Wietske Rubow – an alumnus of the Burgundy School of Wine and Spirits Business – notes that she had more Chinese classmates than French and that business networking was part and parcel of this course.
While proficient French is a prerequisite for the mentioned programmes, modules across Europe – notably Spain, Italy, Portugal and Hungary – present exposure to different cultures, but also opportunities to learn the basics of several widely spoken ‘wine languages’. Herman Potgieter completed the Master Vintage in 2007 – the first intake for which the European Commission sponsored international students – and specifically highlights that his interest in languages influenced his decision to further his studies abroad.
Stellenbosch University’s BSc (Agric) Viticulture and Oenology degree was widely considered as a very solid foundation for further wine studies, with most of the international post-graduates suggesting that they were technically well on par with their international peers. Exposure to international wine styles and the business side of the industry, was, however, regarded as a shortcoming, which was momentously supplemented by studying abroad.
The Master Vintage course included modules on viticulture and oenology, but also extends beyond what is taught in the University of Stellenbosch undergraduate programme: marketing, business economics and project management. Qualified winemakers are increasingly also doing post graduate programmes with an emphasis on the business side of the trade, with Burgundy School of Wine and Spirits Business being a popular option. Montpellier’s Vinifera Masters, according to Wilhelm, is presented at one of the leading research facilities in France and the programme therefore has a strong focus on research/theory that is well balanced with practical/fieldwork.
Besides the actual course work, students are required to do a research project for all the aforementioned programmes. Ranging from technical oenological dissertations to more market-focussed studies, these ‘outside-perspectives’ often provide valuable research and often direct the students towards the specific facet of the industry in which they are likely to specialise: winemaking, viticulture or marketing.
Jolette Steyn, who did a Master Vintage, focused on corrective pruning to optimise the vigour of old Grenache vineyards in Priorat – a topic which is of course just as important and applicable in Piekenierskloof or Piketberg. Similarly, Kristin Basson’s project entailed the rare opportunity to be involved in the inception, planning, equipping and construction of a new winery. This served as the ideal learning occasion to partake in integrating the different technical and practical aspects pertaining to establishing a contemporary wine cellar, while developing a new product portfolio and contributing to the birth of a new brand in the southern Rhône valley. Again, these are expertise with global relevance, which are equally applicable back home.
The question that should, however, be asked is, “how is the South African industry geared to harness these skills” Similarly, is the industry open to feedback and input from these ambassadors, who inevitably get a reality check and return to the Cape with an objective view of what we are doing right or wrong
Graduates from the international postgraduate programmes today occupy a variety of roles, varying from sommelier and wine buyer – like Eben Bezuidenhoud at Grootbos Private Nature Reserve – to viticulturist – like Etienne Terblanche at Delheim – or winemaking roles, like Jolette Steyn who was recently appointed as assistant winemaker at Steenberg.
Studying abroad does, however, by no means springboard your career in South Africa, with most of the qualified international students arguing that actors in the South African industry do not yet fully realise the benefits that they could gain by increased international exchange in an academic environment.
South African wineries are seemingly hesitant to pay more for highly qualified employees, with many employers – in an environment that has been known to be oversupplied with skilled and qualified professionals – commenting that these global graduates are overqualified. The saying that it’s not what you know, but who you know in the industry certainly comes into play, with many arguing that the now common route of doing a number of harvests until you manage to get an assistant winemaker position is a safer bet than the seemingly more progressive option of international studies.
It therefore comes as no surprise that very often local talent is lost after postgraduate studies, with South African “exports” landing serious jobs or even starting their own businesses abroad.
Lynne Baker, is now based in Bordeaux, where she co-founded a wine export company, leveraging her knowledge of the global wine industry, and her cultural understanding, as well as her multilingual and well-established wine network spanning the world – which now facilitates international transactions.
After completing his studies, Herman Potgieter also joined a large international company in Spain, where he worked in the marketing and sales department, responsible for export and new business development in Ireland, Scandinavia and the United States. Subsequently, he has taken a sabbatical to complete an MBA and is currently based in Stuttgart, Germany.
One of the 2010 graduates of the Master Vintage programme, Jolene Hunter lives in Alsace, France, where she works as the export manager at Domaine Zind Humbrecht, the domaine where she did an internship as part of her studies.
Her Stellenbosch classmate and fellow Master Vintage graduate, Etienne Neethling, is completing a PhD in Angers, where he is employed by the national institute of agricultural research (INRA) and the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS). Etienne’s topic is adapting viticultural practices to climate variability and change – certainly a globally relevant theme, at a time that PhDs in viticulture are even scarcer in South Africa than top winemaking positions.
As in Jolene’s case Kristin Basson, as a result of her research project, completed her third harvesting season as assistant winemaker in 2013 at Terres des Amoureuses, where she was involved in production, system and product development, label design, press releases and web page development.
Kristin has, however, opted to return home in August this year to pursue a career in South Africa, where she particularly highlights a balance between tradition and contemporary innovation “to produce premium wines in a classic old world style with a modern individualistic South African touch”.
It often takes a number of years away from the local coalface to realise the positive attributes of the South African industry. Both Jolette and Wietske quite surprisingly emphasise some key advantages of what is often considered as a detrimental aspect of the South African industry: labour.
Wietske suggests South Africa has an advantage in the relatively high prevalence of permanent labour, which is not attainable with smaller production units, more prevalent in Europe. Jolette added that she has, upon returning from Europe, seen the value and possibilities of improving labour proficiency through training – particularly for permanent employees.
Other common suggestions from the academic swallows included a shift towards stylistic focus, instead of the “fruit salad” approach, whereby several cultivars are produced at most wineries. Jolene Hunter was particularly inspired by the exposure to global wine styles. ”For the South African industry, more informed exposure to foreign wine regions has already led to benchmarking against the great wines of the world and a drive to produce better, truer wines, which speak of where they come from and do not try to imitate something else”.
She added that wine styles, grape variety or even techniques were too often introduced into an unsuitable situation, where the context was not taken into account. “The more we are exposed to the multitude of factors involved in producing great wine, the more experience we have with international wines and wine regions, the easier it is too see the naivety of that way of thinking and it will become more obvious to see the potential and what is great in what we have.”
In a similar vein, Etienne Terblanche accurately emphasised concepts such as focus, identity and confidence as things that South Africa desperately needs to work on. The fresh, informed perspectives from the taught and travelled certainly hold value in an increasingly globalised industry, where innovation and renewal have become non-negotiable. It seems that the industry has not yet embraced the value of returning swallows. This is perhaps to its own detriment, since they are certainly qualified and equipped to also spread their wings elsewhere.