Through Casks and Barrels, Helen is sharing her passion with her customers one bottle of wine at a time

Helen Wacera

Photos by Jackson Mnyamwezi

Interest, persistence, determination and love propelled Helen Wacera into the wine business. In this interview, she speaks about wine, obviously, wine school, and answers questions we’ve always wanted to ask a sommelier.

How did you get into the wine business?

Helen Wacera: I tasted a wine I liked back in 2011 at Ole Sereni but as it turned out it was not readily available in this market. So, I kept going back and asking for the same wine and getting the same answer, “imeisha”. Eventually, I asked if they wanted me to supply it for them and they said no problem. That’s how I did it.

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What would I need to get into your current business? (Wine distribution business)

HW: You need to get the right documentation, approvals from the required bodies (KRA, KEBS), a lot of persistence and plenty of money. (Smiles)

When you started supplying did you have any knowledge about the wine business?

HW: I had no knowledge (chuckles).

So, all this, is self-taught for you?

HW: Yes, it is, and it’s an interest too.

Do you find your job interesting?

HW: Most of the time yes, sometimes no, because it’s a business and like any other business there are ups and downs. But most of the time it’s interesting. There’s no day that’s the same, which makes it even more interesting.


I have visited vineyards in Italy and South Africa

If I wanted to get into the winemaking business, what would I need?

HW: You need a vineyard and you need the right equipment – fruit pressers, crushers, filters and pads and wine fermenters which help in fermentation, tanks for storing the wine – you need a lot.

What’s the most expensive bottle of wine you sell?

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HW: It’s Barolo

When we met you said you were studying wine; Where does one study wine in Kenya?

HW: The Wines and Spirit Education Trust. They’re doing a program in Kenya now but it’s a worldwide program so you can do it from anywhere. If you visit the website you’ll find a suitable course and place to study.

What does one learn in a wine class?

HW: You learn about the regions of wine and their history. You learn about countries like Italy, France, Spain, Australia, they’re so many. The varietals they grow, how they grow them, the standards they employ to grow the wines, in which markets particular wines are available and the winemaking process. It’s quite a lot.

For those of us who don’t know, does Kenya have vineyards?

HW: (chuckles) Yes, there are vineyards in Kenya. There is one in Naivasha.

In the process of learning about wine, do you visit a Vineyard and see the whole process for yourself?

HW: I have visited vineyards, I haven’t visited the one in Naivasha yet, but I hope to. I’ve visited one in Italy and South Africa because I deal with wine from those two countries.


You really don’t have to swallow the wine to taste it.

Do people still make wine by grape-treading?

HW: I think it happens for fun, but you can still use it although it’s considered a traditional way of making wine. You know when it’s fermenting, in my opinion, the germs die, and I think most of the grape-treaders have washed their feet (Smiles). It’s just considered a fun activity that people want to do when they visit the Vineyard.

How do you decide which brands you want to sell?

HW: We normally ask for samples from the suppliers to taste. Then we decide what to sell. It’s sort of a game of tasting, and sometimes we do tastings with a couple of people to know if they like it or not. But the main thing is tasting, then the rest comes after like of course how the bottle looks, the label, the presentation of the wine and the price.

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How would you describe the wine market in Kenya in General?

HW: The wine market is growing because people are interested. We’ve become very westernized, people are watching more TV series and movies where characters are drinking wine. Someone once asked me about the wine that Olivia Pope drinks? I’m like really? (Laughs) Bottom line is that our interest in wine has grown.

What is your approach when it comes to choosing wine?

HW: For me it’s taste. In the taste, you feel the body of the wine, the acidity, the sweetness and the balance. Of course, the smell also helps. It helps because those aromas give you an idea of what to expect. Most of the time, if those aromas meet your expectations, you’ll say the wine is good. Because already in your mind it smells good, so you expect it to taste just as good. The smell and taste go hand in hand.

Why do people spit out the wine at wine tastings?

HW: You really don’t have to swallow the wine to taste it. Sometimes we’re tasked with tasting 50 wines in a day. So, if you’re going to swallow all of them, it becomes a problem (Chuckles). That’s the only reason for spitting. I know it’s disgusting, but that’s the main reason for spitting.

It’s a game of tasting, and sometimes we do tastings with a couple of people

What does it take to become a Sommelier?

HW: It takes a lot of studying, I’m not a qualified Sommelier yet, I’m in training, but the master Sommeliers go through years of studying, research, tasting; it’s like being a doctor in this sector. A sommelier can tell you the acidity level, the balance, the body, whether its medium, medium plus or medium minus. It’s just mind-blowing what a Master sommelier can tell you about wine. They can tell which region the wine is from just by their sense of taste.

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What’s the one wine you think everyone should taste at least once?

HW: Barolo. Barolo is actually a town in Italy and the wine is made from a grape called Nebbiolo. It’s aged for three years, but the care they take in making the wine makes it all worth the while. The Aroma, the taste, it’s just wow.

Currently, what’s your favourite wine?

HW:  I wouldn’t say I have a particular one, but I lean more towards the red dries, like the Cabernet Sauvignon, the Shiraz and the Nebbiolo.

Give us some tips on how to become or pretend to be connoisseurs of wine.

HW: (Chuckles) Hold your glass by the stem or base, because when you hold it by the goblet you warm up the wine. Swirl your wine and smell it before you taste it so that you know what to expect. Eventually, you might be able to tell which wine it is from its smell. You can also tell which variety it is, by the grapes they use. Try and find out what varietals are and learn about them this includes answers to questions such as what are you taking, where is it from and from which year is it. The year on the bottle is called Vintage. That’s the year it was harvested, not bottled. So, know all those qualities and you’ll be one step closer to being a connoisseur.

Last word…

HW: Kenyans should start drinking more wine. Red wine is said to healthy, and some people say taking a glass of red wine a day is like going to the gym because it burns calories.


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