I recently decided it was time to revive my Women at Work interview series and so I have done just that!
Today I’m thrilled to interview a wonder woman winemaker, Michelle Louw. She is an assistant white winemaker at Adam Tas, one of South Africa’s leading cellars, based in Stellenbosch, where she makes Zonnebloem wines.
Now who doesn’t love a winemaker? Right!
Michelle is also a mom, with all the daily challenges that come with that. How on earth does she hold down her hectic full time job???
Read on to find out how she juggles a professional career, a husband (also in the wine industry) and a baby girl…
When did you know this is what you wanted to do?
Originally I wanted to study pharmacology, but then one day, while still at school, I ended up chatting to a family friend, who suggested I give some thought to the idea of viticulture and winemaking. That was because I enjoyed science and biology so much. The idea made so much sense and the more I thought about it, the more I realised it was exactly what I wanted to do.
What did you study – was it in this field or something different?
I studied viticulture and winemaking at Stellenbosch University, graduating in 2005.
What was your first job in the industry? What path has your career taken since?
I spent six years as winemaker at Dormershire Wine Estate in Kuils River, working closely with the owner, Paul Frost and wine consultant Kowie Du Toit before joining the Zonnebloem team in 2013.
What have been the highlights?
Wow, there have been so many, but you know what really gives me a kick? It’s every time I open a bottle of wine I’ve made, and I take that first sip, savouring it with every sense of my being. Usually, it will be at the end of the day, when my husband, Brady and I are catching up. We’ll be relaxing, and for a moment I’ll switch off from everything going on around me, I’ll bring the glass to my mouth and give myself over to the aromas and the richness of flavour and just feel so proud. It happens every time- it’s so great to love your work!
What’s the best part of your job?
The best part of my job is the blending process. It’s a time when we can play around with different building blocks for our wines and be creative. It is also very satisfying to know that at end of the day when you sit and relax with a glass of Zonnebloem wine you realise, “Wow! I helped to create this”.
What is the most challenging part?
In the beginning when I was a newbie to the wine industry it was very hard to be taken seriously. I also found there was a perception that women were not always up to the physical side of winemaking. In the end as you build your name, it gets easier. Now that there is a growing acceptance of the role women can play, there is appreciation for the different perspective we bring that combines focus on detail with the bigger picture.
What is your typical day, or maybe week if days are very different?
The season will determine the tempo and pattern of our days. During the harvest, we work at a very high intensity, because you have to be there when the grapes arrive at the cellar and time is of the essence when it comes to crushing and fermenting. But even after the harvest, when the whites are mostly in tank (although, of course some of our wines are fermented and aged in wood), we are very busy checking on their development and then when we get down to blending.
All our grapes come from Stellenbosch and Zonnebloem has developed long-standing relationships with top wine growers in the area, who supply to us. We vinify the grapes from every vineyard separately, because each expresses different aromas and flavours. We then use each batch as a building block to create a beautifully balanced and pleasing whole. In some cases we can work with as many as 70 batches to create a final wine. This blending process applies whether we are making a wine from a single varietal or from multiple varietals.
During the spring and early summer months, we spend a lot of time in the vineyards to follow the progress of the vines. We also travel across the country, meeting consumers and trade, presenting our wines and getting very valuable feedback.
What are the “secrets” to your success?
Without question, you have to be organised.
As a mom how do you get the balance between your family and career life right? Your tips and tricks? (If applicable)
You must have a good support structure. I am lucky to have my parents living close by should we need help with looking after our little girl, Tiané. Both Brady and I love going to the movies, so a special date night every once in a while is important to us.
What do you do for fun in your down time?
I love reading and whenever there’s time I settle down with a good book. My latest hobby is gardening. I find it very relaxing.
What do you still want to achieve?
I’m excited that Zonnebloem is eco-conscious and has made water and energy saving important priorities. I want us to continue on this path. Personally, I hope to build even further on my experience and expand the scope of my winemaking.
Thanks so much for taking the time to share some insights into what it takes to be a successful woman in wine Michelle! What an inspiration.
If you found this interview inspiring, why not share it with a friend or a young woman who’s making some tough choices about where to go and what to study in the next few years…
And, of course, if you know of an inspiring women who’s making her mark in the world of work please do drop me an email with your suggestion and I’ll do everything I can to feature her in my Women at Work series.
Images: Supplied; Samantha du Toit from ST Photography, supplied by Place in the Sun.