Kenya's first commercial winery, Lake Naivasha Vineyards.

My sister-in-law, Elli, a native of Los Angeles, and her husband, John D'Olier, a Kenyan farmer, started the vineyard in 1982, planting vines from California on the shores of the lake.

Elli's letters were full of stories about her new life and the progress and perils of the young vineyard. She wrote about the giraffe that wandered through the vineyard, dining on the tops of thorn trees, and about the hippopotamus that chased her from the lake to the steps of her veranda. Her letters contained as much real-life drama as any that Karen Blixen sent out of Africa.

Lake Naivasha Vineyard, 60 miles northwest of Nairobi, may be one of the world's strangest locations for a winery. But the reasons that make Lake Naivasha such a special place also explain why a vineyard 50 miles south of the Equator can thrive here.

As you approach Naivasha, riding over the crest of the escarpment, you have a breathtaking view of the Great Rift Valley and Mt. Longonot rising 9,000 feet above sea level. But the immensity of mountains is diminished within the vast, endless plains of the Rift Valley. This enormous seismic fault in the earth's crust provides the sandy volcanic soil that nurtures the vines.

With the exception of two rainy seasons, most days in the valley are hot and dry. Naivasha has cool evening temperatures because of its high altitude, 6,200 feet, and moist breezes off Naivasha, the highest of Kenya's Rift Valley lakes. It is also the Rift Valley's only freshwater lake, and its waters are used to irrigate the vineyard.

It was harvest time at the vineyard, John and Elli's busiest season, when my husband and I arrived. We had come to Kenya to go on safari, but for a few weeks we ended up harvesting wine grapes.

"Habarai asubuhi." The melodious Swahili greeting rang out from the workers gathered outside the winery ready to begin the day's tasks.

"Jambo sana," I answered, enjoying the opportunity to use the Swahili phrases I was learning.

The harvests take place in the early spring and fall. The grapes are picked in the cool morning hours between 6 and 10 when they are freshest. In the weeks before I arrived, the crop of Sauvignon Blanc grapes had been harvested and were fermenting in 1,000-gallon fiberglass vats inside the winery. But there were rows and rows of vines (13 acres in all) burdened with clusters of green-gold Colombard grapes waiting to be picked. "Kazi mengi," the workers said, and I knew that had to mean "lots of work."

As the sun rose over the vineyard, there was singing and laughter. The men sang comical songs about women and love, often raising their voices in falsetto, mimicking the women they were singing about.

I looked forward to my mornings with the harvest because it was a chance for me to become acquainted with the people who live and work in the surrounding villages. With the exception of a few women who took time off from their domestic and gardening chores around the farmhouse, the harvest was done by men, the majority of whom are from the Luo, Kikuyu and Kamba tribes.

They were curious about the cost of things in the United States, everything from T-shirts and blue jeans to a plane ticket to Kenya. I told them the kikapus (straw bags) we were filling with grapes sold for as much as $25 in many stores. For these men who earn a small wage as grape pickers and farm laborers, America seemed like a place where only millionaires could live. But they couldn't believe anyone with much money could be happy.

During the harvest, the winery was a hub of activity. Every piece of equipment was in use, from the mechanical crusher that destemmed and crushed the grapes as they were brought in from the vineyard, to the wine presses that strained every last drop of free-run juice from the grapes.

Except for the crusher, imported from Italy, all the equipment, including the fiberglass vats, was manufactured locally following D'Olier designs. Even a refrigerated stainless dairy tank was converted for use in the winery. A local artist was asked to design the labels for the wine bottle, and Alfred, a young Kikuyu from a nearby village, was hired and trained to manage all aspects of the winery.

According to the Nairobi-based Kenya Wine Agencies Ltd., which handles all bottling and distribution for Lake Naivasha Vineyards, production is up from 3,000 bottles in 1985 to a record yield of 300,000 bottles this year.

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