WOMEN AND WINE

What has traditionally been regarded as a male-dominated domain has been forced to change due to women’s increasingly influential role in the wine industry

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Wine. A simple four-letter word with a centuries-spanning legacy, which is as colourful as the grapes made to create it. The lavish liquid has been a common thread running through innumerable cultures, religions and nations throughout recorded history. The origins of wine predate written records and modern archaeology is still uncertain about the details of the first cultivation of wild grapevines. Currently on record, the oldest known winery was discovered in the Areni-1 cave in Vayots Dzor, Armenia, dating to c.4100 BC.

Throughout history, gender distinctions have permeated all aspects of wine—its production, consumption, distribution and its appreciation. Indistinguishably linked with religious worship, celebration and friendship and upper-class entitlement, wine was often reserved for men of privilege. Women, regardless of social standing, were associated with wine’s excess rather than its benefits. Let’s, for a moment, take a leap back to ancient times and its fascinating history…

Wine, known as the gift of the gods, helped the ancient Egyptians medicinally to relieve daily stress and alleviate a host of physical ailments. Jars of wine were among the items placed in the tombs of the Egyptian men with a higher social standing so that life after death would continue to be comfortable. The social status of the deceased determined the amount of wine used for anointing bodies and entombments. Egyptian women, however, were not entitled to similar benefits for fear they would become intoxicated and act promiscuously in the afterlife.

In ancient Greece, all men were able to experience the reduced inhibitions, greater relaxation and enhanced social interactions that accompanied wine drinking. Like the Egyptians, the Greeks believed that women had a predilection for drunkenness and excess and, therefore, frowned upon female drinking, some even going so far as to label it barbaric. The Greeks established the first great male drinking clubs called symposia, in which wealthy men came together to converse and consume wine. Greek women were allowed to participate only as accessories, musicians, servers or ladies of the night.

The Romans replaced the Greek symposia with male gatherings known as conviva, that centred around fellowship and wine drinking. In early Rome, bans on female drinking were more severe than those imposed by the Greeks. Women were not even permitted to serve wine and until 194 BC, any woman found drinking could be, if married, divorced, or they could even face death. Overreaction? Perhaps just a tad.

Prejudices regarding women and wine continued throughout the centuries, fortunately evolving to a more gender-inclusive sector as time went on.

What one sees today is the emergence of an industry that is changing in a multitude of ways, from vineyard management to winemaking to international sales. No matter where you look, women are participating in and leading these changes. Their collective experience provides an instructive paradigm for women seeking advancement throughout the business world.

SA women

In South Africa, there are a number of women making a name for themselves and achieving great success as winemakers.

Women in Wine is the first wine-producing company owned, controlled and managed by women. The company was founded and established in 2006 by a group of 20 women, all with backgrounds in the wine industry, who had a common dream—giving women, especially farm workers and their families, a share in the industry. The shareholder structure of Women in Wine benefits a large number of women.

The company has several unique features that include skills development through collaboration, a Women’s Workers Trust has been set up, which has shares in the company, and is a founding member of the African Vintner Alliance and Treasure Chest—a joint-action group established for the growth of black businesses in the wine industry.

The company was established without the huge capital investment needed for a traditional vineyard, with rows of vines stretching into the distance and a vast cellar. Instead, it entered into partnerships with existing cellars, as well as with bottling and packaging companies to produce its wines.

“The motivation behind Women in Wine was to celebrate who we are as women and the contribution that the women are making in the wine industry. It was never to prove a point or a deliberate attempt to challenge men within the sector, and rather about answering the question how can we empower and create opportunities for our women on farms,” says Beverly Farmer, who is the CEO and co-founder of Women in Wine.

Her career highlights are numerous and she has held various positions within the industry. A mentor by nature, one of Beverly’s strengths is her ability to recognise and develop the often untapped potential within others. She thrives on transferring her skills and knowledge, seeing people, and especially women, grow to their full potential, embracing their differences and finding common ground and goals.

“We have found that over the years, more and more women have come into the industry, which is very exciting and specifically, we have seen an increase in the number of women coming through on higher levels of management structures and on the technical side. We have seen more winemakers coming through where, as previously, the majority of women will be the farmworkers or seasonal works,” she explains.

Farmer says there are many women who do make a contribution to the Cape’s wine industry, but who do not receive the recognition and are not benefitting from the industry’s business opportunities.

“The South African wine industry is more than 350 years old and was built by the contribution of the people working on the farm, a large number being women. Last year, we exported 460 million litres of wine and locally, we sell more or less the same amount, so it’s a big industry in terms of the number of people it employs, and the income it generates for the Western Cape and for the country as a whole.

“We would like to see people getting acknowledged for it and participating higher up in the value chain. For example, most of our women who work on the farms don’t really know what happens to their product once it leaves the farm. And with Women in Wine, we can create that opportunity for them—to send them on wine and wine marketing courses—and it gives them the opportunity to promote the product and direct access to individuals who could taste their wine and give them feedback. It presents those kinds of opportunities for them, and also it allows them to see that what I’m doing on this farm is of utmost importance—what I do in the vineyard and how I look after the vineyards and how I grow the grapes is paramount to the production of a quality product. It gives them purpose with regard to what they are doing and adds them to the bigger picture, so to speak,” Farmer explains.

She says she has been fortunate that the challenges she’s had to overcome were not gender-related, and had more to do with the way in which the industry is structured.

“I love the industry but I also get frustrated by it sometimes, because its structure and systems were created to service a certain group of people. If you don’t make people aware of the fact that there is a new generation of people coming through the system—women coming through the system—then they are not always aware of how the systems they created impact negatively on a company.

“You also have to incorporate new elements into your research. So yes, it is about constantly reminding people that there is a new way of thinking because, ultimately, that’s what transformation is about. It’s about making people aware that there are new entrants and new people to be accommodated and the systems and processes need to be altered to allow everybody who was previously excluded to participate,” she says.

She cites finance and familiarity as further sector challenges, explaining that it is an industry that can be difficult to make money in and that it takes long-term investment before you achieve success. “And I say familiarity, as people prefer to buy familiar brands they feel comfortable with instead of trying new ones. For us as black entrepreneurs, buyers are not eager to take on the black-owned brands due to this. One has to have deep pockets to market your brand,” Farmer explains.

Women in Wine has found a ready overseas market for its product. Some of their export destinations have their own well-established wine industries but have embraced the Women in Wine label. Farmer believes the reason for this is that importers are interested in the story behind the brand. “The partnership between professional women and farmworker women is truly a South African story.

Our wines are exported to a number of countries including China, Ireland, Spain and Sweden, and it shows that South African brands definitely have the capacity to compete with international brands and are making quality products,” she says.

Agreeing fully is Ntsiki Biyela, creator of Aslina Wines. “We’ve got the potential to capture the international market, we just need to push harder. Technologies change all the time and we need to move on with the times too, in terms of how we promote our wines and put Brand South Africa in the market,” she says.

Pioneer

Biyela is a trail-blazer in many ways. More than a decade ago, she became South Africa’s first black female master winemaker and is regarded as a pioneer in the sector. International award-winning vintner and resident winemaker and ambassador at the Stellekaya winery in Stellenbosch for 12 years, Biyela is now running her own show, having continued her journey of inspiration by starting her own brand, Aslina Wines.

Growing up in Mahlabathini, a small village in rural KwaZulu-Natal, she was raised by her grandmother who had a powerful influence on her life, and Biyela named her brand Aslina to honour her late grandmother.

“I decided to name the company in honour of her because of the love, strength and serenity she embodied in everything she did and for me, that was basically what Aslina Wines symbolises—it’s the strength of women, and the love, passion and all the beauty they bring into it,” she says proudly.

Biyela says that being a winemaker at Stellekaya for 12 years and collaborating with American winemakers was a stepping stone towards her goal, providing here with a platform to gain experience while being a winemaker, as well as learning the business side of things through interacting with clients and being hands-on in the market.

“It was always a goal to one day start my own company. I knew that at some point I would be independent. The difference between being a winemaker and a producer is that winemaking is a profession: you study it and make wine as a job. Being a producer, however, means creating and owning your own brand. I decided to step out and do my own thing, which makes me a winemaker and, at the same time, the producer of my own brand,” she explains.

Surprisingly, her entrance into the sector was not intentional and it was an area that she had very little knowledge about. In fact, she disliked the taste of wine. Originally, her desire was to do chemical engineering. She was awarded a scholarship to study winemaking in 1999 through South African Airways, she grabbed the opportunity with both hands and has never looked back. She graduated in 2003 with a BSc in Agriculture (Viticulture and Oenology) from Stellenbosch University and joined Stellekaya the following year.

The education journey was a challenging one she says. “Not necessarily due to the studies itself—it was the language barrier, it was the culture—I had to figure out this bubble of Stellenbosch. And getting into the wine industry and working there, I found that the best way to educate yourself was to get out there and meet people, and create a network of mentors, advisors, friends etc. The wine industry is sort of a closed community and it takes a while before you become a part of it. However, once you have broken through, there is no shortage of individuals who you can learn from,” she says.

Her attitude towards moving forward within the sector is focusing on the end goal instead of the challenges. She is immensely proud of launching Aslina Wines and her personal highlight is being involved with The Pinotage Development Academy, working with the youth and increasing skills within the industry, which she believes can be improved greatly.

Echoing this sentiment is Nondumiso Pikashe, creator, owner and Managing Director of Ses’fikile Wines, stating that when it comes to skills development in viticulture, there is a lot of work that needs to be done here. “Wine is still foreign to black people as a job opportunity, I think we are working in a disintegrated fashion to achieve this goal of educating people about the opportunities within viticulture and winemaking.

As a country, we do have the potential to compete internationally and, currently, SA brands are doing just that. However, just because this is the case, it does not mean that we need to be complacent about skills development.

“We still need to invest sustainably in training and skills development across the demographics, and exposing the majority to wine education and appreciation. Personally, I get a lot of satisfaction from teaching young people about the industry. The objective is to hear more black kids say more often, ‘I am Nomonde from Gugulethu and I am a viticulturist’,” she explains.

Entrepreneurial spirit

In 2006, news that a group of four black women from Gugulethu were taking a brave step towards owning their own wine label was met with great enthusiasm. Ses’fikile had arrived, as the name boldly proclaims, and was hailed as the beginning of transformation in an industry that very few blacks have managed to break into.

Pikashe says that although the journey has often been as treacherous as a difficult harvesting season, her passion for wine has kept her motivated to put Ses’fikile Wines on the shelves for the past nine years. Pikashe says she also devoured everything about winemaking. “I attended and still do attend a lot of wine fairs and read a lot about the wine-making process and the industry. I have also joined the online social media page Women in Wine for networking and make sure that I regularly associate with industry leaders.

“I was born in Gugulethu and grew up across the three townships of Gugulethu, Langa and Khayelitsha, where I taught for 11 years. Wine held an ambiguous role in my life: I despised it because my brother abused it and my community had little exposure to it.

The media, however, projected a positive view about wine and I wanted to explore this disparity, so I went looking for business opportunities where I would stand out.

Ses’fikile means ‘we have arrived’ in IsiXhosa and is a metaphor for triumph, celebration and is aspirational.

Ses’fikile is owned and controlled by empowered women, which we need to see more of within the South African wine industry.

“While there has been movement in the role of women evolving within the sector, it doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s been an increase in the quality of progress. There has been an increase in the number of qualified black winemakers across the gender spectrum, and black brands, and some genuine empowerment projects, but we still have a long road to travel as long as those targeted for transformation remain in obscurity as far as industry opportunities are concerned.

I am not a qualified winemaker, I am an entrepreneur in the sector and through my journey, unfortunately, I have experienced the exclusionist mentality of the industry as a black female. It’s not the easiest industry to break into—it’s capital intensive, very close-knit and success is not an immediate gain, but it can be done and I’d love to see more women succeeding in doing so,” she says. Achievements that Pikashe is particularly proud of include the Ses’fikile white brand reaching the finals of the Perswijn competition in Holland; Ses’fikile wines being seen as making waves in the industry by Wade Bales in the Sunday Times lifestyle supplement; being featured on Top Billing; showcasing Ses’fikile wines in Sweden at Princess Sofia`s gala event of her SA project; and generally being embraced positively by her compatriots.

These are but three of many phenomenal South African women leading the way forward and representing the impact that women can have within the wine industry. It’s a far cry from the association of women and wine as a partnership of disdain. Instead, women around the globe have brought their own flair, feistiness and intellect to a previous exclusionary sector and have risen up, making names for themselves and making sure that the wine industry isn’t a boy’s club anymore.

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