Heard it through the grapevine
Would a career in vino suit your palate? Jolette Steyn, winemaker of Steenberg Vineyards, gives us a taste of what it’s like.
Jolette Steyn, 31, began her career as someone who had no idea of the career path she planned to follow. Her interests were wide, including French, art, chemistry, biology and travel, and her thoughts boomeranged from studying jewellery design or literature to taking up paediatric neurosurgery.
Undecided, she took a gap year and went to au pair in France. She was on a break, travelling through Italy with friends, when the talk turned to winemaking. And there it was – a field that encompassed all of her passions, and then some. A few months later, she returned to SA and registered for Oenology and Viticulture at the University of Stellenbosch. Postgraduate studies in France, Italy and Spain followed, and now, with 10 years in the field, she’s the perfect connoisseur when it comes to expert advice.
The daily grind
The winemaking schedule is systematic but erratic. If we’re harvesting grapes, picking and processing is between 2am-4am and bottling begins at 6am. But a normal day starts between 7am and 8am.
Depending on the season, I may be working the vineyards, blending, bottling in the cellar, or labelling and packaging among other things. I work with a team of four cellar guys, 15 lovely production ladies and gents who help to get the grapes in and the final labelled product out.
Then there are the tastings I host for restaurants, hotels, corporates or groups, as well as wine shows to attend. And in between that, I brush up on wine history and trends. To put it simply, we’re on a boat and I’m trying to keep it afloat.
My work philosophy
Wine is a story – of the place, the people, the past and the future, and I like to think of it as a time capsule. And so, I believe in making honest wines, which means working with what the terrain and nature have provided. I don’t want to force my personality or opinion onto the grapes!
I also believe that a winemaker who respects the territory, climate and season is able to produce wine that is intricate and complex, yet honest. For example, if there were fires in the area and we had grapes hanging outside at the time, there would be a smokiness to the wine.
What I love about my job
Vines are intriguing and fantastical, and I love watching them develop from the vineyard to the bottle. And then there is the pleasure of tasting and talking about wine!
Getting into viniculture
I started my wine career by working in the tasting room, but there are many ways to dabble in the field before studying it. One of the greatest winemakers I know started as a bus boy at a restaurant.
Maths, chemistry, physics and biology are key subjects to study, but in France, philosophy and anthropology are also regarded as crucial, and I highly recommend internships after your studies as these are a great way to diversify, learn and see how different people approach the field. Wine is like art in many ways: there’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way, merely interpretations.
The good news is that more and more female winemakers are rising through the ranks, which opens exciting career possibilities. It’s also changing the approach to winemaking.
My favourite wines
I love Porseleinberg Syrah for beautiful winter days and cosy fires, as well as international wines, like German Rieslings and Pinot Noirs from France.
Want to study winemaking? Check out these options. Stellenbosch University
sun.ac.za The International Wine Centre thewinecentre.co.za Elsenburg Agricultural Training Institute elsenburg.com