Walker Brown, '16

November 17, 2017
Alum launches a socially conscious wine company to benefit the country where he studied abroad

The story of Lubanzi Wines begins with a wandering dog on the Wild Coast of South Africa. Walker Brown, ’16, and Charles Brain, a fellow exchange student from Vanderbilt University, were out on a six-day, 100-mile hike when a stray dog began to follow them. The locals called him Lubanzi, a Zulu word meaning “expansive.” At the end of the trip, Lubanzi disappeared into the night, and Brown and Brain returned to Cape Town to finish their semester abroad.

But the spirit of adventure and partnership forged on that trip stuck with the pair. By the time they got back to the U.S., a half-baked idea had formed. They had fallen in love with South Africa and wanted to find a way to share it back at home. They had learned that South Africa is one of the world’s largest wine producing countries, but the U.S. market is expensive and difficult to access.

So, they thought, “Why don’t we start our own wine label?”

The more they looked into it, the more it felt like an opportunity to build a sustainable business, share their love of the country, and have a real impact on its communities.

A month after Brown and Brain graduated, they were back on a plane to South Africa. The first thing they did was put a call out to South African winemakers.

“We said, ‘We’re trying to build a brand of South African wine to distribute in the U.S., and we’re going to run it as a social enterprise,’” Brown says. “‘We’re looking for someone who shares that ethos to help.’”

More than a hundred people responded, and Brown and Brain took every meeting. They spent their first month talking to people about their stories, their family histories, and how their farms came about.

“I don’t know that we even knew quite what we were looking for,” Brown says. “We were trying to learn, to get as schooled as we possibly could on this truly massive industry.”

On the last day, Bruce Jack walked in. Jack is an award-winning winemaker with decades of experience working with some of South Africa’s top wineries.

Brown and Brain had no idea who he was.

“He had to explain to us just how famous he was, which was slightly embarrassing,” Brown says. ““I think he was equally shocked. I don’t think he had any idea that we were going to be 22 years old.
“But he was moved by what we were trying to do. It was one of the many lucky breaks we’ve gotten through this whole process.”

Jack signed on, as well as Trizanne Barnard, a young, female, up-and-coming winemaker. The two bring a combination of old and new schools to winemaking. They named the fledgling company Lubanzi in the spirit of that early adventure, and the dog who shared it.

Lubanzi now has two wines — a chenin blanc and a rhone blend — and Brown is hitting the streets to get them on shelves across the U.S.

More importantly, they’re already supporting the communities that make the wine, with more to come. Lubanzi has pledged 50 percent of its profits to the Pebbles Project, an NGO that brings medical care and education to the children of laborers on South African wine farms.

“It’s all about pushing forward this notion of a more complete and equitable supply chain,” Brown says “The idea is that when a consumer buys a bottle of wine here in America, a portion of the proceeds end up directly back in the hands of the real community working and laboring on the very farm that produces our wines.”