Dave Curtis took the road less travelled on his journey from Zimbabwe to an Ireland jersey in the early 1990s and the return trip has been just as interesting and rewarding.
The sun is shining and the skies are blue as Curtis, 55, takes the Irish Examiner on a virtual tour of the Stable Winery he has built from scratch in the Borrowdale suburb of Harare.
The soil in this part of southern Africa is not conducive to wine-drinking grapes but the former London Irish and Connacht centre has instead grown a solid business in the city of his birth, importing wines and showcasing them on the grounds of the four-acre former riding school he and wife Andrea established in 2004.
It would be easy to take this idyllic scene at face value, bask in the rays and enjoy an imaginary sip of crisp, chilled white amid the roses on the terrace. To imagine a member of a famous Exiles backline also featuring Rob Saunders, Jim Staples and Simon Geoghegan, all of whom played for Ireland at the 1991 World Cup, seamlessly transitioning from a stellar amateur sporting career — he also represented Oxford University in first-class cricket — into an equally successful business career.
Yet that would not scratch the surface of the toil that went into creating a sustainable enterprise in the midst of a chaotic political landscape and an economy on its knees thanks to hyperinflation and corruption.
Just the idea of taking on such a project was something of a gamble for a man whose background was as a civil engineer and whose career started with Ray O’Rourke in London and took him back to Zimbabwe in 1994 and onto civil-war reconstruction in neighbouring Mozambique with another Irish construction firm, John Sisk & Sons.
“From civil engineering to wine was a bit of a change,” Curtis said with a chuckle. “I’ve been fortunate. It’s been a niche market that we’ve found and it’s worked for us during the troubled times Zimbabwe’s been through.”
The troubled times centre around Zimbabwe’s attempts at post-colonial nation-building following a 15-year civil war that brought white supremacy to an end in 1979 but ushered in what would become authoritarian one-party rule under Robert Mugabe.
“Wine importing has been our core business and I’ve still been doing a bit of house-building on the side, small construction stuff.
“It’s been tough. We’ve been through lots of turmoil in Zimbabwe in the last 20 years. We had all the land invasions of white-owned- farms in 2000-2002 and that period was not a pleasant time and since then we’ve been through hyperinflation, which was a very interesting time to operate and the economy has never really recovered here, it’s at rock-bottom and no better right now.
“This whole coronavirus thing has been a big problem here for tourism. A lot of Zim revenue comes via foreign currency through tourism to our national parks and Victoria Falls and that has gone to zero with the whole corona issue.
“It’s a big blow for the whole country and even for our business, it’s probably taken 50 or 60 per cent of our turnover away, just like that. Tourism impacts on restaurants and so on and that impacts on the winery operators so we’re going to have to rethink going forward, as everyone is.”
The son of Ireland wing Arthur Curtis, capped three times in the 1950 Five Nations before emigrating to what was then Rhodesia that year, Curtis’s rugby career had taken off when he was recruited by London Irish while spending a year at Oxford University having graduated from the University of Cape Town. Winning promotion in his first season with the Exiles alongside Geoghegan, Saunders and Staples brought him to the attention of Connacht coaching duo George Hook and Eddie O’Sullivan and a try at Thomond Park against Munster on his debut for the westerners set in train a path to the Ireland set-up and 13 Test caps, one of which was a start in that agonising 1991 World Cup quarter-final loss to Australia at Lansdowne Road.
“I finished playing my Irish games in 92 and then spent a couple of years in the UK with a company called Ray O’Rourke, a big Irish building contractor. I was a civil engineer originally and was playing with London Irish for a couple of years until we left the UK at the end of ’94 and came back to Zimbabwe.
“We had a son (Simon, now working in finance in Durban) by that stage and when we left the second-born (Annabel), she was six months old.
“I moved back here with John Sisk, another Irish construction company, spent about five years working for them in Harare and then in ’96-’97 we set up the company in Mozambique, next door to Zimbabwe, which I started running and spent the next six years or so with that operation.
“And they had sporadic periods when the opposition party in Central Mozambique were agitating but it was mostly fine… just normal party squabbles.”
Not what one imagines as a regulation background for establishing a wine business.
“The risk here has always been the economy. It’s always been upside down with hyperinflation and commercial banks here have gone bust three or four times as the funds have been stolen and people have lost everything.
“So there’s been no trust in the banking system because the heartache people have had from losing everything.
“Yeah, there have been difficult times but you always live in hope that one day we’ll get a government that will be truly democratic and we can have some real growth here again.”
Curtis has not been standing still, though. He put his construction and engineering background to good use to convert the riding school into the Stable winery with its offices and showroom built in a South African architectural style, Cape Dutch… “so lots of Dutch gables and grapevines growing to make it a nice area for people to visit, taste wine and fortunately it’s worked for us.
“We privately own the business and we have some employees who work for us. That’s sort of why I left the corporate world, to go out on my own and take the risk of being a business owner rather than being employed by one.
With Simon, 27, in Durban and his two youngest sons Angus, 22, and Graham, 20, both in the Ulster Academy, Curtis senior was pleased when his daughter Annabel, 25, a qualified osteopath, returned to Zimbabwe from the UK having studied at Swansea University and has built Stable Health, a medical facility next door to the Winery in which she and eight other practitioners work.
The Curtises try and visit Ireland as regularly as possible — “I miss the Guinness!” — to see their boys play and it gives Dave the opportunity to catch up with old team-mates.
“I bumped into Ralph Keyes before one of Angus’s U20 games that he was commentating at and we had a beer afterwards. I’ve also seen a lot of the Ulster boys, Brian Robinson, Gordon Hamilton, it’s great catching up with them.
“And then there’s all the London Irish guys, Simon Geoghegan, Jim Staples, Rob Saunders and then we walked into a restaurant in Bushmills recently and bumped into Keith Crossan and we ended up having dinner together.
Three generations of Curtis family have pulled on the green jersey and the rugby genes still running strong.
Arthur Curtis represented Ireland on the wing three times in 1950 before emigrating to what was then Rhodesia. Son David followed in his footsteps via London Irish and Connacht to become Ireland’s centre alongside Brendan Mullin at the 1991 World Cup, returning to Zimbabwe three years later.
Two of his four children have followed him into rugby, with fly-half/centre Angus, 22, a senior pro with Ulster making his Champions Cup debut off the bench in the pool win at Bath last November and scrum-half Graham, 20, in the Ulster academy.
Both represented Ireland U19s, Angus was in the 2017 World U20 Championship squad while Graham has now earned Ireland Sevens honours at the Vancouver and Los Angeles tournaments.
“Angus had a really good U20 season but unfortunately since then he’s had some injuries, a couple of concussions and then playing against Leinster in December he got a bad knee injury, so he’s halfway through his rehab but coming along nicely,” Dave Curtis said.
“Graham’s hoping to push on with the Sevens in the next six months and give it a good go for a couple of years and see what happens. When things kick off again, I’m certainly keen to watch him play. They’re loving playing for Ireland.”