Johannesburg - After matriculating in Ulundi, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa’s first black female winemaker, Ntsiki Biyela, had her heart set on studying chemical engineering.
Money was in short supply though and, without a bursary, she had little hope of furthering her studies.
In the meantime, she took up a job as a domestic worker and spent all her spare time trying to figure out a way to get to university.
Eventually, says Biyela, she received a scholarship from SAA, but it was for winemaking at Stellenbosch University – not chemical engineering.
“I said sure. I was tired of hunting around for bursaries and I just wanted to study,” says Biyela, effervescent among the ranks of established wine labels lining the shelves at Cellar in the City in the exclusive V&A Waterfront Watershed that stocks her label.
Wearing a multicoloured and intricately beaded necklace, with earrings to match, Biyela was at Cellar in the City to host a tasting of wines crafted by her own hand. Her attention occasionally strayed from the conversation as she scanned the tables to check if her bottles of Aslina wine were properly set out and the glasses clean.
She arrived at Stellenbosch, the centre of South Africa’s wine industry, back in 1999. Now, 18 years later, she proudly owns her own label – named after her grandmother – and holds her own in the global winemaking clique.
Breaking through the Afrikaner ranks of the winelands was not easy, more so owing to her being a woman than being black, she says. Biyela, however, shrugs off questions about feeling isolated and lonely so far away from her hometown.
“I’ve been lucky,” she says, “there are a lot of good people in the industry.” But she says the rotten potatoes who cling to racist attitudes unfortunately have a lot of influence.
One of the “good people” was Dave Lello, owner of Stellekaya wines where she was employed as winemaker after graduating with her Bachelor of Science in Oenology, in 2004.
“People would come in and talk to my boss because he’s a man. He’d say: ‘I’ve got no idea what you’re talking about, speak to my winemaker.’”
Lello’s faith in her and her involvement in all aspects of the business, including export, gave her the skills needed to set up her own wine label, Aslina, in 2013 – following a collaborative project with California’s Napa Valley winemaker Helen Keplinger of Suo wines.
Owning no land, “Can you give me some?” she asks with a mischievous grin, Biyela buys grapes from carefully chosen vineyards in the Stellenbosch area, rents cellar space and contracts the bottling.
This outsourcing means Aslina wines only has two full-time employees including herself, yet managed to produce 12 000 bottles of wine last year.
Most of her wine is exported to New York and Texas in the US, Germany, Taiwan and Ghana. There are plans to export to the Democratic Republic of Congo soon, following meetings with the Hyper Psaro supermarket group while on a trade and industry investment trip in November.
Biyela is keen on penetrating the African market, as people in the continent don’t generally drink wine.
“The African market is new to wine. In Europe they know what they like, but the African market needs to be educated. It’s largely a beer and spirits market.”
But she believes that people will not turn back once they understand what wine is about.
It’s about asking people questions when they first taste her wine, she says. Such as what they like about it, what they don’t like, what they expected and also explaining what she tries to achieve as a winemaker.
Part of her approach is to train staff in the shops selling her wine, educating them on her brand and on wine in general.
Aslina wines produces a Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and a Bordeaux blend. The wines retail at between R95 and R160 per bottle at select outlets in Cape Town.
With international clients demanding more of her produce, Biyela has to increase her production to 18 000 bottles to cater for the South African market too.
Once Aslina has expanded sufficiently, Biyela has her sights set on owning her own vineyard. – WCN* SUBSCRIBE FOR FREE UPDATE: Get Fin24's top morning business news and opinions in your inbox.