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South Africa’s First Black Female Winemaker on Diversity and Inclusivity in the Wine Industry

Photos by Daphne Guyo

As the foodservice industry reckons with the effects of COVID-19, it’s also in a state of introspection as social justice issues have been brought to the forefront in a bigger way than ever before. Both COVID and the increased awareness in the Black Lives Matter movement have brought to light many of the issues and challenges of the foodservice industry that need to change. As we work to repair, adjust, and move forward to a better community, organizations like Femmes du Vin are right there with us, supporting the industry, and those in it.

Founded in 2016 by Sommelier Emily Pearce, Femmes du Vin is a Canadian not-for-profit organization that provides opportunities for women from all walks of life, ethnicities, and orientations in wine and hospitality. The organization provides education, scholarships, and mentoring, with a strong emphasis on driving equal access and equality across the industry. An integral part of Femmes du Vin is their annual conference – the Femmes du Vin Harvest Series. 

This September, Femmes du Vin will bring back the Harvest Series, and in accordance with COVID guidelines, the conference will take place completely virtually. Every Monday from September 28 – November 2, attendees can enjoy two seminars, one at 12 p.m. EST and the second at 2 p.m. EST. 

One of the most important seminars this year is ‘Diversity and Inclusion: Setting the Table for All Women in Wine’. Women in wine have long been overlooked, and this is doubly the case for BIPOC women in wine. 

This seminar, taking place on September 28th at 12:00 p.m. EST, will explore the evolving role that women are playing in the wine industry and discuss how to ensure that all women are a part of that wave. As we move forward into a (hopefully) brighter future, ensuring that no woman or person is left behind is pivotal to ensuring a better industry.

This seminar will start by defining what ‘diversity and inclusion’ means, in practical rather than theoretical terms, and discuss the state of the industry—what’s changing, what isn’t, and various initiatives in place to bring all women into the conversation and into a diverse set of jobs within the wine industry. 

Ntsiki Biyela of Aslina Wines, photo by Daphne Guyo

This seminar will delve into how discrimination based on age, socio-economic status, physical disability, gender, and accents is experience within the wine industry and how this discrimination affects those working within the industry.

Seminar panelists will explain how they carved their own paths and how not only to be allies but to elevate, mentor, and support women. They will talk about what work requires our immediate attention and how we can all be part of the solution. Priya Rao will host the seminar and panelists will include Jancis Robinson MW, Julia Coney, June Rodil MS, and Ntsiki Biyela.

We were able to chat with panelist Ntsiki Biyela about her involvement in the Harvest Series, and her own journey in succeeding within the wine industry. 

Ntsiki Biyela is CEO and Winemaker of Aslina Wines and holds the inspiring title of South Africa’s first Black female winemaker. She grew up in Mahlabathini, a rural village in KwaZulu-Natal. Having spent a year as a domestic worker, she was awarded a scholarship through South African Airways to study winemaking at the University of Stellenbosch in 1999. She graduated in 2003 with a BSc in Agriculture (Viticulture and Oenology) and joined Stellekaya, a boutique winery, as their Winemaker in 2004.

Ntsiki Biyela founded Aslina Wines in 2016 and named the company in honour of her grandmother, Aslina. Ntsiki credits the inspiration of fellow “strong women” who provided her with the drive to begin her own company. 

As a pioneer in the field of wine, Ntsiki has earned many impressive accolades. In 2009, she was crowned ‘Woman Winemaker of the Year’. For two consecutive years, she was voted ‘The Most Influential Women in Business and Government’. In 2017, she was named in ‘Top 20 Most Innovative Women in Food and Drinks’ by Fortune Magazine. She was also named as one of the ‘Top 15 Women in Wine to Watch’ by Food and Wine Magazine in the USA.

Aslina Wines has garnered numerous awards as well, including Gold Medals from the Michelangelo Wine and Spirits Awards for the 2016 and 2017 Vintages, and took home the Gold in Japan’s Sakura Awards for two consecutive years for different vintages.

As a Black woman in wine, Ntsiki has had to endure additional challenges in order to receive the attention she deserves. She says, “The industry is dominated by white males so garnering recognition (as a woman of colour) was never and is still not that easy.”

From her point of view, women, especially women of colour need to be welcomed and engaged in discussions at a top level in order to see real change in the industry. “I would like to see more ladies being confident enough to take up roles that maybe they wouldn’t have considered before, and to have the self-assurance to take ownership or try out a business idea,” she explains. “To see a meaningful shift within the industry, we also need more support for Black-owned businesses,” she furthers. 

In these uncertain and influx times, it can be easy to feel disheartened but for Ntsiki, we’re being presented with an opportunity to come out on the other end better for it. “I foresee more managerial opportunities available in the industry for women and women of colour,” she predicts. “I believe the wine industry is an undying industry,” she says. “[I feel confident that more] opportunities will open up again after the pandemic.” 

For more information on what to expect at Femmes du Vin Harvest Series in 2020, visit femmesduvin.org and buy your tickets to the Harvest Series here. This year, ticket prices range from PWYC to C$75.00. The $75 FDV All Access Pass grants you access to all 10 Harvest Sessions and ticket sales go toward the FDV scholarship fund.

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