By Michael Cavanagh
Amidst rural surroundings in the KwaZulu Natal province of South Africa, Ntsiki Biyela spent childhood days dreaming of what possibilities existed outside the reality of subsistence farming in the village. Little did she know that the world of wine would expand her horizons beyond imagination.
Biyela traveled across the country to claim a scholarship to the University of Stellenbosch to study viticulture and enology and later became South Africa's first black female enologist and the 2009 Winemaker of the Year. But success was not a foregone conclusion. In fact, the odds were stacked quite heavily against Ms. Biyela. A minority not only in gender and race but also language (as many classes were taught in Afrikaans), Ntsiki prevailed over the circumstances and entered a field dominated by white males. More than a decade later, she remains a pioneer in the wine industry, a field that seems to be focused on promoting diversity.
Wine in South Africa has been around for centuries and the introduction of the vine in the Western Cape during the mid-1600s was momentous. But it also represented an impending cultural change as Europeans set familial roots alongside their vineyards. The next three centuries would witness tremendous tumult and change, conflict and transformation, and competition between numerous ethnicities that included institutionalized racial segregation coupled with brutal enforcement of despicable laws.
Yet two decades later, after years of protest and determined resilience produced a victory over an arcane system of government, South Africa sits on the precipice of being a leader not only on the continent but in global affairs. In fact, it gained inclusion into the BRICS coalition (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) as one of the world's emerging economies. And an important aspect of the country's potential impact is undoubtedly a growing wine industry.
Indeed, South Africa is one of the fastest growing wine countries in the world. But wine has been a segregated luxury in this diverse country and for the majority of its viticultural history it remained conspicuously absent from the majority of black neighborhoods. So, as South Africa continues to show budding promise as a world leader and its wine industry helps propel that emergence, have things changed?
The answer, by most accounts, is a resounding yes. There are numerous programs that have been developed to promote inclusion and allow the wine industry to be used as a platform to give people the tools to show their personal potential. Ntsiki is a shining example of that. But is she an anomaly? Is the wine industry allowing for the kind of transformative change she has experienced? Is the field an area that propels women's empowerment? We want to find out.
My wife Katie and I recently launched a Kickstarter project focused on those central issues and, in particular, how women have impacted the wine industry and continue to influence its future. The project will include three months in the Western Cape conducting interviews with winemakers, winery owners, migrant laborers, exporters, academic scholars, government officials, and anyone else that can give insight into this dynamic industry in this diverse country. The result will be a visually rich book that showcases the affects women are having on the industry and country as a whole.
By pledging $50 to the project you are, in essence, pre-ordering the book, which will be delivered by December 2013. Just in time for the holidays. And for the technologically savvy, pledging $25 will get you the e-book version. All funds raised for the project will go directly towards publishing fees and expenses, transportation and living expenses. For more information on the project, please visit our Kickstarter page.
About Michael Cavanagh
Michael Cavanagh is a freelance writer in search of memorable locales, delectable cuisine, and delicious drink. An experienced world traveler, Michael views globetrotting as an adventure like no other. He hopes to share his discoveries with other oenophiles, foodies, nomads, and travel enthusiasts. Michael has been published in The Wine Enthusiast, PalatePress, Destinations Travel Magazine, Terroirist, and has a regular column at Examiner.
About Katie Cavanagh
Katie is an entrepreneur with a passion for wine. After leading a successful sales and marketing career, she endeavored to make wine her life, traveling throughout the United States, France, Italy, and Spain to discover wineries and learn about wine regions. Katie is a partner in a Wine Education, Wine Tasting & Events business and works in social media in the wine industry. As the daughter of a single mother, she has a special interest in women's empowerment issues, which served as a major impetus for this project. Katie is also a Certified Specialist of Wine through the Society of Wine Educators.
Photos courtesy of Wines of South Africa