GIRL BOSS

Women in wine

I virtually ‘sat down’ with some formidable female winemakers, who discussed the representation of women in the wine industry, some challenges experienced on their journey, as well as what they love most about what they do.

Let’s get to know them a little better…

Lizelle Gerber, Nederburg’s cellar-master

Lizelle lives in Wellington with her partner who is an artist and keen underwater photographer, with a deep love for the sea and marine life. Her dogs are her children (cute) and they are an inseparable team! She has two rottweilers: Ben and Inke; a Jack Russell, Nina; and a Border Collie/Jack Russell-cross, Cody. To round off the zoo, there are also two cats, two African Grey parrots and a Koi fishpond.

Describe your journey to becoming a winemaker?

I obtained my degree in winemaking at the Elsenburg Agricultural Training Institute of Stellenbosch, following a one-year stint with the South African National Defence Force. I started my winemaking career in 1996 at Zevenwacht, but it was my tenure at Avontuur in the early 2000s that cemented my love for the vine. In between my time at these two estates, I spent a harvest season in the Alsace region of France where I gained important early exposure to the international wine industry. I was a winemaker at DGB’s Bellingham from 2004 after which I joined Boschendal in August 2006, where I worked for over a decade as its dedicated Méthode Cap Classique (MCC) and white-wine maker before joining Nederburg in August 2019.

What do you enjoy most about what you do?

Every vintage is different, which is why the job is never boring or uninteresting. Every year brings the opportunity to create a new artwork with its own personality and charm.

Would you say it’s harder for a woman to get her foot in the ‘wine-making door’ or have things changed over the years in terms of female representation in the wine industry?

Times are changing! It’s certainly easier for women these days to make a name for themselves in the wine industry. For me, winemaking is about making the best wine in the appropriate style. To identify components that work well together is a challenge and very insightful. It’s great to be able to grow with your wine and to experience the dynamic of this living product. Eventually we all represent SA on the international wine platform.

It is every winemaker’s pursuit to make excellent wine, no matter what your gender is.

What have been some of your biggest challenges and successes?

Surviving the wine industry thus far. In winemaking, climate change is a massive challenge, but also where much of our success stems from.

Which woman/women do you look up to most, and why?

Definitely Madame Veuve Clicquot, if she was still alive. She took on her husband’s entire wine business when she was widowed at only 27 yeas old.  Under her ownership she developed the company that previously focused on wool trading, champagne production and banking to solely focus on champagne.

What advice/words of inspiration do you have for other women out there?

I reckon as a female winemaker you should be adaptable and innovative. Also, in winemaking, respect is important, as it is across all aspects of your life.

My career has been shaped substantially by what I have learnt from workers in the cellar. It’s important – especially at the start of your career – to get your hands dirty. You must understand where it all comes from and how processes happen. Maintaining good relationships is especially important.

Jamie Williams, Nederburg’s assistant white-wine maker

Originally from the Cape Flats, Jamie spent her childhood in Retreat and matriculated from Norman Henshilwood High School in Constantia. She currently lives in Paarl with her husband. When she’s not working, she enjoys exploring the Western Cape, swimming, enjoying a glass of wine with friends and walking her dog.

Describe your journey to becoming a winemaker.

I always had a passion for science. In my second year of BSc with specialisation in Molecular Biology and Biotechnology at Stellenbosch University, I undertook a module on wine biotechnology. I was captured! My BSc graduation was followed by appointment in 2015 as a laboratory analyst intern at Distell’s Die Bergkelder. A year later, I became a harvest cellar intern before taking on my current position at Nederburg in May 2018. 

What do you enjoy most about what you do?

My initial attraction to wine came from a great respect for the fruit.

How could something as simple as a grape be so versatile and transformable into such a luxurious item as wine? This truly fascinated me.

Would you say it’s harder for a woman to get her foot in the ‘wine-making door’ or have things changed over the years in terms of female representation in the wine industry?

Being in command of a cellar team of only men, mostly much older than myself, is a bit of a challenge. To gain their trust and respect and to work well and communicate effectively with my team is very important to me and we are now stronger than ever before. You are only as good as your team.

What have been some of your biggest challenges and successes?

My biggest challenge and success have been travelling internationally, on my own, to California at a young age and having to rely on people I’ve never met! I spent three months in Napa, California, as a harvest enologist at Hunnicutt Wines.

Which three women do you look up to most, and why?

My mother, who has taught me resilience, patience and independence. My mentor, Elmarie Botes (previous white-wine maker at Nederburg) who has and continues to guide me through the ins and outs of the wine industry. And thirdly, a lady who inspires me through her work is Ntsiki Biyela, the first black female winemaker in South Africa. She has an amazing story – quite similar to mine.

What advice/words of inspiration do you have for other women out there?

It’s important to love who you are and be yourself. Work hard and don’t let the past get in the way of realising your potential.

Zinaschke Steyn, Nederburg’s assistant red-wine maker

Zinaschke lives in Franschhoek with her wife. They just love the small-town feel of the place, as well as the natural beauty that surrounds them here.  She arrived in the fairest Cape all the way from Klerksdorp (Western Cape) after matriculating in 2005. She worked as a proofreader in Worcester at Pioneer Printers while familiaring herself with her new home. Before she even considered becoming a winemaker, her plan was to study to become a brandy distiller. But life had other plans for her.

Describe your journey to becoming a winemaker.

During my first two years in the Cape it became evident that winemaking is where my heart is. I completed my B Agric degree in winemaking and viticulture at Elsenburg Agricultural Training Institute in Stellenbosch in 2011, after which I gained first-hand experience in winemaking at Overhex Private Cellar, KWV and Glenwood Vineyards. I was appointed as Nederburg’s assistant red-wine maker in early 2019, where I work under the leadership of cellar-master Lizelle Gerber, and winemaker Samuel Viljoen. 

What do you enjoy most about what you do?

When it comes to wine, what captivates me is the fact that the same cultivar could be expressed in such different ways. 

Wine is all about perception. People perceive things differently. 

Also, we are working with a product of nature which can be totally unpredictable. You need to be able to think on your feet and sometimes roll with the punches to be rewarded with something spectacular.

Would you say it’s harder for a woman to get her foot in the ‘wine-making door’ or have things changed over the years in terms of female representation in the wine industry?

Wine has long been a male-dominated business. This paradigm is slowly but surely changing with more and more women enrolling for winemaking courses and degree programmes, entering the industry and making a real impact.

I love seeing people succeed and do well in life, so I feel that my purpose is to teach and empower people. Especially in our work environment, we engage with a lot of students and casuals. I want people to leave better, more informed and more equipped than when they started working with our team.

What have been some of your biggest challenges and successes?

During my very first harvest I had to tell a head winemaker that the cellar team accidently added MLF bacteria to the wrong batch of wine. This experience has taught me to always be honest, because mistakes can be fixed if you are aware of them. This is something that I try to remind my team of constantly. In terms of successes, there are many wine successes, but what stands out for me is the opportunity I was afforded to join the Nederburg winemaking team. 

Which woman/women do you look up to most, and why?

Alicia Moore (PINK),what a totally independent woman! I love Pink’s tough girl image, but she has also shown a softer side to the public. She is an outspoken advocate for the LGBTQ community and for the better treatment of animals, putting her celebrity behind campaigns sponsored by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). She also supports organisations like Human Rights Campaign, UNICEF, and Save the Children. She is typically known as a rebel – she loves challenging the status quo and doing crazy stuff like dyeing her daughter’s hair or shaving her own head. I wish I could be as confident and outspoken as she is! And to top it all, she has her own winery in Santa Barbara (wink-wink). Does it get any better than this?

Serena Williams, a world-class athlete, business woman and philanthropist. Serena captured the hearts of sports enthusiasts across the world with her athletic prowess and dedication to the game at an early age already. She knows what it takes to win and has been able to come back from major injuries and she just kept at it, working extremely hard to become one of the top tennis players in world history. As the years have passed, even despite her feisty temper, Serena has become so much more than just an inspiration on the court. She is vocal about the need for gender pay, and racial equality. She also has her own company, Serena Ventures, which serves as a platform to empowering people to start their own businesses and develop their entrepreneurial skills. 

Locally, someone I really look up to is Ntsiki Biyela. She comes from such humble beginnings, growing up in a village in KwaZulu-Natal and eventually working as a domestic worker for some time.  She was awarded a scholarship to study winemaking in 1999. She had to exchange her rural village for a university and studies in a language unfamiliar to her. However, she did not see this as a barrier and she excelled. Before her studies she had never tasted wine, but she graduated in 2003 with a BSc in Agriculture (viticulture and oenology) at Stellenbosch University and joined boutique winery Stellekaya in 2004, making her the first black winemaker in South Africa. Her first red wine won a gold medal at the Michelangelo Awards and she was awarded Woman Winemaker of the Year in 2009. This inspirational story doesn’t stop here. Ntsiki also launched her own brand, Aslina Wines in 2014. Just goes to show, that if you put your mind to it, you are capable of doing anything.

What advice/words of inspiration do you have for other women out there?

I have learnt a lot during my career to date, and the most important thing is that you should be happy in your work. Also, keep things simple and stay true to who you are. Always trust your gut!

Isabel Teubes, Nederburg’s viticulturist

Isabel was born and raised on a wine farm in Vredendal, along the banks of the Olifants River. She now lives in Wellington, but often goes back home to the West Coast to catch up with family and friends. She LOVES the outdoors, is a keen golfer and keeps fit by competing in trail running competitions.

Describe your journey to becoming a viticulturist.

I’ve been actively involved in farm activities relating to winemaking and viticulture since the age of 10. Before joining the DGB team in 2014, I obtained a degree in agriculture from the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT). I spent some time working in the US wine region of Russian River in the Sonoma Valley, where I enjoyed incredible exposure to international viticultural standards and practices. I joined the Nederburg winemaking team in early December 2019.

What do you enjoy most about what you do?

Working outside. Each vintage is different, every year comes with its own challenges and lessons. South Africa has such a diverse landscape with a lot of potential for more vineyard planting which makes it very interesting.

Would you say it’s harder for a woman to get her foot in the ‘wine-making door’ or have things changed over the years in terms of female representation in the wine industry?

Being a female in a historically male-dominated industry comes with a unique set of challenges and in certain instances I have found that I needed to work a lot harder and smarter to carve out my place. That being said, the industry is evolving and the hard work which I have put in, has strengthened me both personally and professionally.

What have been some of your biggest challenges and successes?

I have had the opportunity to travel abroad and explore different wine cultures. My fondest wine moment was tasting Pinot Noir from the Russian River Valley in Sonoma, California.

Which three women do you look up to most, and why?

Firstly, my mother, Ella. She’s like superwoman but with more superpowers. She serves as an inspirational example to me, teaching me how to live life and make wise choices, even in the most uncertain situations.

Secondly, Diana, Princess of Wales. She was so humble and always involved in helping others. A very important quality for me is to always be humble.

Thirdly, former tennis player, Maria Sharapova. She was only 18 years old when she was ranked world number one. It taught me that no matter how old you are, if you have passion and heart, you can achieve it.

What advice/words of inspiration do you have for other women out there?

Be yourself. Do what you love. God made you the way you are for a reason.

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