Ntsiki Biyela had never tasted wine before winning a scholarship to the University of Stellenbosch to learn how to make wine.
“It was the need for me to do something and to change my life,” the 39-year-old entrepreneur explained. She grew up under apartheid in a village now known as KwaZulu-Natal, a province along South Africa’s eastern shore. “That’s why I had applied for the scholarship to study winemaking even though I had no idea what it was.”
After graduating with a degree in viticulture and oenology, boutique winery Stellekaya hired her in 2004 and Biyela officially became the first black woman to hold the position of winemaker in South Africa. In 2012, while still working at Stellekaya, she began to make her own wine. It was about that time she met Mica Bulmash, founder of Wine for the World, who would eventually become her U.S. importer.
Bulmash introduced Biyela to Helen Keplinger, who graduated from UC Davis’ Enology program about the same time Biyela graduated from Stellenbosch. The two hit it off and Keplinger, who had worked with cult winemakers Michel Rolland and Heidi Barrett and served as the winemaker for some projects for California’s Kenzo Estate, Arrow & Branch and Bryant Family Vineyards, agreed to make a wine together. That joint vintage, with Bulmash acting as a négociant, thereby guaranteeing the price of the wine, provided Biyela with the seed money to go out on her own.
Devoted To Aslina
Biyela left Stellekaya last fall to devote her time to her own brand, Aslina (named after her grandmother), and exports her Cabernet Sauvignon, Umsasane (a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot), Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. Biyela’s total production is fewer than 15,000 bottles, about half of which is sold domestically directly to consumers. She also has sales in Germany, Denmark, Taiwan and Ghana.
“It’s always good to have a balance,” Biyela says. She does not have her own vineyards, but she does know some good grape growers and sources from them.
“I worked only for one winery for a long time. But I worked with the farmers from all over looking for the right grapes. It is the same now,” she says. She is also leasing a wine cellar.
Asked why she took the leap to have her own brand, she replied, “Because, for me, it was the plan a long time ago. Because I had a vision. And that was not going to be fulfilled if I stayed employed. And I wouldn’t have been in a position of giving back to the people around me as long as I stayed employed.”
Balance Of Slow And Steady
Biyela is still traveling to introduce her wines, still involved in the marketing, design and production. “There is no difference, for me, between what I was doing then and what I am doing now.”
As far as what the future holds, Biyela said, “Well, the brand is going to grow.” Then, with a laugh she added, “It has to grow…”
“I’m just introducing the wines slowly, so the increase will be slow. As my market share grows and the demand of the market increases, I will increase production. I don’t need to be too big either.”
Balance is the key.