Wine Talk: Richard Leakey

The renowned anthropologist faces extraordinary challenges while making wine in Kenya
Mar 21, 2005

Pinot Noir is a difficult grape to grow under the best of conditions. Try cultivating it in a tropical climate, with no electricity in the winery, while fending off hungry baboons, jackals and wildcats. These are some of the difficulties faced by well-known paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey. The self-taught winemaker has planted Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in Kenya, where he has lived for much of his life, on a 6,500-foot-high ridge in the Great Rift Valley, due west of Nairobi. After a career hunting hominid fossils and making important evolutionary discoveries, Leakey, 60, has turned his attention to preserving Kenya's culture and wildlife and to fighting corruption in its government. In his spare time, Leakey, who enjoys good Bordeaux, decided to satisfy a long-held desire of producing his own wine, if the baboons will allow it.

Wine Spectator: What prompted you to try producing wine along the equator?
Richard Leakey: I've always enjoyed wine, and for many years Kenya had a very poor supply of imported wine. It just always seemed to be a perfectly marvelous idea to have a vineyard that one could drink from oneself. But I never realized what a big job it would be.

WS: What challenges are unique to making wine in Kenya?
RL: The pests range from [African] buffalo to baboons, neither of which are particularly easy to keep out of a vineyard. The baboons are a real menace. When they get into the vineyard, they can write off a whole acre in a few hours. And we get small carnivores, like jackals and wildcats. When the grapes are ripe, they'll come in and polish off anything they can reach. So we use electric fences and hire people to stand guard. We don't have frost; we don't have cold weather; you have to do a lot of manual manipulation to get the grapes ripe at the same time.

WS: Have the results met your expectations?
RL: I produced the first bottling--around 1,000 bottles--about four years ago. The wine is called Il Masin, the name for the ridge on which the vines grow. Our Pinot Noir is fairly light in color, has good alcoholic content and falls bright and clear. It doesn't touch any wood; we go from stainless steel right into the bottle. The [Chardonnay] grapes are good, but the winemaking's difficult because I can't keep the temperatures down. We don't have electricity [in the winery], so we're fermenting too hot and too fast to get the real flavor out of the grapes.

WS: Do you keep a wine collection at home?
RL: I'm very fond of French wine, especially Bordeaux and the Loire Valley. But I can't keep much of a collection at home; without regular electricity it's hard to keep wine. There's a lot of wine coming into Kenya now from all over the world, and it's heavily subsidized, which is a bit of a problem if you want to sell your own wine here. But we're not doing it to make a fortune--we're just doing it to enjoy ourselves.

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