WWC23 – Hanneli Smit, by Cerina van Niekerk

Hanneli Smit

In this entry to our 2023 wine writing competition, winemaker Cerina van Niekerk writes about South African wine scientist Hanneli Smit. See our competition guide for more.

Cerina van Niekerk writes I am the owner and winemaker of Cecilia Wines, a client of Vinlab. Furthermore, apart from having known Hanneli in a professional capacity for many years, we also share a love for beautiful music.

A hidden gem

Hanneli Smit, founder of Vinlab laboratory, South Africa

It was a lovely April afternoon as I made my way into Vinlab's impressive facility for a meeting with the lady behind it, Hanneli Smit. I could not help thinking that there is a correlation between the technicians in their cubicles deciphering wine and Elon Musk's engineers conquering space one mission at a time - no rhyme intended. Apart from sharing South African roots, both of them have been improving the world in their unique way, Elon by making space more accessible, and Hanneli by providing accurate and swift analyses to practically every winemaker in South Africa. How did it happen though, that a young woman, willed by her father to become a teacher and mother, started a wine lab and eventually provided an indispensable service to an entire industry?

According to Hanneli, she found herself in the wine industry by chance. Growing up as a sister to two brothers, a university education was not a given, instead rather a career as a housewife. However, when her family realized how determined she was to get a degree, she was allowed to enroll. She graduated in 1990 with a Bachelor’s in Domestic Science, the same year that Nelson Mandela was released, signaling South Africa's emancipation and inclusion back onto the world's stage on many fronts, including wine. There were few laboratories in South Africa but she managed to land a position at a cooperative where she spent six years. It was a tough learning curve, but invaluable in terms of wine knowledge as well as management experience, and gave her a clear vision of the kind of manager she wanted to be one day. 

Eventually, Hanneli was ready to look for new horizons but no one was prepared to appoint someone in their laboratory without a degree in microbiology. She applied unsuccessfully at several wineries but was eventually accepted at another cooperative. By three o'clock in the afternoons, there was not much to do in the lab, so Hanneli suggested to the production manager that she could invite other wineries and provide them with laboratory services. Soon her initiative was embraced by the winery's management because it meant extra revenue for the cooperative. In time wineries from all over the winelands brought their samples to her. At this point, I could not help asking her what she ascribed this success to. Hanneli paused briefly before answering 'I think it was because they knew I cared'. Cared enough to make sure that the analysis was accurate, consistent and timely. 

Around 1998, a new independent laboratory made it onto the wine scene in South Africa and Hanneli was recruited as a laboratory technician. However, in their planning and budgeting, they only made room for VI 1 analyses, the document required by the European Union to export wines to the EU. When winemakers wanted pinking and other tests the laboratory was ill-prepared and Hanneli soon resolved to find another home to protect the reputation she had established. 

She was aware of a large wine exporter that was processing a substantial number of samples daily and decided to offer her services to them. A few days later she pulled up just outside the Oude Molen building in Stellenbosch, right next door to where Vinlab is today, but as she made her way to the entrance her hopes sank as she saw the sign 'Laboratory' on the door. Despite the belief that she was too late, she went in and asked to see the manager. Upon meeting him, he told her that their business model was to outsource everything. So while they were not going to appoint her, he suggested that she rented the space they had started to prepare for a laboratory and promised to send all their samples to her. 

This unexpected turn of events presented new challenges. Inspired by her knowledge of a winery that was started with debentures, she took to the road visiting wine farm after wine farm asking each for a loan, with which she was planning to buy the necessary laboratory equipment to get started. In exchange the winery would receive interest at a prima rate, calculated at the end of each financial year and paid in the form of free analyses, as well as a 10% general discount on analyses, and the loan would be returned in full after five years. Armed with only the forms the winery had to complete, she enlisted the help of a relative in Cape Town and gave his fax number where the completed forms had to be sent. During the day she would drive from farm to farm asking for financial support and in the evening she would phone to hear whether any faxes came through pledging support. 

One day, as she was visiting farms in Franschhoek, she received a call from the bank notifying her that her loan application, for the balance of the funds had been denied. When her request to speak to the decision-makers was also denied, she turned around, headed to the bank, and waited outside the office until they decided to speak to her. Luckily, her argument that several of the high-profile wineries in the country had already pledged their support didn't fall on deaf ears, and eventually, the loan was granted. A feather in Hanneli's cap at that point was that producers started prompting each other to support her endeavor – proof of how big the need for an independent laboratory service was. Eventually, armed with half of the funds for the equipment from the industry in the form of debentures and the other half as a loan from the bank, she went ahead and placed the order.

Vinlab opened on the 11th of September 2001, the day of the twin tower attack in New York. Concerned about the financial implications it could have on her loan, Hanneli phoned her father, and to this day his advice stuck with her, carrying her through future storms: 'Just focus on your work. In the face of war rich and poor are equal'. The twin towers were still fresh in her mind when a new problem surfaced: her former employer threatened to take her to the cleaners to make an example of her for starting her own lab. As I listened I could not help wondering how she handled these challenges. She soberly replied that 'you quickly realize you do not have a choice but to push through'. Her main objective at that stage was to survive for five years and repay the debentures to all the wineries that supported her. Surviving the first five years was tough, but she is quick to acknowledge that there were many contributors to Vinlab's success over the years. People that just came over her path at the right time. 

In 2021 Vinlab celebrated its 20th year of existence and three of the original employees are still working with Hanneli. Business savvy is not a given for everyone who is good at their job and decides to start their own business, but if one looks at the state-of-the-art facility Vinlab calls home, Hanneli must know a few things about business. However, much to my surprise she admits to never having had a budget, but only doing things that 'feels right at the time'. 

Toward the end of our conversation, I asked Hanneli what she thought the three most pivotal people, opportunities, or traits were that resulted in the Vinlab of today. She thought for a few seconds before answering with a statement: 'I always tell the people at Vinlab that opportunities in life are like a sushi bar, they run on a belt and you have to be prepared to grab the right opportunity when it comes by'. To do this she tries to ensure a reserve in the bank, available for investing in new opportunities at any time. 

A second reason for her success Hanneli contributes to the fact that she is constantly managing risk. Whether it is a facility that is becoming too small to handle the demand or an employee that she can sense is not stimulated by the job that they are doing anymore, she tries to find solutions for problems before they escalate. 

Thirdly, she tells new employees that 'only you know how you can benefit Vinlab, no one else'. Some are initially overwhelmed by this freedom, but once they find their niche, it results in stimulated and self-motivated employees that contribute to the team. This philosophy resulted in the development of water, microbial, and most recently pharmaceutical sub-departments, alongside the main wine department. Lastly, Hanneli is adamant that one needs a passion for what you do, and one has to understand the product you are working with. 

As our conversation reached its end I asked what her thoughts are on the South African wine industry as someone who has played a pivotal role in it since its emancipation in the nineties. She feels that back then South African winemakers lacked confidence in their abilities and were only too grateful if the UK or USA bought their wine, especially during the Australian industry's heyday. Much has changed in that regard and at the moment the quality of SA wine is in a very good place and she enjoys being part of South Africa’s wine family. 

So what could be the favourite wine of someone who has the DNA of almost every wine in South Africa on file? ‘It changes from time to time, but at the moment it is a full-bodied Chenin Blanc or a Shiraz in front of the fireplace.’ 

The photograph is courtesy of Vinlab.