Wine educator Nomonde Khubeka firmly believes training instils self-confidence, which in turn sparks curiosity and leads to becoming a better cellar worker.

Cellar workers shouldn’t only learn what to do in the cellar – they should know why they’re doing it. Only then do their work and career get real meaning.

Nomonde Kubheka has a knack for helping people understand things. As a winemaker at KWV she soon started giving up her lunch hour to teach cellar workers and found joy in hearing them say, “Okay, now I get it!” Now she’s turned her teaching skills into a job as wine educator.

Nomonde’s story highlights the diversity of career opportunities in the wine industry. Her work plays an important part in honing people’s skills so they can further their careers. “I realised winemaking was not my gig, but it was a meaningful detour,” Nomonde says, a sentiment I can personally relate to.

The Soweto-born winemaker-turned-educator was introduced to the wine industry through a bursary and earned her stripes at KWV over 10 vintages. Her experience as a winemaker and in the cellar has stood her in good stead in her role as educator, primarily on the Winetech Cellar Worker Programme, which is funded by Nedbank and the VinPro Foundation.

Nomonde exchanged winemaking for wine teaching three years ago. During this time she often wondered how the wine industry can expand its skills base and talent. “There are many young people who dig winemaking and continually say, ‘Hey, pick me!’ But how are they accommodated and developed?”

Part of the problem is managing the talent pool. Nomonde says a “wine Linkedin” could play a big part in linking potential employers and the right candidates. This would also help to properly identify where the gaps are in terms of skills.

Learning to ask why

A mind shift is required when it comes to training, Nomonde says. “It doesn’t require hours and hours of your time and it certainly shouldn’t stand separate from other activities. Cellar workers rehydrate yeast and mix or add enzymes or fining agents on a daily basis, but far too often, they don’t know why. This is the greatest shortcoming.”

Nomonde emphasises that cellar workers will become valuable employees when they understand what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. While training helps, it’s often only the first step. “I know how many new products are out there that need to be tested. Why not ask cellar workers to run those trials and give feedback? Now that would be progressive learning!”

Like a traffic light

Instead of saying a wine’s colour is amber, I say it’s orange-brown – like the colour of a traffic light. Nomonde has adapted her wine vocabulary by replacing jargon with “kombuistaal” – a kind of wine fanakalo.

“Herbaceous, astringency, cassis. What the hell is cassis? Where in my daily life do I come across cassis?” she asks. The language the wine industry uses doesn’t resonate with cellar workers and tasting becomes a daunting exercise. This challenge should be approached creatively. “Tannins taste like black tea – no milk, no sugar. Oak flavours are pretty straightforward, but there are some wine descriptors that cannot be translated. For example, raspberry and cinnamon become ‘irasbheri’ and ‘isinamon’.”

Bridging the language gap is important, because it boosts confidence. Nomonde preaches that training is crucial for worker confidence, which eventually also boosts performance. But she says cellar workers rarely speak freely. Some are illiterate and most have only basic education. The knowledge gap is wide, but worth bridging.

“If you know more, you feel better about yourself end then you become curious about your work. And that’s when the magic happens!” she says.

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