“I deeply care how black people worldwide are perceived. What I want people to know about me and our brand is that we work diligently to contradict the negative narrative. That’s why I do what I do. Why I have the partner I do. Why my children have the names they have. It truly is a matter of black pride for us. We work hard for others to never question the quality that comes from black people.”
– Selena Cuffe
In 2005, husband and wife team Khary and Selena Cuffe recognized not only a gap in the worldwide distribution of wines produced on the African continent, but a virtual absence of individuals of African descent playing in the arena. So without trepidation, they threw their hat into the ring and the net of that today is Heritage Link Brands. They have literally changed the game by distributing in over 40 states and establishing Heritage Link Brands as a global player in the wine industry. Today Heritage Link Brands is not just an importer but a producer of fine wines as well.
Selena Cuffe is a graduate of Stanford University where she became a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority. She was also trained at the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET), a globally recognized educational institution based out of the UK, where she became Level 2 Certified with Merit. “ In spite of my certification, I am still of the belief that wine is just juice in a bottle,” she jokes.
Griots Republic spoke to Selena Cuffe about black pride, business, (and of course) wine.
The Cuffe’s entry into the wine industry came about from a chance meeting with a wine producer in South Africa who shared stories of her struggles with distribution. Her story was indicative of post-apartheid challenges. Sure they had political freedom but what of the economic gap? It was during that conversation that Selena realized that wine was a consumer good that historically has been associated with affluence, education, and a refinement that oftentimes is not associated with black people. For her, it became a matter of showcasing the (black) excellence in this industry. “We bring an innovation and a thoughtfulness to the way we build these brands.”
When asked about the traditional wine taste of African-Americans and how they might expand their palates, she unabashedly provides what can only be described as an answer that is completely “counter to wine culture.” Selena loves sweet wines, admitting her taste in wine to this day leans toward sweeter styles, but that is not to say she has not worked to develop her palate. She quips, “There are more folks like me who can appreciate other wines, but to Griots Republic readers, if you are into sweet, lean in and enjoy. Try others that have sweet notes, but ultimately drink what you enjoy! Don’t make yourself try to like dry wines because people associate it with sophistication or a more developed taste for wine.”
Just an aside note, South Africa’s development is not all that different from the United States. Cotton and slavery are to the United States what wine and slavery are to South Africa. Wine is the largest South African agricultural export and began with slave labor.
The combining of one of the oldest crafts with one of the oldest cultures is amazing in itself. Cuffe moves effortlessly between wine business and history telling GR of the South African wine culture beginning back in 1642. The vines that grew there were shipped from the motherland in the 1800’s and were then planted in Australia to begin their wine industry. What many people do not know is that “French vines taken, planted and cultivated in South Africa” started the Australian industry in the 1800’s.
In terms of wine distributors, there are very few people of color. In fact, some of the prominent distributors that are around today, have essentially been around since prohibition. Also, there are few women in the wine industry. The reality is that the land that the grapes are grown on has been in many families for eight, nine, or even 10 generations. So the Cuffes knew they would be like salmon swimming upstream. Frankly, if you don’t have to worry about land, the cost of goods is so much lower than for someone acquiring land to then produce. Otherwise, it is incredibly hard getting into this industry. When $300 million is the price to play to become a distributor, diversity is going to be absent. “This is the plight of blacks who want to get into any business really,” she soberly states.
Ultimately, the Cuffes believe they are building a very strong legacy to pass on to their children. Their investment in land to produce has pretty much sealed that. Selena goes further to say, “My kids have been to South Africa. My children go with me to business meetings. I want my children to be exposed to the business. If you ask my 10 and 8-year-old what we do, they can tell you what wine is and what wine-making is all about. They have a heightened sense of self and the connection to the motherland and we wanted that perception to be totally different than the image that was painted by the media when I was growing up; something different than the whole HIV, blood diamonds, and violence that we were fed. They know this is the family business – their business.”
There is a strong underlying sense of black pride and strength in the Cuffes, and in spite of what may be the dawning of some difficult times ahead, Selena Cuffe feels no matter what, family is the most important thing. She feels that we, as a people, must have a seat at the table. That we in fact need to demand it, irrespective of political party, but never stop pursuing those things that matter most of all: health, happiness and the legacy of family.
Heritage Link Wines for your consideration:
- Seven Sisters Vivian Sauvignon Blanc
This wine is so smooth and crisp bursting with tropical fruit flavors with a touch of acidity. Serve this wine with any grilled or poached fish.
- Silk Bush Viognier 2016
One cannot avoid the fresh floral aromas! Pit fruit flavors play on the palate along with pear and hints of melon. There is also a light acidity. Serve this wine with Jerk Chicken or other spicy seafood dishes.
- Don Guerino Sinais Merlot 2014
This wine can only be described as nicely strange. It is very fruity with strong berry and cherry taste. Sure to become a favorite. Serve this wine with Beef or Venison.