“What is wine? Is it a cider or something? I hated the first sip.”
That was Ntsiki Biyela’s first reaction after she won a scholarship to study winemaking in 1998.
Now she’s an international award winning vintner and resident winemaker at the Stellekaya winery in Stellenbosch — east of Cape Town, South Africa.
She’s also the country’s first black female winemaker in an industry dominated by white men.
“I’m surrounded by men who are supportive, but in general it’s a struggle because you have to do twice as much to prove yourself,” she told CNNMoney.
Her wine is sold globally but her main market is the United States. And she has plans to start her own brand later this year.
Biyela’s life began in 1978 in a small village in the province of Kwa-Zulu Natal, where the only alcohol she encountered was home brewed beer.
As a black South African, Biyela suffered discrimination and oppression under the brutal apartheid regime.
Driven by an urge to create a better life for herself, she started looking for opportunities outside of her village.
“I wanted to do chemical engineering but I couldn’t because of the financial situation,” she said.
Soon after apartheid was abolished in 1994, South African Airways began offering wine making scholarships as part of a program to help transform the country’s economy. Biyela jumped at the chance.
“There was an opportunity to study, and become something,” she told CNNMoney.
So she left her village and family to pursue a career in making something she had never tasted.
At Stellenbosch University, Biyela not only had everything to learn about wine but she had to study in a language synonymous with oppression, Afrikaans.
“It was difficult. I didn’t know Afrikaans but I had no choice,'” she said.
Graduating was just the first step. Biyela still had to find work in an industry that wasn’t exactly welcoming to a black South African woman.
She was turned away three times before she landed a job at what she calls the “modern” Stellekaya. And she quickly found success. Her first harvest in 2004 produced an award winning wine.
It was a bottle of that very vintage that Biyela took back to her home village.
During the trip, her grandmother Aslina tasted wine for the very first time. Her response? “It’s nice.”
Biyela is now preparing to launch a new wine as an independent wine maker. She’ll be leaving Stellekaya and will buy grapes from farmers because she can’t afford her own vineyards just yet.
But she already has a name for the brand: Aslina.