Growing up in Mahlabathini, a semirural town in KwaZulu-Natal on South Africa’s Eastern Cape, wine was not a part of Biyela’s life. But that didn’t stop her from applying for, and ultimately accepting, a scholarship to learn about the stuff.
The opportunity prompted her to leave her hometown for the first time to study winemaking at the University of Stellenbosch. Upon graduating in 2003, Biyela would become South Africa’s first professional Black female winemaker when she landed a job as a junior winemaker at Stellenbosch winery Stellekaya the following year.
She launched her own brand, Aslina Wines, in 2017 and, today, she sits on the board of directors for the Pinotage Youth Development Academy, which provides wine-industry training and development for young South Africans in the Cape Winelands.
Why did you want to become a winemaker?
I didn’t know about winemaking when I started, it was through a scholarship from [South African Airways] that I found out about this industry. All I wanted to do was study, and due to financial constraints, I couldn’t.
When the scholarship came and said “winemaking,” I was like, I am in, and interestingly, I had no idea what it was and had never had wine before. To top it up, the university was in Afrikaans, which is a language I didn’t understand.
“There will always be those people who will be the opposite of good, but I made a choice to focus on those who were willing to assist me to grow.” –Ntsiki Biyela
What is your proudest achievement?
There are many proudest moments of my life, but to count them will be too much. Graduating at Stellenbosch University was one of them, but mostly launching Aslina has been a milestone and huge blessing, especially that when I introduce the wines to the market, they are welcomed with warm hearts.
What was the most surprising experience or encounter you’ve had as a female winemaker?
When I was at the university, the experience made me scared of what I was getting myself into. I was worried that I would not be accepted when I got into the industry.
Starting in the industry was a complete shock, and I managed to build relationships. I could easily ask for help from a person I have never met, just call them and ask, and they gladly helped.
Yes, there will always be those people who will be the opposite of good, but I made a choice to focus on those who were willing to assist me to grow.
What is your advice to someone interested in entering the wine business?
Getting into the industry shouldn’t be about making money. That is a nonnegotiable thing—you have to make money. But it should be about something bigger, what will make you wake up and go on even when you don’t feel like, even when you don’t see money at that time.
Be informed about the industry before getting in and, most of all, have fun on the journey.