Did you know, I used to work in the wine industry? For four years I was an editor and social media manager for a big online wine database which I left to follow my own dreams after having Rosie. I don’t regret leaving it at all, but I am so grateful to have wet my feet in such an exciting industry…and industry that prior to my move to South Africa I would have balked at.
Before leaving England, I hated wine. My Gran always told me that it was an adult taste that I would grow into, like olives (which are disgusting), but all I could taste was bitterness and fumes…it could have been the Australian wines she was drinking though.
Something changed within me when I moved over here and realized that I needed to become involved and interested in this important factor of SA life. I couldn’t drive past another vineyard and not be intrigued and with the help of a good friend, and tour guide, I dived into wine research…and I grew to absolutely love the stuff.
It wasn’t enough though to just organize blind tastings or food and wine pairings at our home, I needed more – I needed an immersive education so that I could pass on my new found passion. Then I got the perfect wine job and BAM, my life was completely revolved around wine.
It was the dream job but it was also a stressful one as I struggled to find my place in a strongly male-dominated field. My role required attending a large variety of events and in the beginning it took a while to feel accepted. I often found that I was observed as being too young – my gender didn’t help either. I felt the urge to shout louder just to be heard and I tried to emulate those around me which made me feel even more lost. Some days I felt like a complete and utter fraud because I couldn’t smell the foraged mushrooms in a Pinot Noir, or taste the pencil shavings in a Cab Sauv.
It took a good few years, and a good few people, to realize that I didn’t need to pursue anyone else’s path but my own. I didn’t need to try and find the freshly plucked borage in a glass of cool climate Sauvignon Blanc that reminded someone of their trip to Florence back in 72. I didn’t need to like the 20 year old Pinotage which, to me, smelt like rancid pomegranate seeds. And I certainly didn’t need to write about balling because frankly, the people who were reading my articles didn’t give two hoots.
I did learn that if cornered at a wine event by the winemaker, you have two fail-safe questions you can ask which are guaranteed to take the pressure off of you:
What is the residual sugar?
What percentage of new oak are you using?
Learning that my voice mattered was vital for helping me stay focused; I might not speak for the wine expert, but I speak for the average consumer; I speak for the person who loves to cook and wants to find a wine to match their dish; I now speak for the mother who wants a delicious, reasonably priced bottle of wine to open after cleaning up pasta from the walls.
I left the industry satisfied with my journey and in a space where I could continue for my own benefit. I no longer have to show bias to a particular winery because they are a client. I can punt a wine and not have people question whether I’m being paid to do so. I’m a free agent.
I look back with fond memories but more importantly, I look back at the exceptional people and businesses whom have shaped the wine-o within. Without them, I’m not sure I would have remained in one piece:
As a prolific wine writer and judge, on paper she cuts an imposing figure yet in person she’s down-to-earth, hilarious and if you were to write her into an Agatha Christie novel, she’d be the local green-fingered baroness who makes the village’s award-winning sloe gin and guesses the murderer before the crime has even been committed.
We’ve worked together on the Green Wine Awards and her work ethic is meticulous; she values your point of view as long as you can explain why you feel that way and she’ll never talk down to you.
Christian owns and runs WineMag, probably South Africa’s best online wine publication. For detailed wine reviews and opinion pieces, it’s my go-to platform for remaining up-to-date on industry news.
Upon meeting him for the first time you’d probably find more warmth in the Mariana Trench, but if you took a cross-section of his brain you’d find a mind that’s constantly whirring through new marketing ideas, last night’s tasting notes, up-and-coming wine awards and his next review.
At events he would ask my opinion – not that he needed it – and he could never fully contain his over-zealous passion for seeing the SA wine industry elevate itself to new heights.
He doesn’t mince his words, he enjoys putting winemakers on the spot because he knows full well that if he’s not merciless now, the public will be and their trust is not easily won back.
She is a writer for Food24, a wine judge, fellow Brit and is South Africa’s only WSET program provider – the only internationally-recognized wine course in SA.
Cathy crosses the boundary between consumer and astute wine connoisseur with ease. She can happily give you the best wine for under R40 and the best wine for over R500 – she can converse with the greatest wine minds and at the same time, create an atmosphere of acceptance for those who don’t know anything about wine. She is unpretentious and a brilliant teacher, leading students through grueling wine exams to distinction. Her mantra is that everyone and anyone can get into wine and if you ever find yourself at an event with her and you’re worried about appearing like a complete novice, she’ll lean over and tell you “wine is subjective, you don’t have to like everything you taste.”
Maybe I like her so much because she’s from Leeds where I went to University…or maybe it’s because if you turned up at her house with a bottle of Tassenburg she’d just be happy that you were at least buying wine.
I call her my big sister because she affectionately took me under her wing and supported my growth. At technical tastings she’d share her opinions and nurture my own budding views and we shared many moments where we laughed so much we cried.
Graham is a highly acclaimed journalist who used to supply me with a monthly travel and wine article. With a broad smile on his face at all times, he would regale me with tales of his travels, having visited over 60 countries on various assignments. In the midst of the most serious of tastings, he’ll break out with a story of the time his dog brought dead birds into the house.
I think it should be illegal to say anything bad about Michael – the ultimate gentleman, he exudes charm, grace and a wardrobe fit for the French Riviera. He is a people person and always the host with the most. Wine, for him, is an experience, and it doesn’t matter the bottle as long as you are with good company and good food.
Through events and press releases, I’ve worked with some incredible businesses that are assisting the wine industry with being heard. I’ve loved watching the journey that many wineries are on in the capable hands of these PR agencies.
On The Marquee
Run by Pippa Pringle, this PR and communications agency excels in shareable content and planned media engagement.
Feed That Bird
Jeanri-Tine is a wine journalist with experience in public relations and communication which led her to start her own company that focuses on providing specialized content guaranteed to generate conversation. With her own strong background in writing, and a team of qualified journalists, Feed That Bird’s copy game is strong.
This destination and marketing team are behind some of the largest media-attended wine events in Cape Town. Run by Mariëtte Du Toit-Helmbold and Annareth Bolton, it’s a fiercely proactive company that dedicates its focus to building a culture of tourism within South Africa, and within the wine industry.
Getting your brand’s voice heard is not about making a noise, and Hatch are committed to providing unique, personal content for you and your target audience so that you can be heard.
There have been so many amazing events that I’ve been fortunate enough to attend but the real standout ones were those that broadened my knowledge, that showed the hard work and team effort of winemakers working together and which were aimed at encouraging more people to drink wine. Likewise, there are a vast number of wineries that all hold a special place in my heart (Almenkerk, Saronsberg, Graham Beck, Jordan, Villiera…) so picking one route is pretty ridiculous but I think the below are very deserving.
Durbanville Wine Route
South Africa has 18 official wine routes varying in size and climate. Though they all aim to work together for the good of each other, I think there is a deeper connection in some routes and I have definitely found that in the Durbanville Wine Route. They act like a family, and they stand proudly beside one another, reveling in each other’s successes. The marketing is headed by Angela Fourie and I’m particularly fond of her vision and consistent efforts to showcase the beauty of the Durbanville Wine Route.
Celebration of Chardonnay
In my first year working in wine I was invited to attend the biennial Celebration of Chardonnay at De Wetshof Estate in Robertson. Attended by some of SA’s most prolific winemakers, as well as a host of industry professionals and international guest, it was a truly eye-opening experience. It was here that my taste buds were exposed to California Chardonnay, Hamilton Russell, and Hartenberg’s The Eleanor. It was here that my love for Chardonnay was born and a romantic connection has continued to this day.
Elegantly Elgin Tweet-up Tastings
Organized by Karen Glanfield and Michelle Van Staden, these monthly tweet-ups featured a diverse group of wine-lovers (not necessarily involved in the industry) and focused around a different cultivar. Unshowy and with zero pretense, they allowed for complete freedom of thought and tastings of some of Elgin’s incredible wines. And it must be said, I absolutely love Elgin, its people, its climate…and its wines.
Words of wisdom for anyone wanting to enter the South African Wine Industry?
Be passionate. If you love wine and are keen to learn, people will see that and gravitate towards you.
You can have all the wine degrees in the world but if you have no drive to succeed and no real enthusiasm for wine, you’re draining the market for other people.