Winemaking has become her forte

A FEW years ago it was a rare experience to see a black person, let alone a black woman, pruning or overlooking the technical aspects of quality wine grapes

The few women who worked in the wine industry did so more by chance than by choice.

Today young, talented and passionate women, like Unathi Mantshongo, specialise in oenology and viticulture.

The 25-year-old lass from Mthatha did not choose viticulture - it chose her.

"I did not know about the course at all until I was looking for a bursary after matric. Viticulture and oenology was one of the bursaries available at the time.

"I fell in love with the course the moment I learnt what it was about. Encouragement from my mother was a big driving force."

She obtained a Bachelor of Science in Viticulture and Oenology at the Stellenbosch University.

Luck was on her side since she was recruited by KWV in the final year of her undergraduate studies.

She became a trainee and halfway into her contract she was promoted to a full-time viticulturist. She has not looked back.

After this achievement she did not rest in her laurels. She later furthered her education with an honours in viticulture and a certificate in business communication.

"I cherish the day I learnt about this course." says Mantshongo.

"I have enjoyed the freedom and encouragement to start new projects and experiments on the KWV farms, gained invaluable exposure to the entire South African wine region and been involved in award-winning wines."

Today she is one of a handful of black females in the winemaking industry.

"I am so in love with what I do. Seeing the results of the experiments in the vineyards being revealed through the wine is where I find my true inspiration," she says.

"My job is to ensure that grapes are properly cultivated to make the best wines possible through liaison and consultation with our grape growers.

"I work as part of a team and our job differs depending on the time of year. We decide on the best time to harvest the grapes, we evaluate the harvest, we recommend when to start pruning and in the pre-season period we consult in the vineyards."

She says the two greatest things about her job are when she completes a project, start rolling it out in the industry and it actually makes a difference in wine quality of that vintage.

"And of course when our wines win awards and we've been doing really well locally and internationally - it affirms my work and role at KWV," she says.

That she's black and a woman might have been a handicap at the start, but she knew how to assert and impose herself.

Entering an industry into which few young black women had gone before was a bit daunting.

"When I started out I was liaising with people three times older than myself and who had been farming longer than I'd been alive and that was difficult. At first they just ignored me," she says.

"But fortunately I had a fantastic mentor. He knew what he wanted for me and set a vision for me.

"Through training and expertise in the industry, and through discussions in forums with qualified people, they started to see that I knew a little bit. Now it's been four years and I have had fantastic relationships with all the farmers."

Mantshongo says the grapevines are one of the most fascinating and complex plants she has ever come to know.

In spite of her heavy schedule, Mantshongo still has time to hike and read novels.