How Preacher Started Lucrative Wine-Making Business

Bottles of wine from the Mukululu winery owned by the Catholic Church at Igembe Central in Meru County
  • Religion has been an inspiration for innovation and changes over centuries and Meru County can attest to this. Over 60 years ago, an Italian priest Brother Giussepe Argesse landed at the foot of Mt Kenya.

    His mission was to preach water but the Catholic clergyman innovatively ventured into winemaking. 

    He emersed himself into designing new blends and grooming terroirs to create better-tasting wine followed by an endless expression of creativity backed by some interesting grape varieties.

    The first vines were planted in Liliaba in Igembe Central and Ruiri in Buuri sub-counties. The idea was first planned to help the local communities in Nyambene facing acute water shortages. But the employees working in the church’s water projects had to be paid, and Brother Giussepe Argesse realised there was a need for an extra source of income to take care of salaries. 

    Bottles of wine from the Mukululu winery owned by the Catholic Church at Igembe Central in Meru County
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    That is how vineyard farming started in Meru. Grapes were ideal because they thrive in dry areas. Grapes used in the production of the wines and sherry are delivered from the three Igembe sub-counties who grow grapes on a large scale farming and the Catholic Diocese of Meru which has an eight-acre grapes farm in Liliaba.

    To ensure the wine is of the highest quality, Giovanni Collucci, a wine expert from Italy, frequently jets in to ensure every process is followed to the letter.

    The grapes can be grown practically everywhere in Meru County, temperature notwithstanding. There are two distinct groups: table grapes used as sweeteners and wine grapes for wine production. The crop prefers warm to hot temperatures during fruiting. 

    The weather must be sunny and dry. The warm environmental temperature during fruit ripening is important in increasing the sugar content of berries while reducing their acidity. With this Brother Argesse kicked off the project.

    The winery saw an increase of grapefruit in the region and farmers had between 20 to 30 acres under grapes. Some were growing the fruit on a large scale and small scale farmers were also not left behind.

    Farmers earn at least Ksh100,000 from the crop on an acre of land in a season. A single well-tended plant can yield between 200 and 300kg of grapes. 

    Father Andrew Mbiko, a Catholic priest who manages a vineyard owned by the Meru Diocese is among clergymen who teach farmers how to take care of the fruit.

    A 750ml bottle of Barbera and Sauvignon goes for Ksh400 at the factory, while the altar wine is sold at Ksh550. Outside the factory, the wine is sold for Ksh1,000.

    The Meru Mukululu Martina (sherry), is named after the Martina region in Italy, a significant grapes-growing and wine production area.

    “The climate in Martina and Liliaba (Igembe Central) is the same, and so is the soil. I have been to Martina, and I can tell you its climate is the same as Igembe’s. Grapes do well in dry, hot areas, though there are some varieties that do well in cold conditions. The vines take a long time to grow down, ‘looking’ for water, and they are drought-resistant,†Fr Mbiko stated.

    “You can grow 500 trees on one acre. If you tend it as required, one tree is capable of producing 10 kilos of fruit. We buy a kilo at Ksh80, and that means you can earn Ksh400,000 from each harvest.”

    The project boosted the quality of life in the community since Brother Argesse was committed to providing water that he dedicated much of his energy to “cutting into rocks and squeezing water out of them†to feed the community.

    “Argesse is a structural and water engineer. He came to support the church and to liberate us from hunger and diseases. He sunk boreholes to help with the water problem,†Fr Mbiko described the now deceased clergyman.

    Once farmers deliver the grapes at the winery located within the church, it is then processed into four different types of wine. It takes about two to three years before it is mature and ready for sale. During the peak season, they produce over 1,000 bottles of wine.

    The farm which was started 45 years ago has been a spectacle attracting both local and non-locals who visit to learn and start grape farming. But in recent years, climate change has dealt the farm a blow having lost four crop seasons from 2016.

    The Laliaba grape farm had lured over 80 farmers to relegate miraa farming which is the main economic mainstay as they paid Ksh100 per kilogramme. 

    A grape farm
    A grape farm