Ntsiki BiyelaWhat did you dream of becoming when you were a child?

I grew up in rural KZN with my grandmother and she always used to say I was going to be a land surveyor. So I thought that’s what I would become. And then in high school I went through a phase of thinking I wanted to be either a civil or a chemical engineer. I was taking Maths and Science as subjects, so it made sense. But when I finished school, I got recruited to study winemaking and got a bursary with SAA to attend Stellenbosch University, so that changed the course of my life.

How did you end up becoming a winemaker?

While studying, I worked part-time at Delheim’s Cellar. Then in 2004 I joined Stellekaya Wines and have been with them ever since. The name means ‘home of the stars’ and each of our wines is named after a constellation, such as Orion and Hercules.

What do you enjoy about your job?

I like the fact that the work is not routine and I get to do different things every day. I enjoy socialising with clients and often travel, both within SA and overseas. I am involved with producing wine from the initial stages until the end, seeing the outcome of my efforts. It’s very satisfying being able to watch someone appreciating your wine. I’m glad I didn’t become a civil engineer!

What don’t you like about your job?

There isn’t much, it’s just the admin that I don’t like. Paperwork is not my strong point! Something else which I enjoy, but other people might not, is that as a winemaker the boundary between work and your social life is quite blurred. It’s difficult to know when I’m working and when I’m socialising, as meeting clients will often involve sitting around and drinking wine.

What inspires you when you have to come up with a new blend?

I taste other people’s wines and get ideas. I ask myself: ‘What are other brands’ best wines? What do I like about them? What do I think is missing?’ I then keep all these things in mind when I have to produce a new blend.

What hurdles have you had to overcome in your career?

When I first arrived in Stellenbosch as a new student, I felt completely overwhelmed. Here I was, this Zulu girl, and I didn’t understand either Afrikaans or winemaking. Other students felt I was invading their space; I felt like they were excluding me. But I didn’t give up. And I think that dedication pulls you through. As a woman, you have to work twice as hard as your male counterparts. You have to prove yourself. Unfortunately the winemaking industry is male-dominated. But to our credit, many people have commented that women have more finesse when it comes to making wine. I’ve also had to overcome prejudice. It’s funny how surprised some people are when they arrive at Stellekaya and ask to meet the winemaker and I say, ‘I am the winemaker.’ They can’t believe that it’s me.

Which award has meant the most to you?

My first award (winning gold for Cape Cross 2004 at the Michelangelo
International Wine Awards in 2006) probably meant the most as it was very exciting. I was also very honoured to receive the SA Woman Winemaker of the Year award last year. All my hard work finally paid off! But rather than winning prizes, I think my greatest achievement has been growing the exports of our wines. When I first started, we exported to only two countries and now we export to eight – the USA, Canada, Ireland, Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, Austria and China. Sweden and Canada are our biggest markets.

What are your future plans?

I have many plans, but I’m keeping them under wraps. That way, if they don’t work out, I’ll be disappointed alone. It’s better that way!

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Ntsiki Biyela April 2010 High-Flyers