When Selena Cuffe sampled South African wines four years ago in Soweto, she didn’t wax poetic about their rustic radiance, about plum and berry notes on the nose or hints of vanilla on the palate. That would come with time.
What swept her off her feet were the stories behind the labels: black winemakers struggling to survive, post-apartheid, in an industry dominated by whites and in a market suspicious of new players.
“It was like a bright light went off in my head,” said Cuffe, a high-energy 33-year-old with a Harvard MBA, marketing experience at Procter & Gamble Co. and a desire, as an African American, to give a hand to black entrepreneurs in South Africa.
“I thought: Someone needs to tell these stories . . . and why not us? This is democracy playing itself out, a transformation in real time.”
Cuffe called her husband, Khary, who was working on his MBA back home in Boston. “He’s the eternal . . . I won’t say pessimist, but realist,” she said. Khary agreed it sounded interesting, but warned “we’ve got to crunch the numbers.”
A month later, in October 2005, they launched Heritage Link Brands, the only U.S. company dedicated to importing and distributing wines produced by black South Africans.
They invested $70,000, most of it from savings, and borrowed the rest against their credit cards, at promotional rates. One of their first major decisions was to put the headquarters in Los Angeles, Selena’s hometown.
Today, wines imported by Heritage Link are sold at 835 restaurants, retailers and grocery stores, including Albertsons in Southern California, and are being poured in the business and first-class cabins of United Airlines and, soon, American Airlines. Total revenue rose to more than $1 million last year from a little less than $100,000 in 2007, and it’s up 50% this year.