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A heady bouquet of change

S. Africa's wine industry has long been run by white men who said blacks lacked tradition. Now a Zulu woman is proving them wrong.

August 06, 2007|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

Stellenbosch, South Africa — NTSIKI Biyela looked curiously at the red liquid in her glass, wondering what to expect.

She was listening to a connoisseur who swirled his glass about, passionately extolling the perfumes of blackberries and cigar box that she was supposed to be appreciating.

Biyela smelled, as instructed, but there had never been any blackberries or cigar boxes in the Zulu village where she grew up, fetching water from the river and firewood from the forest every day. The liquid smelled alien.

Then it was time to taste. Bitter! Disgusting! Was she going to dedicate her life to making this undrinkable brew?

That was eight years ago. Today, Biyela, a petite woman with a ready smile, gets a faraway look in her eye when she has her nose in a wineglass. She is South Africa's first black female winemaker in an overwhelmingly white, male-dominated industry. In 1999, she was one of a group of students given scholarships to learn winemaking as part of an affirmative action measure in a country struggling to overcome the poisonous legacy of apartheid.

Fresh from university in 2004, she joined the boutique Stellakaya winery here in the Cape Winelands as its winemaker, and its wines since have won gold and silver medals in South Africa, one of the world's new wine powers.

"This is my favorite," the 29-year-old enthused, popping the cork from a bottle of blended Sangiovese, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, pouring it into a glass and holding it under her nose, with a small frown of intense concentration.

"It's this earthiness, walking out into the forest after rain," she said. "That's what I am getting. I used to go and fetch firewood from the forest, and sometimes it's like it's been raining on a sunny day and you get this overwhelming earthiness coming out."

Biyela has much to prove to her skeptical peers: The unspoken attitude among many winemakers -- and drinkers -- is that black people cannot make decent wine because it is not part of their cultural tradition.

In villages such as her hometown, Kwavuthela, people drink homemade beer. In black townships, people visit shebeens (taverns) drinking mainly beer and hard liquor. At the Jo'burg Wine Show in Johannesburg in June, there were few nonwhite faces among the tasters and drinkers, let alone behind the stalls.

"I was not particularly looking for a black winemaker. I was looking for someone who was capable," said winemaker David Lello, the owner of Stellakaya winery.

"I think there are prejudices all over. Number one, she's a woman. Number two, she's black," he said of Biyela. "I definitely think there are barriers, but we are not scared of those barriers. Not her, not I."

BIYELA admitting being scared when Lello told her she would be the sole winemaker at Stellakaya, not someone's deputy.

"He just believed in me," she said. Although Stellakaya is small, producing 87,000 bottles a year, its wines are distributed in California and parts of Europe.

The first steps to black empowerment in South Africa's wine industry occurred thousands of miles away in New York: at Acker Merrall & Condit, America's oldest wine store.

In 1978, during the apartheid era, a young teetotaler named Jabulani Ntshangase left South Africa to study business in New York, earning money as a packer in the storeroom at Acker Merrall & Condit.

Ntshangase went on to become one of the country's first black wine producers and helped found the South African Airways Wine Education Trust to educate disadvantaged students in viticulture (grape growing) and oenology (winemaking). He was the connoisseur who introduced Biyela to wine, swirling the liquid and explaining its qualities.

At Acker Merrall & Condit, Ntshangase, too, had listened with perplexity to the wine merchants extolling their products' virtues, calling a liquid "dry."

"At first I thought I wasn't hearing them properly," he said. "The second thing was this guy opening up this wine, pouring it so beautifully into a glass and looking at it and saying, 'Wow, this thing has got some legs.' It was the way they were describing the wines which really caught me.

"It didn't take me long. I said, 'I want to be a part of this.' "

Back in South Africa, after the end of apartheid and the start of free elections in 1994, Ntshangase and others started the wine education trust to try to introduce more blacks into the industry.

"I set off to go around high schools. I was talking to these kids aged 14 to 18, just telling them about a whole new occupation that was out there: viticulture and oenology. Their schoolteachers didn't even know what viticulture and oenology was."

Biyela had dreamed of being an engineer, but took her teachers' advice and filled out an application form for a winemaking scholarship. At the time she thought wine was like a fizzy cider drink, but it did not seem to matter much. As the child of poor parents with no money for university fees, it would not really have mattered what course she got into.

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