“People come to reception and ask to speak to the manager. When I come out to greet them they usually get a big shock,” laughs Ilse Ruthford, CEO of Compagniesdrift, a black empowerment business funded by the Meerlust owners, the Myburgh Family Trust. It is a bottling and storage facility that at any one time is handling the bottling, labelling and freight forwarding for 42 clients and storage of over 2 million litres of wine.

“I am so grateful for my mentors, Albie de Waal and Hannes Myburgh,” continues Ruthford, “who believed in me and coached me so that I could manage this facility and in turn mentor other women to do the same.” Kudos to Ilse, in 2014 she won the National Female Entrepreneur Award for Women in Agriculture, and true to form, she used her prize money to start a vegetable garden at Compagniesdrift which turns a profit by supplying vegetables to local retailers.

Ilse Ruthford is just one example of many, many women who are occupying positions in the wine industry originally reserved for men. Across the board, women are moving and shaking the wine industry, bringing about an exciting shift and shining a light on the way forward. Whether it is driving a forklift or making an award-winning wine, women are doing it over and over again. They are taking on their own empowerment and, generally, the men are both grateful and impressed.

Ilse manages a team of 30 staff, mostly women: “As long as I am in charge, I am just going to keep employing more and more women,” states Ilse, “firstly because I want to pass on the opportunity that I have been given, and secondly because women are generally more organised, better administrators and good team players.”

One of the senior women on her staff is Bernadette Brown. She started off as a cellar hand, then she moved into the office to help with the filing and very soon became one of two Logistics Co-ordinators, handling large orders and complicated shipment procedures. 

Ilse Ruthford & Bernadette Brown

“It feels good to work here,” says Bernadette, “I am very grateful that I have been given the chance to show my potential.”

But what of the winemakers themselves. Are they just window-dressing?

Ronell Wiid, now at Bartinney, joined Blaauwklippen in the mid-80s as a laboratory assistant. But very soon Peter Finlayson had her filling barrels and lugging pipes around the cellar. Next stop was Boschendal where she became the red winemaker. “Back then, when I introduced myself as a winemaker, people would often respond that they didn’t know there were any women making wine.”

Ronell Wiid

In an early job interview Ronell was asked by the (male) managing director: “Do you have a boyfriend and are you planning to marry him?” But once in the cellar, Ronell didn’t feel she had to prove herself and moved to her next job at Hazendal with a 3 week old baby. “Both my babies grew up in the cellar, there was always someone around to look after them.”

Ronell does wonder at the fact that, while there are many more women winemakers these days, few are in managerial positions. Is this due to women not being able to cope with the responsibilities of the job and juggle a family; or do they just prefer to stick to winemaking, leaving the corporate politics and administration up to the men? 

“When people hear I am a winemaker, they often comment on the fact that I am so short,” laughs Alet Vlok, junior winemaker at Kanonkop. “I don’t know what height has to do with my ability to make wine, but perhaps they just think I am weak.” But as a consummate ballet dancer and drummer, Alet can move quickly and efficiently around the cellar and does not find it problematic dealing with male staff at all. “I make an effort to engage the staff and understand their personal issues, and they treat me with respect because I am the manager, not because I am a woman.” 

Alet Vlok

Alet does worry about how she is going to manage a harvest and a baby simultaneously, but her friends in the industry seem to have coped okay, management is quite accommodating, and she has a very supportive husband.

Senior Researcher Philisiwe Augustine has an MSc. in Viticulture and does not feel discriminated against either. However she had this to say: “I work mostly with men. Some men don’t like to be corrected and they don’t like being told what to do by a woman. I just focus on getting the job done, and being as polite as possible. But I must say, I haven’t had a lot of problems in this regard.” 

Philisiwe says she would encourage more women to go into research: “There are many untapped opportunities in terms of research, but I would advise women to link up with well-known mentors and supervisors in the wine industry to get funding and recognition."

Another woman who is making a name for herself in the wine industry is Kachne Ross the Manager of Learning and Development at Winetech. While Kachne also does not feel discriminated against, she does sometimes feel overlooked in the male dominated environment she operates in. However, she loves her dynamic and challenging job and would recommend other women get involved in the wine industry: “You get to work with a diverse group of people from different cultures and backgrounds who alter your perspective on life.”

Sommelier-at-large Higgo Jacobs has just returned from the International Sommelier Association AGM in Bordeaux and says that his profession is certainly changing on a global front, but unfortunately this is not true in SA. “Not many girls flying the flag here,” he says.

Of course the marketing side of things is peppered with clever, dynamic women who are changing the focus entirely. While traditionally men bought wine at the bottle store or wine farm, nowadays women are putting wine in their trolleys at their local grocery store and this move has dictated marketing and sales strategies enormously, requiring significant female input.

Perhaps I can have the last word: My dad still insists he knows more about wine than I do, merely because he is a man and I am not; and despite the fact that I have spent over two decades in the wine industry. However, my wise husband automatically hands me the wine list when the sommelier unthinkingly hands it to him in a restaurant.

Times, they are a-changing…

-Julia Moore