From domestic worker to acclaimed winemaker

South Africa’s first black female winemaker and 2009 Woman Winemaker of the Year Ntsiki Biyela is not only a pioneer but also an inspiration. As a bright school leaver, she did domestic work and knew nothing about wine – today she is an internationally renowned achiever in this industry. She shared her amazing journey with African Farming.

When Ntsiki Biyela accepted a scholarship from the South African Airways in 1999 to study winemaking, she saw it merely as an opportunity to escape poverty and make something of herself. Never in her wildest dreams did she imagine she would one day become an award-winning international household name revered by wine lovers across the globe.

Her range of wines currently include Cabernet Sauvignon, Bordeaux blends, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, and is exported by Wines of the World in the US, Arista Kiso in Japan, Vin Africa in Germany, Molovino in Taiwan, African Wines in the Netherlands and Veevinos in Ghana.

Ntsiki admits she knew so little about wine growing up that she mistook ciders like Crossbow and Hunter’s Gold for wine!

“I wasn’t interested in wines, let alone making them. For me the scholarship was simply an opportunity to study, a matter of doing what had to be done.”

Growing up in Mahlabathini, a rural village in the Ugu District Municipality of Kwazulu-Natal, Ntsiki matriculated there in 1996.

“We did subsistence farming. As a youngster I herded cattle and milked cows,” she recalls.

But it wasn’t always an easy childhood. When mud roads became impassible, she would have to walk an hour to school. But she loved learning, excelling in science and mathematics. There was no money to study further, however, so Ntsiki found herself doing domestic work after school.

Yet fate had other plans. When Eileen KaNkosi-Shandu, then KwaZulu-Natal MEC of Education, announced a search for students to apply for a SAA bursary to study winemaking, a former teacher remembered Ntsiki more than two years after she had left school, and looked her up to encourage her to apply.

“SAA serves a lot of wine on their planes and obviously saw a need to diversify the industry,” Ntsiki explains.

“The bursary was its way of contributing towards transformation, bringing young black people into the industry.”

“SMALL TREES”

And so Ntsiki was accepted to study winemaking at Stellenbosch University, where she enrolled for a BSc degree in agriculture, majoring in viticulture and oenology. She vividly remembers arriving in the Boland town in 1998.

“There were these small trees everywhere, and these really big mountains. I soon learnt those small trees were actually vines!”

Far from home, university proved to be challenging.

“It was an Afrikaans-medium university and I worried that I wouldn’t be accepted by the industry,” she says.

“I was crying all the time, but when I passed my first year, things got easier.” Despite some initial hostility, Ntsiki says most people she met were helpful.

“Instead of focusing on the negativity, I chose to focus on those willing to help me grow,” she points out.

“The more people I met, the more I realised the industry is like a big family”.

This become very apparent when she started her internship at Delheim Winery in Stellenbosch.

“My love of wine really took off under my first mentor, the veteran winemaker Philip Costandius. He’s just so passionate and eager to help. I wanted to be just like him!”

After graduating in 2003, Ntsiki landed a job as a junior winemaker at David and Jane Lello’s winery Stellekaya. This officially made her South Africa’s first black female winemaker. It was while working in Stellekaya’s tasting room that Ntsiki discovered her first favourite wine – a 2005 Shiraz.

“It had this farmyard smell, which I found very exciting,” she recalls. But it was her own 2005 Stellekaya Hercules, a Sangiovese blend, which won her a gold medal at the 2006 Michelangelo International Wine and Spirits Awards, that proved to be her big break.

Ntsiki knew she wanted to start her own business and considered opening a wine-tasting room in Durban.

“There wasn’t anything like it in Durban, and because of eThekwini’s vibrant tourism industry I thought it would be a hit,” she says.

“I had already found a location and identified suppliers of wine.” But finances once again tripped her up. Refusing to become despondent, Ntsiki continued working hard towards her goals.

“I was happy at Stellekaya. It was a small company, so I learnt about all the aspects of the business – the vineyards, the tasting room and marketing. I was also travelling quite a bit, so I made some really good international contacts too.”

GOING SOLO

Meeting US wine importer Mika Bulmash of Wines for the World turned out to be a gamechanger. Mika wanted to support emerging South African winemakers by partnering them with US winemakers.

“She set up my first collaboration with a Californian winemaker, Helen Keplinger, and we launched the Keplinger/Biyela label. The name changed to Suo the following year.”

This project become the precursor to Ntsiki’s own label, Aslina Wines, which she established using the cash she’d made from the collaboration.

“I named it after my grandmother,” Ntsiki says. She was my pillar – her care and guidance inspired me to succeed in life and business.”

Started in 2016, the brand was officially launched in 2017, while Ntsiki was still employed at Stellekaya.

“I sat down with my boss and told him I wanted to start my own business and brand. It didn’t come as a shock to him. He admitted all winemakers eventually go their own way, and immediately gave me his blessing.”

Not only did Dave and Jane allow her to start her own business while still working for them full time, they also made Stellekaya’s facilities available to her.

Ntsiki says her focus was on the export market from the start, drawing on the international contacts she had built up.

“We export about 80% of our wines. We don’t have the necessary infrastructure and systems to supply the local market such as restaurants and wine shops.”

She explains that the local market buys in smaller quantities, which requires more staff and systems to manage, package and distribute countrywide. International buyers, on the other hand, make bulk purchases, which are easier and cheaper to manage as a small company.

“International exchange rates also benefit our cashflow, of course,” she smiles.

Under the Aslina Wines label, Ntsiki produces a variety of wines: Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and a Bordeaux blend called Umsasane. Aslina Wines doesn’t own vineyards and buys grapes from local farmers, while renting space initially from Stellekaya and now from Delheim Wines, where Ntsiki also makes and bottles her wines. Of the 14 000 bottles she produces annually, 80% are sold internationally.

GROWING ASLINA WINES

Despite the Covid-19 pandemic, 2020 has been a good year for Aslina Wines, Ntsiki says. While it didn’t reach its 40% growth target, the 20% growth in exports was heartening. She now wants to increase production to exceed 60 000 bottles per year, which would allow her finally to secure her own winemaking facilities.

“The only way to achieve this is through growing my market share, both locally and internationally.”

According to her, the local market is showing signs of recovery. “During the hard lockdown we had a lot of local support, where people would place orders and pay upfront.”

As her contribution to the transformation of the industry, Ntsiki serves on the board of the Pinotage Youth Development Academy, which prepares unemployed 18- to 25-year-olds for a career in the wine and tourism industries.

“I want not only to help get more black people into the industry but also more women, no matter their race.”

INTERNATIONAL ACCLAIM

Since Ntsiki was named Woman Winemaker of the Year in 2009, the accolades have not stopped. She was voted one of The Most Influential Women in Business and Government for two consecutive years. ITALS magazine ranked her among its Top 20 Most Innovative Women in Food and Drinks in 2017, and in the following year the US magazine ITALS included her on its list of 15 Women in Wine to Watch.

Meanwhile, Ntsiki’s wines keep on raking in the awards, including gold medals at the Michelangelo International Wine and Spirits Awards for her 2016 and 2017 vintages.

She also bagged gold at the Sakura Awards in Japan two years running, for different vintages.

Definitely, a woman to watch!

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