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South African women in wine to look out for

South African women in wine to look out for

We drink a toast to these South African women in wine who are making a splash in the industry.

By Fresh Living

Although the wine industry is generally known as a boys-only club, there’s an increasing number of women becoming involved, especially as winemakers. We drink a toast to these South African women in wine who are making a splash in the industry.

South Africa’s first female wine farm owner, the fiercely independent Catharina Ras of Steenberg fame, made her way to South Africa from Germany in 1662 dressed as a man. During her lifetime she had a total of five husbands, the first four of whom all died under very strange circumstances.

Norma Ratcliffe, Former Winemaker

Nowadays, being a woman winemaker doesn’t even raise an eyebrow, but a lot of that acceptance is thanks to women such as the “First Lady” of the South African wine industry and trailblazer, Norma Ratcliffe. She’s the only woman to have ever served as chairperson of the Cape Winemaker’s Guild and to be awarded the “1659 Medal of Honour” for her contribution and impact on the South African wine industry.

Having grown up in Canada, Norma was brought to South Africa in the ’80s by her then new husband, who had bought the Warwick Wine Estate. With no winemaking skills and little budget to hire a winemaker, the couple decided to equip themselves with the right knowledge and skills. Norma went about teaching herself for the first harvest, then packed her bags and spent a harvest in Bordeaux, France, the following year to master the craft.

Upon her return, she was eager to conquer the South African wine market and develop the Warwick Wine brand. Once that became a household name, she ventured to Europe again – this time to teach them a thing or two! Her voyage was not in vain and in 1995 she won the Chamber of Commerce Exporter of the Year award.

Norma is the first of many things in South Africa: woman winemaker, developer of the first Cape Blend and introducer of Cabernet Franc. She is now an honorary member of the Cape Winemaker’s Guild and sits on the board of the protégé programme (which supports young winemakers, especially those from previously disadvantaged backgrounds).

Pearl Oliver-Mbumba, Resort Sommelier at One&Only Cape Town

Starting out with ambitions to be a doctor, Pearl Oliver-Mbumba had the first inkling that she might want to sway towards wine as a 19-year-old waitress at Catharina’s restaurant, Steenberg Vineyards. Sponsored by the Dream Catcher programme, which aims to offer a “leg-up” in various industries, Pearl worked her way through her sommelier qualifications to develop wine-quaffing skills and a broad knowledge of the finest international and South African wine. During her career, Pearl did stints at esteemed establishments such as Belthazar Restaurant and Wine Bar, Myoga, Planet Restaurant and the Taj Hotel. “I got spoilt beyond repair for normal food and acceptable quality,” she laughs.

She’s now considered one of the most established South African sommeliers, having earned a number of wine-list awards in the industry, and is often chosen to be on the judging panel of wine-related awards. In an effort to empower others in the same way she was, Pearl co-founded the Black Cellar Club (BLACC), a networking platform to support black African sommeliers and beverage ambassadors. She is now National Chair of the organisation.

Elunda Basson, Cellar Master at Steenberg Vineyards

With an illustrious career spanning over 20 years and a string of prestigious awards, it’s easy to see why Elunda Basson was the top candidate for her new role as cellar master at Steenberg Vineyards.

She began her winemaking journey at the University of Stellenbosch studying viticulture and oenology, after which she obtained a diploma in Cellar Technology from the Elsenburg Agricultural College. As well as a harvest at Dry Creek Vineyard in Sonoma County, California, she’s worked at some of the top vineyards in South Africa, including Rickety Bridge, Nederburg, J.C. Le Roux and Pongrácz. She’s made a name for herself as one of South Africa’s Méthode Cap Classique specialists and is fittingly the vice chairperson of the Cap Classique Producers Association.

As if all of this weren’t enough, Elunda proudly boasts a Veritas Vertex award for her Pongrácz Blanc de Blancs, the World’s Best Shiraz Trophy at the International Wine and Spirits Competition (IWSC). She was also shortlisted for the Top 10 Sparkling Wines of the World Award at Effervescents du Monde.

Debbie Thompson, Cellar Master at Simonsig

In 1999 at the age of 22, Debbie became the first woman winemaker at Simonsig – “a huge adjustment for my fellow workers and a challenge for me to earn their trust and respect,” she remembers. She has since been promoted to lead the winemaking team as cellar master at this esteemed winery, a role passed on to her by the winery family’s own Johan Malan, under whom she learnt and developed her skills.

When asked what she enjoys most about her job, she said, “What’s not to enjoy? I create wine for pure pleasure, and my moment of enjoyment comes when a bottle is opened after a few years and it exceeds every expectation – delicious!”

One of her proudest achievements was being chosen as the South African Woman Winemaker of the Year in 2005. Never afraid of a challenge, she really enjoys tackling the much misunderstood local varietal Pinotage. “The versatile aroma spectrum of Pinotage keeps the winemaking process interesting and fun,” she says.

Cathy Marston, Owner of the International Wine Education Centre

Originally hailing from the United Kingdom, our monthly Pick n Pay Fresh Living wine columnist and wine maestro Cathy Marston travelled the vineyards of major wine-producing countries, from Australia to France, where she picked up a certain fondness for vino. She joined Adnams Wine Merchants as their marketing manager while studying for (and passing all) her Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) exams. She eventually made her way to South Africa, where she opened a restaurant and wine bar with her husband. After seven successful years, they sold the bar in order to focus on educating fellow wine-lovers in the art and science of wine.

Cathy is now a wine writer and educator, and was the first Approved Programme Provider in Southern Africa for WSET – the only internationally recognised wine courses available in South Africa. She also tastes for the Platter’s Wine Guide, Classic Wine magazine and South African Airways, among other competitions and organisations.

Here’s to the wonderful women in our wine industry. May they go far and continue to keep the boys on their toes. Cheers!