Q&A: 'Little girl, what are you doing here?' J9 CEO on breaking into the wine industry

Janine Petersen is a force to be reckoned with. Courageous, confident and persistent, the 32-year-old started j9Wine(Pty)Ltd with nothing but her savings and the money she made from selling her Citroen C3.

Obstacles didn't faze the single mother of two, however. Petersen takes pride in being one of South Africa's youngest black wine company owners on the African continent. She says the word "no" doesn't exist in her vocabulary, and taking her eyes off the prize was never an option.

"I've achieved what many women in my community would die to achieve, and which was only possible through hard work and perseverance," she told Fin24.

Petersen launched j9Wine three years ago in Cape Town, after being frustrated and bored in her last corporate job. She craved change, and her dream of building an empire took precedence, leading her to resign and instead start her own business, tapping into her combined knowledge of wine making, marketing and distribution.

She shared her journey with Fin24.

What were your biggest challenges when starting j9Wine?

Lets talk about the fact that I'm female, black and young in a white male-dominated industry. You would sit at a table and they would look at you like: little girl, what are you doing here? That is the reality, accepting black wine owners wasn't an easy task to do.

It was a stage where transformation was happening rapidly in the wine industry and we had predecessors, people of colour who went before us and paved the way. There wasn't really an expectation of a next generation of black connoisseur in the wine industry. A generation of black oenophiles in a wine industry was not suppose to grow. Now it's growing and it poses something of a threat. But we've managed to find common ground to say: look, we are here, and we are claiming our space in the wine industry.

Another challenge was accessing markets and funding. Finding access to funding is still a huge challenge. I feel like in South Africa we don't really have a fund that focuses on starting a business, especially in the wine industry.

How much did it cost you to start your business and where did you get capital?

Grace is what got me through, and I cashed the only asset I had at the time, which was my car. I also cashed my savings. I started out with about R80 000.

How did you get local suppliers and what is the process that goes into making the wines?

I knocked on quite a few doors. For me to go up to someone and say: "Look, you are making wine for this company; can you make wine for me? Can we sit down and go through the tasting so you can know what it is that I want you to create for me?" was a challenge on its own.

Pricing was an issue.

I was young too, and [people] thought, "She is female and black who is she, how does she come and knock on our door and expect us to make her wine?" After all the run-around I eventually got one door to open, and that is Hoopenburg wines. I sit with Hoopenburg wines once a year after harvest time. I meet with the wine maker and then we blend and style the wine according to J9 Wine. 

What are the different varietals j9Wine offers and why did you choose those varietals?

We do a j9Wine Merlot, j9Wine Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot, j9Wine Sauvignon Blanc and a j9Wine Chenin Blanc. It's easy drinking wine and its a South African flagship. If you have a Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc, you've won the South African battle. When I chose my wines, I thought about what someone that wants to start drinking wine might start drinkin,g and that's my market. The young professionals who just went out of university that want to start drinking wine. That's why my wine is very much palatable, softer and more welcoming. It's new world wine.

How many people do you employ?

Kris [Simpson] joined my team last year. She has been adding a lot of value to my company. She is the marketing director and I employ freelancers to help out.

What would your advice be to anyone trying to join the wine industry?

You have to have patience, perseverance and the courage to stick it out. Those qualities will take you through and a whole lot of grace. Turn your back on the naysayers. They are going to say no. Push though the no's.

What are your hopes for your future?

We don't depend on hope, we are doers. We create goals and follow through. Our goal is to have a J9 Wine empire and dominate the world. We started the #wineofcolorSA; it is a trend for younger wine brands to gain access to markets anywhere in the world with money-in-the-bank results.

This will contribute to the huge unemployment gap that we are currently facing among the youth. So far we've taken #wineofcolorSA to Hong Kong, South Korea and the World Travel Market Africa 2019. Our next step is to go to the CCB 2019 Hong Kong Wine&Dine show in October. We at working in conjunction with Brand SA; however, we do seek further sponsorship, because we still have a shortage of funds.

Who do you draw inspiration from ?

I would say I draw inspiration from my peers. There are so many guys in the industry that have done amazing things. Ntsiki Biyela and Amy Kleinhans also inspire me. Amy was the very first coloured Miss South Africa to own a wine farm, and Ntsiki made the cover of Forbes Japan. Her wine brand Aslina is taking over Japan.

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