Ntsiki Biyela – taking charge

Ntsiki Biyela of Aslina Wines

Pioneer female Black winemaker Ntsiki Biyela, winemaker and director of Aslina Wines, tells a tale so heartening that we include her entire biography at the end of this personal account, as well as a comment from her Japanese importer. (See here for encouraging news of successful sommelier training for the previously disadvantaged in South Africa.)

There is a lot of discussion about the place for people of colour within the wine industry globally. Of course everywhere is different and everyone is aware that here in South Africa as in many other countries there is a long history of disadvantage that has led to entrenched prejudice. This is true particularly in wine, which has traditionally been dominated almost exclusively by white male winemakers and vineyard owners.

As South Africa’s first Black woman winemaker, my experiences have been challenging and often overwhelming. However, they have also driven my determination to succeed. In 1999 I won a scholarship to Stellenbosch University and moved from my home in Kwa-Zulu Natal to study. My fellow students asked me why I would come to an Afrikaans university if I didn’t even speak the language. This was a fact. I couldn’t understand or speak Afrikaans, but I never considered that a barrier to learning. And it wasn’t just their question that was intimidating but the way it was asked. It was made very clear to me, not in words but in the way people behaved towards me, that I didn’t belong.

As a student getting work experience working at Delheim, I had my first glimpse into the industry itself when the winemaker there invited me to join him at a seminar. When we arrived, it was all white and male – with one exception. However, the only other woman in the room left as soon as she had checked in the attendees. I realised then that I was entering into an industry with no Black people and very few women. 

I was scared of what I would find as a young winemaker in my first job and expected the worst. To my surprise, I found that people were very helpful. I could pick up the phone and call a winemaker I didn’t know, ask for help or advice and they were only too happy to lend a hand. It was then that I realised that the industry is more like a family. It has its problems, squabbles and fallings out, but there is plenty of support and encouragement to be found as well. Collaboration and partnerships are the keys to breaking down barriers and they can be found here if you look.

Nevertheless there were still some individuals who couldn’t hide their shock or disappointment when they saw me. People came to the cellar looking for the winemaker and when I showed up said they wanted the winemaker not the cellar supervisor. It irritated me but in a way I couldn’t blame them. The picture they had of a winemaker was completely different from the person in front of them. Even now I get comments like, ‘Oh, wow, how are you so knowledgeable about wine?’, as if I am not expected to be.

I hope by sharing my story, I can be an inspiration to others who are following the same path. I am on the board of the Pinotage Youth Development Academy (PYDA), which prepares unemployed 18- to 25-year-olds for careers in wine and tourism. In addition to technical skills, they learn life skills so that they can work out where they fit in the world and how to handle themselves in difficult situations. Self-awareness, self-confidence and self-sufficiency are attributes that I have learnt through my life and are vital for building the resilience that you need in the face of a sometimes-hostile environment. One of our first graduates, Ruth Faro, has just been named in the ‘30 under-30 movers and shakers’ in South African wine. With nearly 300 Academy graduates now in the workplace, the future is bright with young people who are fully enlightened and highly ambitious contributing to making a difference. The energy from my relationship with them is mutual – they remind me of myself when I was young and we give each other hope and inspiration to work hard and do more.

Through my career, I have made a choice to focus on those people who are positive and willing to help me grow. On the other side, I have become expert at ignoring negative words. Genuine transformation is slow and it will take many years for opportunity to be equal and for Black people to be viewed in the same light as white in the South African wine industry. I still attend meetings and seminars and there are very few women, although this is changing. And there are far too few people of colour, although this too is changing. But so much more needs to be done and individuals across the whole industry need to be deliberate about their intentions to achieve inclusivity, not just through their words but through their actions as well.

However, I am optimistic for the future. I ask myself every day ‘What are you going to do to change things?’ That is a good challenge and one that I hope I am living up to through my career and my wines.

Ntsiki Biyela is the winemaker and director of Aslina Wines, a company named in honour of her late grandmother, Aslina.

She grew up in Mahlabathini, a rural village in Kwa Zulu-Natal, where she matriculated from high school in 1996. Having spent a year as a domestic worker, she was awarded a scholarship through South African Airways to study winemaking at the University of Stellenbosch in 1999. She graduated in 2003 with a BSc in Agriculture (Viticulture and Oenology) and joined Stellekaya, a boutique winery, as their winemaker in 2004.

Ntsiki is a pioneer woman and has earned many accolades. In 2009, she was crowned Woman Winemaker of the Year. For two consecutive years, she was voted The Most Influential Women in Business and Government. In 2017, she was named in the Top 20 Most Innovative Women in Food and Drinks by Fortune magazine. She has also been named as one of the top 15 Women in Wine to Watch by Food & Wine magazine in the USA.

She has received numerous awards for her wines, including gold medals from the Michelangelo Wine and Spirits Awards for her 2016 and 2017 vintages, as well as gold from the Sakura Awards in Japan for two consecutive years for different vintages. Not only has Aslina won awards, it has also won the hearts of people globally for what the brand stands for. Ntsiki is an inspiration to women across the world and in particular people of colour who are starting out their careers in the wine industry.

Jancis adds Ntsiki was a participant in yesterday's webinar on the current terrible state of the SA wine industry. You can register to see it here.

When I started this series of personal accounts from South Africa, I received this message from Aslina Wines' Japanese importer Mami Noma:

'I am very impressed by your blog message. We just started to import Ntsiki Biyela’s wine, ASLINA from South Africa last spring. Two years ago, I found Ntsiki’s article in the local newspaper in Japan. I was attracted by her life, contacted her, and asked to send the samples of ASLINA wines to Japan, since ASLINA was not sold in the Japanese market yet. We found it is such a beautiful wine like her life itself. Our company was about to start the wine business at that time, since I had been loving wines for 20 years and had studied at WSET in Tokyo. We decided to import ASLINA last year.

'We made several promotions and Ntsiki visited Japan twice last year. Last year, we did a 'first black lady winemaker in South Africa' promotion in Japan. It gathered people's attention very well, even though Black Lives Matter does not exist in Japan. Ntsiki’s way of life and her smile cheers people happily and gives us power. :).

'I think that it's a really good time to think about Black opportunity in the wine business. There were few articles mentioning this topic. It’s not a fun topic. I hope this matter goes away in the near future and every wine is evaluated fairly.

'Thank you very much for giving me a chance to write this letter to you. Your message gave me courage that I can take some actions to change the world even though they are small steps.'