I recently tried my first Bartinney wine and was interested to learn that Bartinney's winemaker, Ronell Wiid, came to viniculture from a career in geology. I love her winemaking style and asked her to tell her story.
I read that you were originally a geologist. What brought you into winemaking?
I grew up on the East Coast of South Africa, with no wine influence. I arrived in the university town of Stellenbosch, slap in the middle of Wine Country, and took to wine like a duck to water.
I certainly became intrigued by wine, tasting, and different styles. I completed my BSc (geology and geochemistry) degree and went to work in the field, on Engineering Geology projects. After one project was completed, I found a summer holiday and harvest job at a prominent Stellenbosch wine estate. This afforded me the opportunity to get closer to the “inside operation” of wine growing, and I enjoyed it very much.
I stayed for two years instead of a couple of months. I think I got really lucky when I landed my first assistant winemaking job a few years later, and so I left digging for gold, miles underground, amongst ancient rock formations, for winemaking––above ground, where the rock profile, deeper than three meters, does not play such an important role.
What wines or regions of the world inspire you?
I am a global wine drinker, and generally in awe of each old-world region (in Europe) that grows only what makes the best in their terroir. Their focus is amazing. Not so many areas in the younger growing areas of the world focus on one variety or style.
If I have to single out an area from which I have experienced wine firsthand, then the winegrowers of Sonoma and Napa inspired me a lot. Their incredible attention to detail, and insatiable quest for perfection, and total understanding of how the vineyard makes the best wine, is inspirational.
What is your favorite grape to work with? To drink?
I don’t have a favourite grape. In the wine regions of South Africa, shiraz and chenin blanc makes such yummy wines without tweaking and intervention from the winemaker, and they grow well in most areas here, so I do like working with them. Cabernet sauvignon is for me the most challenging grape to work with, as it doesn’t make a great wine easily. The growing conditions have to be just right: terroir and the weather conditions prior to each harvest are paramount for getting it right. I like this challenge, because to make a great wine is the carrot dangling in front of each winemaker. One should stop making wine if one doesn’t have the strive for “that perfect wine" lurking beyond the next harvest.
Bartinney focuses on three primary grapes: chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, and sauvignon blanc. Does this narrow focus appeal to you? Do you foresee more grapes being planted in the next few years, or is the site simply best for these three cultivars?
Bartinney has about seventeen hectares of vineyards and no space to increase it. I don’t think we will ever diversify much, as our focus is on chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon, and both perform very well in our area. Bartinney is a young estate, and we are hard at work creating the best possible vineyards and wine from our terroir, and I enjoy this more in-depth focus. The previous estates where I worked were bigger farms with a larger spread of varieties. Of course, we might replace, when the time comes, a vineyard with more chardonnay or add another blending variety for our cabernet. And maybe one day, we buy another piece of land and grow other varieties there.
What is your best advice for young women who aspire to become winemakers?
I do hope that your mentioning “woman” doesn’t mean that we of the fairer sex don’t find winemaking jobs as easily as men in your part of the world. These days in our South African winemaking environment, the opportunity has become quite equal, thankfully.
The first choice is, of course, university. It is the only way to get the formal qualification, deep theory, and understanding behind the practice. But it is not essential.
Experience is what you need, so try to find employment in a large winery that has a big workforce (so it employs people all the time) where you get the opportunity to see and work with lots of different grape types, wines, and all the different areas of cellar work.
Try to get a job at a winery that grows a lot of their own grapes. More jobs are available and you'll get a better understanding of the whole winegrowing process.
Don’t hesitate to leave your comfort zone to pursue your dream.
Many extra jobs are available during harvest, so find a job as soon as possible, before the Northern hemisphere season.
Use and milk all the wine contacts you have, to find a job.
When you do land in a winery, work like a slave, and “steal” with your eyes and ears. We winemakers like hardworking people, but we don’t want to answer questions all day long from over-enthusiastic cellar rats!