From being featured on CNN to gracing the front page of The New York Times, Ntsiki Biyela, 40, is probably as internationally famous as it is possible for any winemaker to be.
The long and the short of it is that she’s South Africa’s first black female winemaker, having graduated from Stellenbosch University in 2003, been appointed winemaker at Stellekaya Wines in 2004, beaten off stiff competition to be named South African Woman Winemaker of the Year in 2009, and started her own business, Aslina Wines, in 2013.
She’s also a sought-after consultant, wine judge and – perhaps most importantly of all – board member at the Pinotage Youth Development Academy, a registered non-profit company that prepares talented, previously disadvantaged 18- to 25-year-olds for employment in the wine industry. Its programme combines technical training and practical work experience with personal skills development, and students couldn’t ask for a better mentor than Biyela, who is living proof that absolutely anything is possible.
Back to her roots
For starters, she wasn’t even born in the Cape Winelands. Home was (and still is, at least in her heart) KwaZulu-Natal – more specifically the rural village of Mahlabathini – where she was raised primarily by her grandmother, Aslina, because her mother had no choice but to work in Durban.
‘Typical of so many women in the rural areas, my grandmother took care of a lot of kids, many of them not her own, and she did it with love and grace. She could turn nothing into something. There was always food on the table, even though, looking back, I have no idea how she did it.’
Aslina, it seems, had great aspirations for her granddaughter, who started showing an aptitude for maths and science in high school. ‘We often had land surveyors coming to the village and she said she thought I should become one. But, by the time I got to matric, I had decided I wanted to study chemical engineering.’
Needless to say, there was no money to pay for tertiary education, so Biyela started working for an extended family member, studying in the morning and doing chores in the afternoon, all the while applying for chemical engineering or chemistry-related scholarships. When South African Airways eventually offered her one, though, it was not at all what she had imagined. ‘Viticulture and oenology? I had never even tasted wine, let alone considered making it! But I didn’t think twice about accepting.’
Biyela’s arrival in Stellenbosch in 1999 was, to put it mildly, a culture shock. ‘Not only for me,’ she laughs. ‘I was regularly asked, “Why have you come here?” by my fellow students, which made me ask, “Why do you think you have the right to ask me that? Besides, where else would I go to study oenology?” The extent of naivety, on both sides, was huge, but I persevered.’
Biyela openly admits that her first taste of wine was ‘horrible’ and that acquiring a love of wine was ‘a gradual process’. But she clearly recalls the first wine that she really enjoyed: ‘It was a Delheim Shiraz 1999.’
Delheim, the Stellenbosch farm founded by the late legendary Michael Hans ‘Spatz’ Sperling, is where Biyela gained hands-on experience as a student, not to mention self-confidence in an overwhelmingly white male-dominated and occasionally hostile industry. ‘The Sperlings took me to a seminar where there was not one woman to be seen, apart from the registration lady, and I didn’t want to go in. They said, “Ntsiki, if you don’t go in now, how will it ever get any easier?” So we went in and, yes, I got a few funny looks, but I just chatted to my colleagues and ended up having a really good time. And that’s what I’ve tried to do ever since: focus on the people who are positive. I can’t say that I haven’t encountered prejudice or hostility over the years, but I realised that it was my choice to see it or not. I choose to see beauty.’
The fact that the Sperlings wanted Biyela to stay on after graduation speaks volumes. It also stood her in good stead when Dave and Jane Lello called them for a reference before appointing her as winemaker at their new winery, Stellekaya (‘home of the stars’). When Stellekaya’s wines started earning critical acclaim, Biyela was suddenly thrust into the limelight. ‘I didn’t like it at all,’ she admits. ‘I even sat down with Dave and said: “I don’t want this life, I can’t pretend to be perfect all the time!” He said I didn’t have to be perfect to be a role model. “Just live your life, Ntsiki,” he said. And after that, I felt better about it.’
It still took her a while to become less media-shy. ‘I remember being interviewed on radio and finding it very hard to open up – until the interviewer pointed out how many listeners might be on the brink of giving up in life, and I was starving them of inspiration. That quickly got me talking…’
During her 13 years at Stellekaya, Biyela was given the opportunity to work harvests in France, Italy and the US – and it was in California’s Napa Valley that she met Helen Keplinger, with whom she went on to co-produce a series of red wines under the Suo label. These were distributed in the US by Wine for the World, a company owned by Mika Bulmash, who imports wines from boutique producers worldwide based on their quality, limited production levels and responsible social and environmental business practices.
With encouragement from Keplinger and Bulmash, it was only a matter of time before Biyela went solo with her own brand, Aslina, named after her beloved grandmother. She started it as a side business in 2013, producing just 1 000 bottles, but it’s been her full-time job since 2016 – and this year will see production increase to almost 18 000 bottles of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and a Bordeaux-style blend named Umsasane (her grandmother’s nickname, meaning ‘umbrella tree’ in Zulu: a tree offering shelter, protection and comfort).
Biyela doesn’t own a wine farm, but rents cellar space and brings in grapes. ‘I would love to have my own winery one day, equipped exactly the way I want it, but owning a vineyard isn’t that important to me. My love is making wine, not planting vines.’
These days, she also spends a lot of time travelling to promote her wines internationally, which probably explains why she’s happiest to spend a lot of her downtime at her home in Somerset West, alone, with a good book. ‘When I’ve had enough quality time with myself, I enjoy hiking and spending time with friends.’
When she retires one day, she plans to return to KwaZulu-Natal: ‘That’s where my soul is. I feel the love as soon as I arrive at the airport because even total strangers talk to you. In Cape Town, if you say, “Hi, how are you?” people look at you with suspicion: “What do you want?”’
It’s pretty clear what Biyela wants: ‘To make good wine, obviously. But I also really hope to inspire people as someone who had no idea what she was getting into, but did it anyway,
and did it well.’