Once an outsider to wine culture, she’s now a famous vintner

The first time South Africa’s champion winemaker Ntsiki Biyela tasted wine, she thought it was horrible.

“Wine was not really part of my culture,” says Biyela, who grew up in a rural part of the country during apartheid, when wine was more popular among the urban, white population.

Biyela had originally wanted to study chemical engineering but couldn’t find scholarships to fund her education. But a scholarship was available in winemaking — a field she didn’t even know existed. “It was an opportunity, and I grabbed it,” she says. “I started out part time, and then I fell in love.”

Now she is not just South Africa’s first black female winemaker but one of her country’s most celebrated vintners. In 2009, Biyela was awarded South Africa’s Woman Winemaker of the Year, and she is a frequent judge of wine industry competition. She has even created her own brand, Aslina, named after the grandmother who raised her and serves as her spiritual role model.

As a black woman, “my challenges were different from other women winemakers’ challenges,” says Biyela, noting that visitors to the small winery where she started her career were surprised to learn that its resident winemaker was female and black.

She credits her perseverance to her upbringing and her sense of home, which “grounds you and gives you strength, and then you can go to the world.”

Mindful of how an unexpected opportunity changed her life, Biyela is giving back to her community as a board member of the Pinotage Youth Development Academy. It offers young people from disadvantaged backgrounds the chance for training and placement in the wine industry.

Many of these young people initially think Biyela’s success is unreachable for them. “But they relate to where I have come from, and they realize that they can do it too,” she says. She tells them and others looking to start a business that it is important “not to forget why you want to do something because that’s what drives you as a person. … [and] it is the main key of your business.”

As a pioneering entrepreneur, Biyela also tells aspirants to know their “river,” or source of strength, so that when they are thirsty, they know where to go to revitalize.

“As young people, when we start working, we forget to go for a refill. We keep on doing, doing, doing without going for a refill, and then that’s the reason why people sometimes end up getting a nervous breakdown or something. It is important to know your refill point,” she says.