Women Making Waves, and Wine, in South Africa

August 24, 2011

South Africa’s viticulture history dates back to 1659, a time when farms were passed down from father to eldest son, and ownership was entrenched in a small group of people. Now however, women increasingly participate across the industry—from farming to tasting counters, administration and marketing. Some also own or run vineyards or estates, connoisseurs who lend their taste buds to panels at competitions such as the Wine Masters.

Of the approximately 400 current wine makers in South Africa, about 80 are women and that number continues to grow as local government encourages participation in business. South African wine was a well-kept secret in the USA until 1994 when new international marketing and exporting began. Today, an impressive number of South African woman qualify as Wine Masters, including Gesie van Deventer, who in 2001, was honored as the country’s Winemaker of the Year.

The women and their contributions make the Winelands a great place for amazing vacations. You’ll feel their influence in the warm hospitality on estates, see their hand in elegant décor, and notice small details like beautiful bottle design and labels. The Spier wine estate, for example, has a number of women winemakers. Check out Pam McOnie’s favorite wine farms list for other places to visit. She’s a great resource for making arrangements ahead of time so Quintess members can meet movers and shakers like Gesie van Deventer, Ntsiki Bihela and Rozy Gunn, and identify other wine women at vineyards and estates.

Although the list is long, here are a few introductions to some of the amazing women paving the way in creating access and destroying stereotypes in the South African wine industry:

1. Norma Ratcliffe: Warwick Wines

It’s African tradition to start by paying tribute to the elders and Norma is a founding mother of South African wine history. She is one of the most noted female wine makers in the world and her wine, Three Cape Ladies, a South African blend containing Pinotage, was one of the first South African wines to receive a rating of over 90 points in US Wine Spectator magazine. Although Norma has handed over the running of the estate to her son, Mike Ratcliffe, her family continues her dream. Her daughter and Wine Master, Jenny Ratcliffe-Wright, is now making history as head of SA Winestyle magazine and as a wine buyer for Woolworths (the biggest and most up-market supermarket group in South Africa).

2. Ntsiki Bihela: Stellakaya

Ntsiki grew up in Kwazulu-Natal far from the Cape Winelands and she is the first black female wine maker in South Africa. As a group, Black South Africans prefer beer, brandy, vodka and whisky to wine but Ntsiki is out to change things, and get more people drinking wine.

Her journey illustrates the inspiring changes taking place at the tip of Africa, since she excelled at school and was offered a bursary to do a BSc Oenology at the University of Stellenbosch. After researching the program, she discovered this meant studying to be a wine maker/viticulturalist—an interesting option for a girl who had never even tasted wine. Now she is determined that more South Africans experience their wine inheritance—a true force to be reckoned with!

3. Gesie van Deventer: Domaine Brahms

Gesie struggled at first in an industry where men refused to share advice and experience because she was a woman. One of her favorite quotes is from Ziglar, ”Life is like a ladder and no one has ever climbed a ladder with his hands in his pockets.” Gesie was a successful lawyer but became determined to be a wine maker. She faced some severe hurdles, including a car accident, but Gesie went on to triumph both physically and professionally, to earn recognition as Winemaker of the Year, 2001.

4. Rozy Gunn: Iona

Rozy and Andrew Gunn have land that will be certified organic on a mountain plateau 420 metres above sea level, surrounded by the Kogelberg Nature Reserve, and overlooking the Atlantic Ocean (about 1.5 hours away from Cape Town). Iona produces one of the best Sauvignon Blancs in the country as their vineyards exist at the coolest temperatures in South Africa. Rozy is also a talented artist, and time with her has been described as “extremely inspirational since she is a very hands-on wine farmer and determined, strong-willed and interesting.”

By the way, if you make it to Iona, be sure to also sample the wonderful wine at Paul Cluyer—a real family affair run by parents, son and both daughters.

How far will you go to experience the best wine? Is South Africa in your plans for 2012?

A special thank you for content and insight on this topic goes to Sandy Salle and Pam McOnie at Hills of Africa Travel. Sandy works as Chief Executive Officer and personal escort and Pam is a preferred tour guide for South Africa’s Cape Winelands. Both Sandy and Pam are experts on South African wine and culture and are also some of the real and interesting women redefining the wine industry.

~ Deborah-Eve, Guest Contributor

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