Junel van der Merwe: “You have to be tough as a female wine master”
We ask the renowned Cape Wine Master, wine lecturer and expert about her experience of being a woman in the male-dominated wine industry.
We chat to Junel van der Merwe, wine master, Cape Wine Academy lecturer and renowned local wine expert (not to mention the First Lady of Alvi’s Drift) about the importance of wine awards for women, daring to be true as a woman in the world of wine, and a whole lot more.
As a Cape Wine Master and renowned wine expert, where did your love of wine come from?
Whilst studying languages at the University of Johannesburg, I had a part-time job working for KWV. I answered phones at the show grounds, but this job took me into the fascinating world of wine tasting and winemaking. Post-studies, I worked at the KWV’s information department, and that's when my dream career in wine really took off.
As a wine master and celebrated wine expert in a male-dominated industry, have you ever run into roadblocks in your career, based purely on your gender?
Yes. Certain parts of the world have more formally entrenched customs about women in wine. I recall a negotiation once, where I was the only person able to negotiate a particular deal, but had to do so through a male colleague. The person buying the wine had to turn his back to me and pretend that I was not in the room. Luckily we don’t have that sort of thing here in South Africa.
In our local wine industry, whether you’re male or female, we consider each other wine friends and there’s a lot of mutual respect.
Why do you think women wine masters, winemakers and wine experts are still seen as the exception in both the local and international wine industry?
I think it’s mainly a cultural thing. Previous generations, our mothers had to stay at home, or they could maybe become teachers, secretaries or typists. Or they can stay home and cook the food, fold the newspaper and have the slippers ready. I remember when I wanted to study law, my father said, "You can go and become a teacher. Why do you want to study law?" Maybe I should have done that, because my mouth is so big. [Laughs]
While we are on this topic, when I started in the wine industry many years ago, it was extremely painful for me to walk into a liquor store. I almost couldn't do it, because it wasn't considered a place for a woman to be.
You’ve been a player in the local and international wine industries for many years. What might surprise people to know about your path to where you are today?
That I lasted this long, I suppose. There are many ups and downs. It's not just always instant success. Not everyone can keep the pace. I've got many years behind me and I’m still going. I think the one thing that kept me going is passion, a love for what I do.
When did you become a Cape Wine Master?
I started my Cape Wine Master studies in 1999, post my diploma studies. It was a busy time for me, and you get five years in which to complete your Cape Wine Master studies. I was inaugurated as a Cape Wine Master in 2004.
What’s your opinion about women-in-wine-type awards? Should women be singled out for accolades, or do you think this defeats the purpose (of accepting women's place in wine as the norm)?
I think it's absolutely fantastic that such awards exist, because it makes people aware that these women are doing exactly the same job as men. I'm just talking about winemaking now. I'm always fascinated by these lovely young girls and what they manage with these tiny little bodies. You try to drag hoses around a winery, connecting pipes and what not.
I can't do that, and they can. They just put their boots on and they do it.
I told you, a woman is tough. These women studied wine, they have all the knowledge to not only make wine, but produce award-winning wines. They deserve all the recognition they can get.
We understand your knowledge and expertise are being put to very good use at Alvi's Drift. With your unique skill set, what would you say are your contributions?
I don't make the wine, I taste the wine. What I bring to the table is quite simple, it’s just a perception of flavour. Alvi likes to bounce things off me when it comes to tasting, and it's just as well. In the past, before I met him, I would be asked to fly down when winemakers taste barrels and give my input. Now, I get to be a part of the entire creative process, tasting the wine from grapes on the vine through harvest and into the barrel. I still enjoy the barrel tastings, but they are just so much richer now, having walked our baby grapes through to this point.
The past two-and-a-half years have been challenging to say the least. What has the COVID-19 pandemic taught you about yourself, and about the South African wine industry?
It taught me how to work a laptop and how to set up and run a Zoom meeting. Technological skills, which we never needed before, because we worked directly with the public. The pandemic taught me how adaptable we are as human beings.
It also showed me how we, as a small local industry can stand together when we have to. The wine industry in South Africa is small, we're a drop in the ocean, but when all of this hit us, everyone in our industry stood together, and we fought together.
We were one of only a few countries in the world not allowed to sell alcohol. We all fought to keep our industry, and the thousands of families who rely on it, alive. We stared down the barrel of a bleak and cold winter with no income - starvation and hypothermia was a very real concern. The industry pulled together, we started feeding programmes, our international clients also stood by us and helped where they could.
I remember the tears of joy as the first food truck from U-Save pulled in, and the gratitude for warm winter wear arranged by our friends in The Netherlands. The moment we could export again, all our international partners placed large orders to help keep the industry afloat, because we were able to sell internationally, but not locally by then.
The selfless actions of winemakers, farmers, international partners and suppliers the world over helped us to narrowly avoid a humanitarian crisis. That’s the wine world for you. It’s a wonderful industry.
If we had the privilege of a peek into your personal wine collection, what gems might we find?
My gems are my international wines. It's like buying good paintings. My favourites would be the champagnes, Krug, Perrier-Jouët. And then of course my collections of ice wines from Canada. My Bordeaux wines. My Burgundies... It’s like my children, you know? Each wine is unique and special and comes with its own set of memories of where I bought it, or who gifted it to me. Where I first tasted it, and who was there with me... Special memories are created and recalled over a glass of wine.
Are there women in the wine world that have inspired you?
Phyllis Hands, the first principal of the Cape Wine Academy. She became principal in 1979 and retired in 1995, but stayed on as a lecturer and consultant. I started my career in wine by lecturing, and I was one of the very first lecturers at the Cape Wine Academy. Phyllis was my superstar. She really took me into the world of wine.
My friend Bergitta Reiss from Bordeaux, who I met in the Middle East. If it weren’t for her, I would not have been that intensely exposed to the world of Bordeaux, never mind Burgundy. My friend Carol Duval-Leroy, a garagiste from Champagne in the south of France. Carol was widowed when her three sons were very young, and she grew that business into the ninth-biggest producer in Champagne.
Lastly, local wine legend May-Éliane de Lencquesaing, also known as Lady May. She is the founder and matriarch of Glenelly Estate in Stellenbosch. She bought Glenelly at the age of 78, planted vines and turned the estate around. She's also the owner of the biggest glass collection in the world. Go and read about her. She’s well into her 90s by now and still going strong.
When you’re not immersed in all things wine, what do you do to relax or enjoy your free time?
I like to go for long walks. I also like swimming, running and staying active. I love spending time with my dogs in the veld. Put me in the bush, in the veld or in the water, and I'm happy.
Do you have any advice for women interested in a career in wine?
Yes. Make sure it's what you really want to do. You don’t necessarily have to become a wine master, but you have to have a strong passion for all things wine, because working in this industry is not a nine-to-five job. It looks glamorous from the outside, but it will ask a lot of you. You have to be tough. But if you feel passionate about wine and feel that it is truly your calling, by all means do pursue your dreams, as a career in wine can be incredibly rewarding.
While we're on the topic, what, according to you, is Alvi's Drift’s most feminine wine?
The bubbles, for sure. In my opinion, women always look so feminine behind a glass of bubbles. Not behind a glass of brandy, but bubbles, yes.
If it must be a still wine, it would be our Reserve Sauvignon Blanc. She's so silky, such a linear beauty which brings to mind the great women of poise and beauty.
Then again, if you are going to do anything, do it well, with style and ceremony. Why not learn how to Sabrage a bottle of bubbly? I always find I feel much more feminine with my glass of bubbles... after making sure that everyone sees I know exactly how to handle a sword.
Shop Online for Alvi’s Drift “Bubbles”
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