Female winemakers in SA: Overcoming gender stereotypes

by | Jul 29, 2019 | VIP Only

Women’s Month highlights why it’s important to celebrate the progress women have made. So raise a glass and toast our sisters in the winemaking industry!

What does it take to be a great winemaker? Education. Check. Passion. Check. How about a keen palate? Yes. And an ability to think creatively? Definitely! Gender however should never be an issue. But the wine industry, which is deeply rooted in agriculture and farming, has been male-dominated for as long as men could swing a scythe or plough a field. And as any woman who has tried to progress in a male-dominated industry knows, closing the gender gap is not easy.

We speak to six female winemakers who’ve had substantial success in what used to be a male-dominated field, and ask them about their wine philosophy and what National Women’s Month means to them.

Carmen Stevens

Carmen Stevens has been a winemaker for the past 23 years. She serves on the Wine and Spirits Board of South Africa and is the sole owner of Carmen Stevens Wines which is a 100% BBBEE-compliant company. She graduated as the first winemaker of colour from Elsenburg in 1995. Her big break came when she was appointed winemaker for UK e-tailer Naked Wines. In January, Carmen Stevens Wines opened its first 100% black-owned winery in South Africa to become the only black-owned wine brand that’s involved in the full value chain, from grape to bottle. What’s more, Carmen Stevens NPO has been feeding school learners since 2011. This year alone, it provided 10 310 learners with breakfast and lunch across 53 schools in the Western Cape.

What does National Women’s Month mean to you?

CS: It’s about celebrating the unsung female heroes and mothers – those women who are behind the success of so many other women and men. It acknowledges the mothers who prayed, listened, motivated and believed in their children’s dreams, even when they seemed impossible. It celebrates the mothers who believed in a better future for their children by being their anchor.

Do you agree more women need to be empowered and appointed to positions of authority?

CS: I believe the best candidate should be in a position of authority, irrespective of gender. What I’ve experienced over the years is that women in authority have a more inclusive management style than their male peers. They’re more inclined to support skills development for all and more transparent when it comes to management. They also have a proactive work ethic and tackle the most important issues first.

What is your message of inspiration to aspiring female winemakers?

CS: Winemaking is within everyone’s reach. It’s such a rewarding career path and with women being the focus of government, you can only go from strength to strength. The opportunities are endless if you bring you’re A game.

What’s your wine philosophy?

CS: It’s about adapting to what a specific vintage offers you and not forcing a wine into a specific style. I like to believe that by being adaptable, I can show the best characteristics of each vintage. That mindset only came after many years of working as a winemaker.

Jessica Saurwein

Jessica Saurwein’s forefathers used to make wine for the Emperor of Austria in the 17th century, a heritage which inspired her to carry on the tradition. After a gap year working in vineyards locally and internationally, and completing a BSc degree in oenology and viticulture at Stellenbosch University, she initially worked in the world of sales and marketing. She found her way back to making wine in 2015 by making it on a part-time basis. After giving birth to a baby in 2017, she resigned from her job to become a full-time mom and winemaker with her own brand. Her crowning achievements are the earthy Saurwein Nom Pinot Noir and elegantly perfumed Saurwein Chi Riesling, both made from grapes sourced from a Kaaimansgat vineyard near Villiersdorp.

What does National Women’s Month mean to you?

JS: We celebrate a collective of admirable woman that stood up and marched to oppose the extension of pass laws to women during the ’50s. It’s also a time when we take a moment to think of all the strong women in South Africa and the female role models who’ve left a positive imprint on our lives.

Do you agree more women need to be empowered and appointed to positions of authority?

JS: Absolutely! You do however see more women empowered than when I was fresh out of university about a decade ago. Women are intuitive due to their biological make-up. They are born to be creators, peacemakers and nurturers. Women are generally dependable when it comes to administrative work, communication and diplomacy. These skills, in combination with their innate intuition, make them ideal for positions of authority, provided they have the right personality traits.

What is your message of inspiration to aspiring female winemakers?

JS: Go get it, Tigress! The sky’s the limit. The boundaries that exist are those we set ourselves. Education is key. Marie Curie said it best: “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”

What’s your wine philosophy?

JS: My aim is to achieve both energy and harmony. A hands-off approach to winemaking allows me to be guided by the natural balance of the grapes. For this, grape quality is imperative. When you have excellent grapes, you can be a minimalist winemaker. I believe the more you interfere with the inherent balance of wine, the less authentic and less stable the wine becomes. It’s essential that the focus is on the vineyard and most importantly that we farm the soil before anything else. I follow a fairly traditional route in the cellar, but allow intuition and vintage to guide me.

Ntsiki Biyela

KwaZulu-Natal-born Ntsiki Biyela entered the wine industry by chance. Before winning a scholarship to Stellenbosch University and studying oenology she’d never tasted wine. But she excelled and joined Stellekaya in 2004 as resident winemaker. She continued her winemaking journey by starting her own brand in 2017. Aslina Wines is named after her grandmother. Not only is Ntsiki one of the first black female winemakers in South Africa, she also won the Landbouweekblad female winemaker of the year award in 2009 and judges wine competitions all over the world.

What does National Women’s Month mean to you?

NB: It highlights the contribution women have made and still make in growing this country. It highlights the fact that women have broken the glass ceiling in areas where they were previously excluded. This teaches young people that anything is possible.

Do you agree that more women need to be empowered and appointed to positions of authority?

NB: Off course! As women continue to make strides in all fields, it’s important that they’re given the opportunity to hold key positions.

What is your message of inspiration to aspiring female winemakers?

NB: It’s important to work from the heart.

What’s your wine philosophy?

NB: Allow nature to display itself. Just guide the wines and let nature do the rest.

Trizanne Barnard

Trizanne Barnard is the winemaker and owner of Trizanne Signature Wines in Kommetjie, a quaint village at the tip of the Cape Peninsula. She sources grapes from two diverse regions, namely Elim and the Swartland, and strives constantly to preserve the characteristics of these regions in her wine. She was introduced to agriculture after a stay on a kibbutz in Israel at age 18. After a short stay in England where she discovered wine, she headed home to study viticulture and oenology at Stellenbosch University. After graduating in 2002 she worked harvests in Australia, France and Portugal before joining the winemaking team at Klein Constantia. In 2004 she started work on a new brand, Anwika, owned by Klein Constantia. This experience gave her the confidence to start her own label four years later.

What does National Women’s Day mean to you?

TB: Women’s Month means celebrating all the women in our country. We have incredible women – sisters, gogos, moms, aunts – who keep families together and are often the sole breadwinners. In short, they’re the heart of the house. Too often they’re not celebrated for what they achieve and stand for. So I’d like to raise a glass to all the amazing women in our country. Without you Mzanzi wouldn’t exist.

Do you agree that more women need to be empowered and appointed to positions of authority?

TB: I agree that women should be empowered if they are fit for the job. Women, just like men, bring various qualities to the table. So, depending on the job description and other candidates, the person with the best qualities for the position should be appointed, man or woman.

What is your message of inspiration to aspiring female winemakers?

TB: Don’t be afraid to work hard and work smart. But don’t lose your feminine touch as this is one of your strengths. Accept your weaknesses and work hard at improving your strengths. Respect your staff, colleagues and superiors, and you’ll earn their respect. Go the extra mile if you want to get ahead and never become complacent.

What’s your wine philosophy?

TB: Respect the earth and the people in your world, be curious and look for diversity.

Cerina van Niekerk

After completing her winemaking studies at Elsenburg in 1998, Cerina van Niekerk worked a vintage at Grangehurst Winery in Stellenbosch and vintages in New Zealand, Australia and France. Upon her return to South Africa, she worked as a winemaker at a small cellar in Franschhoek before joining Seidelberg Wine Estate (now Spice Route) in Paarl in 2002 as assistant winemaker. In 2003 she worked the vintage at Alexander Valley Vineyards in Sonoma, California. She spent the next seven years at Seidelberg where she was responsible for winemaking.

What does National Women’s Day mean to you?

CvN: It’s a very welcome public holiday that’s usually used to get to the things done for which there’s often little time.

Do you agree that more women need to be empowered and appointed to positions of authority?

CvN: Yes, but it’s definitely more difficult for women to enter these positions because of family responsibilities. It’s possible for women to be empowered and appointed to positions of authority, but there’s also a need for a strong personal and professional support network, and that’s not always available.

What is your message of inspiration to aspiring female winemakers?

CvN: The wine industry is a very interesting and exciting place to work with many opportunities, both locally and internationally.

What’s your wine philosophy?

CvN: During my early years, my philosophy was all about making the best possible wine. But over time I became more aware of the bigger picture where there are many external and human factors at play. All these things are vitally important in ensuring a sustainable wine business. Of course an excellent wine is still one of the most important elements of this bigger picture.

Debbie Thompson

Debbie Thompson was recently promoted to cellar master at Simonsig, the revered and pioneering third-generation winery near Stellenbosch. She takes over from Johan Malan under whom she worked since joining Simonsig in 1999. She graduated from Stellenbosch University with a degree in oenology and worked briefly at Hazendal before joining Simonsig 20 years ago. Over the past two decades she has proved herself to be one of the country’s leading winemakers, winning numerous awards including six Absa Top 10 Pinotage trophies. In 2005 she was named South African Women Winemaker of the Year.

What does National Women’s Day mean to you?

DT: For me it’s an opportunity to celebrate women’s achievements and the important role that women of all races and religions have played and continue to play in South African society. It’s a day where women unite, and through inspiration and courage find the inner strength to empower themselves to their fullest potential.

Do you agree that more women need to be empowered and appointed to positions of authority?

DT: Yes, I do! We live in a society where I strongly believe that equal rights and opportunities must prevail.

What is your message of inspiration to aspiring female winemakers?

DT: Be strong and believe in yourself. Stand up for yourself and others. Be a well-respected woman who shows true courage and bravery. Be hardworking, and show perseverance and ambition. Lastly, be all that but stay humble.

What is your wine philosophy?

DT: Wine is a gift from nature and must be treated with respect. That said, it’s made for pure enjoyment and that’s why we make wine to please the palate and educate people about the Stellenbosch region’s unique terroir.

Article Archives

Search for more articles

Generic selectors
Exact matches only
Search in title
Search in content

Stay current with our monthly editions

Shopping Cart
There are no products in the cart!
Continue Shopping
0