Kenya’s wine journey has only recently started but, as Josiah Kahiu finds, if Tim Challen and his wine club have anything to do with it, we are nowhere near our destination yet.
Recently back from my oenology studies in Italy, I felt slightly out of touch with the Kenyan wine market. This was not from a lack of knowledge of global wine trends that I had learned, but simply for the fact that the Kenyan market is moving into its teen phase and a lot can change in 18 months. To get better acquainted with what has been happening in my absence, I searched for someone who could get me up to date. My search led me to Tim Challen, founder of Pharley’s Wine Club.
Challen is a trained Manchester chef who has traversed the globe from the Hilton in Florida to the famous Ivy restaurant in London, spending years perfecting his trade before arriving in Kenya almost a decade and a half ago. He was convinced to come to Kenya by a friend from University – Chef Kiran Jethwa, and had his first posting in Loisaba before criss crossing the country working at establishments from Tamarind Dhow to Swahili Beach, never managing to leave Kenya.
After getting the pleasantries out of the way, we do what any wine enthusiast would do and break out a glass of wine before starting the interview. I dive in by asking how he got into wine in Kenya. He explains that he started importing whiskey roughly four years ago but that “Wine has always been of interest to me”. It was while looking for a location to open a restaurant that he decided to start importing wines. One main factor that influenced this decision was that he wanted to have a restaurant that had a wine shop attached to it. In doing this, their hope was to allow their clients to purchase wine at an affordable fee and enjoy it with their meals. During the process of establishing the restaurant, the idea to create Pharley’s Wine Club was born.
A wine club, now I was intrigued, as it was a concept I had been introduced to in Europe but had not encountered in Kenya. Challen explains that it is a subscription service, which he started after he noticed that the average wine consumer in Nairobi had difficulties in locating places to buy wine. “People always have their go to’s such as Beach House,” he explains, “but there is so much more on the market with better prices and quality; the whole ethos of the wine club is to educate people on wine and to discover new ones. If you come on with us you come on a journey, you get to learn what is a Riesling or Chardonnay and the different wine regions. We get members to sample wine that they would not necessarily buy, we are trying to demystify wine.”
This all sounds very interesting, and we would normally end up talking about different wines for hours, but I feel it wise to bring the topic back to why I came to meet him in the first place. I ask him if there are any trends he would like to see in the Kenyan market. “I would like to see more people wanting to learn more and start demanding more,” Challen tells me adding, “I would also like to see more wine gatherings as wine is trending.”
Kenya is no different in terms of global wine trends to the rest of the world. The main difference is, as an emerging market, there is a thirst to try and more importantly learn about wine culture, whether it be different styles of wine or regions or learning the best pairings for specific wines. Coming back to Kenya with this insight suddenly fills me with immense joy, we are on a “wine journey”, as Challen puts it and I am glad to be onboard.