Wine is big business in South Africa. In fact, South Africa is the world’s 7th largest wine producer. But until recently it was mainly a white man’s game. Over the past few years, however, a handful of Black South African women have gotten a sweet taste of the vine. Nelson Mandela’s daughter and granddaughter developed the House Of Mandela and Ntsiki Biyela decided she wasn’t just going to sell wine; she was going to make it.
Biyela is actually the first Black woman winemaker in South Africa. She earned that achievement in 2009 while working as the head winemaker at Stellekaya Wines. But after 13 years with the company, in 2016, Biyela left to launch her own brand, Aslina Wines.
Biyela, 39, named the company after her late grandmother, who raised her along with seven other children. Growing up in Apartheid South Africa was difficult. But when the governmental system of institutionalized racial segregation and discrimination ended in 1991, new opportunities opened up for Black South Africans. And after spending a year working as a domestic along with her mother, Biyela was awarded a scholarship to study winemaking in 1999. In 2003, she graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture (Viticulture and Oenology) from Stellenbosch University, and soon after, Biyela was hired by Stellekaya.
Now on her own, Biyela has introduced Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and a Bordeaux blend for Aslina wines. She has funded the business herself and is using grapes from local vineyards and not yet her own. The wines are currently being sold in South Africa, the United States, in various European cities, and Taiwan. Here, Biyela told us how she is shaking up the wine business.
MadameNoire (MN): How did you get involved in the wine business?
Ntsiki Biyela (NB): I was recruited from high school to study wine making; I was sponsored by South African Airways. I was nervous, but it was a major opportunity for me.
MN: What do you like about the wine business?
NB: It is challenging like any business, but the ever-changing content of wine in the bottle is fascinating. I still find it very interesting. And I knew from the time I was in school, that I wanted to have my own business in the industry.
MN: You became the first Black woman named Winemaker of the Year in 2009?
NB: It was a surprise. But it was something I worked for and I put in a lot of work.
MN: The South African wine industry is very competitive, how do your wines stand out?
NB: It is about understanding your market and expressing your passion. The passion shows through the wines and when you talk about it, people enjoy it. And I am passionate about my wines.
MN: What challenges have you faced as a woman in the South African wine business?
NB: It is not just about being a woman, there’s competitiveness and you always have to prove that you know what you are doing and gain trust from consumers. That is happening everywhere. Also, the wine industry is dominated by family owned businesses, so when you are trying to breakthrough this can be a challenge.
MN: What has been your biggest business lesson?
NB: The importance of surrounding yourself with mentors and those who can advise you.
MN: What has been your biggest business challenge?
NB: Finance as a startup, but I will get there.
MN: How did you fund your startup?
NB: Wine for the World, who initiated the collaboration with Helen Kiplinger (of the world-famous, California-based Keplinger Wines). They funded the initial order upfront to make sure I could start my business.
MN: What are some of your long-term goals?
NB: One of my plans to give back to my community. I want to open a center, among other things.