SA Wine Legends: Norma Ratcliffe

Norma Ratcliffe deftly slices celery in her Cape Town kitchen. She’s just got back from a morning of playing golf, and her pink shirt matches the healthy flush in her cheeks. Norma—founder of Warwick Wine Estate along with her late husband, Stan—is widely known as the ‘First Lady’ of the South African wine industry, as she was one of the first women in the country to make wine. She was also the first woman to become a member of the Cape Winemakers’ Guild and the only one to have served as its chairperson (so far).

“I come from a very sporty family,” she says continuing to slice the makings of a salad. “We skied, ice-skated, did cross-country, the works. I skied all through high school and was a provincial champion. I spent a lot of time outdoors, hiking in the mountains and canoeing on the rivers.” 

She grew up, with a brother and a sister, in western Canada. Her father was an engineer, her mother a teacher.  She goes over as often as she can to visit her extended family—she has 27 first cousins, after all. 

Her home is crammed with family photos, and eclectic art pieces adorn the walls. We settle at the kitchen counter with glasses of white wine to chat. In 1948, oil was discovered in the area they lived and her dad in turn set up an engineering business. “My dad wore Stetson and cowboy boots to work,” she says reminiscing with a smile. 

“I come from quite an entrepreneurial family—and having watched them from a young age I learnt: if you’re going to do it, do it yourself.”

Along with sport, Norma also loved science, and so, she did a B.Sc. at the University of Alberta. She worked for a while in organic chemistry; but then… “I got wanderlust.”

She left for Europe where she worked as a ski instructor; before moving to Mykonos, Greece. “By day I worked in a restaurant and at night I was a DJ at a local disco.

“I was living there with my friend Frances, and she came home one day and said she’d met this nice South African guy. She had planned to line me up with his friend, but somewhere in the next couple of weeks things got turned around… So we swapped. Stan and I were married for 35 years.”

The couple moved to South Africa, where Stan had already bought a farm—Warwick Wine Estate—in 1964. “My dad was furious,” Norma recalls. “They were afraid for me, the news coming out of South Africa at the time was worrying.”

They got married in 1971 in a church in Canada: “my mother would never have forgiven me if we hadn’t done that,” she says with a laugh. “Sometime after that my parents came to visit us in South Africa—and then they got it.”

At first Warwick only produced grapes to sell, they put off the dream of having their own cellar. “Us war babies were quite conservative about going into debt. We only built the cellar once we had paid off our bond paid in 1984.

“O.K. we said, we’re going to make the wine ourselves.” So, self-taught, Norma produced six barrels in the first year. “I was better at building a wine business than I was at making wine; but in order to do the first thing well I had to make wine to find out how it all worked. 

The following season Norma went to go learn some more by working a harvest in Bordeaux. At this time she already had two kids: Jenny and Mike, who were then 10 and 13 respectively. “I had such a supportive husband, who said ‘don’t worry I’ll look after them, you must go’. 

When she got back from France, she made her first official vintage, launching with the famed Femme Bleu Cabernet Sauvignon. 

She then had to sell the wine. The first capital to conquer was Johannesburg. “We went to every little bottle store, every restaurant. We never just left a bottle, but we opened it right there in the office to taste.  Then we did every other little town and province in the same way. We went everywhere.”

With South Africa firmly introduced to Warwick, she turned her attention to the European market, and soon struck her first export deal in Germany in 1990—a time before the export market had actually even opened in South Africa due to trade sanctions. 

And like everything Norma does, she put the full force of her energy behind exporting—today Warwick exports to 22 countries around the world—and she worked the stands at international trade fairs and the like. She fondly remembers her first London trade fair: “we couldn’t afford a full stand, so we shared one with Ken Forrester.”

In fact she did so well, that in 1995 she won the Chamber of Commerce Exporter of the Year, and thought to herself, ‘I’m on the right track, I just need to stay ahead of everyone.’

And that’s just what she did. Being ahead of the curve is one of Norma’s many natural talents. She was the first person to launch a Cabernet Franc in South Africa and she developed the first Cape Blend in South Africa, a blend of Pinotage, Cabernet and Merlot.

“Every little success you have fuels your energy to keep going. I made plenty of mistakes and bad decisions—I just didn’t tell any one about them.”

When asked how she juggled it all she says matter-of-factly: “it wasn’t a breeze, it was hard. When I wasn’t with my children, I worked. But I had a supportive husband, who could cook! 

These days Norma is still a honourary life member of Cape Winemakers’ Guild, and the protégé programme—developing new winemakers from previously disadvantaged backgrounds—is a cause close to her heart.

She was recognised again in 2015, when she was awarded the 1659 Medal of Honour for her impact and contribution to the South African wine industry (the first woman to receive this award).

Awards aside she says her biggest contribution to the industry has been doing things differently. “I didn’t do things in the established way, from exporting to making wine and to packaging and marketing.
“The other thing I didn’t realise I was doing; was how I was making it easier for the next generation of women winemakers. There are now 100s of them actively working in South Africa; who would’ve thought of that?”

Well Norma, you probably did. Whether it’s on the ski slopes or in the wine business, you can be sure that Norma Ratcliffe is always ahead of the curve.

-Malu Lambert