At first glance, it seems an unlikely jump. How would a proofreader, originally from Klerksdorp in the north of the country wind up making wine for one of the Cape's most decorated cellars?
We chat to Zinaschke Steyn, who's just been appointed Nederburg's new red-winemaker, to find out more.
Tell us a bit about yourself. How did you go from proofreader to winemaker?
I grew up in Klerkdorp in the North West Province, but my working life began as a proofreader for a printing works in Worcester. That was just after matriculating in 2005.
I had already planned to move south, setting my heart on a BSc in Chemical Engineering at Stellenbosch University because I wanted to be a brandy-maker. But then, as it tends to do, life intervened.
After close to two years in the Cape, it seemed to me that winemaking would be better suited to my personality. I like to get my hands dirty and be physically involved from the get-go, as opposed to starting with wine that is to be distilled.
I’d be working more closely with the elements and have to tackle each vintage as an entirely new project. It’s the anticipation of new challenges, new parameters and new responses every year - that state of flux - that appeals to me. So, in 2007 I met up with oom Willie van Zijl at Elsenburg, and the rest is history.
After graduating in 2010 with a BAgric degree in winemaking and viticulture from Elsenburg Agricultural Training Institute in Stellenbosch, I went to make wine for Overhex Private Cellar, then the KWV and GlenWood Vineyards.
In 2018, I was offered the job as assistant red-winemaker at Nederburg, catapulting me into the role of this award-winning Paarl winery’s fully-fletched red-winemaker.
Describe your role at Nederburg - what does a typical workday look like for you?
In a nutshell, I look after all the red wines made at the Nederburg cellar in Paarl.
A typical workday? It really depends on the time of year. Right now, we’re in the planning phase of our wine blending season, so for the next two weeks my days will pretty much look as follows:
7am: Morning meeting with my cellar team
7045am: Coffee and checking/responding to e-mails
9.30am: Daily cellar management meeting
10am-2pm: Tasting of blend components and blend planning
2pm-4pm: Checking chemical analyses, writing job cards and fact sheets, and other cellar-related admin work.
Do you have any role models? If so, who?
Definitely my mom, Michele! She has taught me that I can literally do anything I set my mind to, and to not let anything or anyone break my spirit. She taught me that "when the going gets tough, the tough get going". I find her observant nature and quiet strength so inspiring.
I also admire Alicia Moore, also known as P!nk. What a totally independent woman! I love her tough girl image, but ability to show her softer side too.
She’s an outspoken advocate for the LGBTQ community and for the better treatment of animals, putting her celebrity influence behind campaigns sponsored by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
She also supports organisations including the Human Rights Campaign, UNICEF, and Save the Children. She is typically known as a rebel – she loves challenging the status quo and doing crazy stuff like dyeing her daughter’s hair or shaving her own head.
I wish I could be as confident and outspoken as she is! And to top it all she has her own winery in Santa Barbara in the US (wink-wink, does it get any better than this?)!
Back to local shores. I also look up to Ntsiki Biyela, known as the first female black winemaker in South Africa. She comes from such humble beginnings, growing up in a village in KwaZulu-Natal and working as a domestic worker for some time.
She was awarded an SAA bursary to study winemaking in 1999. This means she had to exchange her rural village for a university in the Western Cape.
Before then, she hadn’t even tasted wine before in her life! In 2003, she graduated from Stellenbosch University with a BSc in Oenology and shortly after, joined Stellekaya Wines where she spent 13 years as winemaker and ambassador.
She started her own wine brand, Aslina Wines (named after her grandmother) in 2014 and has enjoyed immense success. Just goes to show, that if you put your mind to it, you are capable of doing almost anything!
What advice can you share for females wanting to get into the wine industry
Wine has long been a male-dominated business. This paradigm is slowly but surely changing with more and more women enrolling for winemaking courses and degree programmes, entering the industry and making a real impact.
As a female winemaker, you should be adaptable and innovative. It’s important to start from the bottom and to not be scared to get your hands dirty - you need to understand the process and build strong relationships with your team members.
What are your thoughts on the impact of Covid on the industry? How has Nederburg dealt with this challenge?
There isn’t even a doubt that Covid-19 and the resulting alcohol bans have had a crippling effect on our wine industry. It has created a chain reaction felt right through the supply chain, from growers and producers to distributors, retailers and even industry suppliers. But as always, the South African wine industry has shown remarkable resourcefulness and fortitude in combatting challenges and adjusting to new realities.
Since the start of the pandemic, Nederburg has implemented strict protocols to protect all staff members and it’s worked well for us. We are kept on our toes constantly, having to adapt and change our planning on short notice to still make wine and service orders on time.
Do you think it’s important to have a month dedicated to women? And why.
Yes, I feel it’s important to have a platform where we can highlight and celebrate achievements by women in our communities and industries, and also be able to spotlight issues like gender equality, gender-based violence, discrimination, harassment in the workplace and more.
What is the best advice anyone has given you?
Keep your head low, work hard and stay humble.
As a woman, have there been any significant challenges in the workplace that stand out for you?
The most daunting experience was starting to work in a traditionally male-dominated industry, with a team of men (mostly older than me) after my studies.
Gaining their trust and respect was quite a challenge, hence my words of advice above. It is important to maintain good relationships in the workplace – I may be the winemaker, but blending and putting that award-winning wine into a bottle is ultimately a team effort. Every single person in my team plays an important part in getting the job done.
Do you have any pearls of wisdom to share this Women's Month or words of encouragement?
I have learnt a lot during my career to date, and the most important thing is that you should be happy in your work. Also, keep things simple and stay true to who you are. Always trust your gut!