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Alberta-born Norma Ratcliffe, a founder of Warwick Estate winery and a pioneer of the South African wine industry, in her vineyards near Stellenbosch, South Africa. (Erin Conway-Smith/Erin Conway-Smith/THE GLOBE AND)
Alberta-born Norma Ratcliffe, a founder of Warwick Estate winery and a pioneer of the South African wine industry, in her vineyards near Stellenbosch, South Africa. (Erin Conway-Smith/Erin Conway-Smith/THE GLOBE AND)

World: South Africa

The wine world's African queen Add to ...

gyork@globeandmail.com

The Afrikaner men who reigned over South Africa's wineries in the apartheid era were amused by the former ski instructor from Alberta who was trying to break into their ranks.

She was a foreigner, she didn't speak Afrikaans, she was trying to convert a fruit farm into a winery - and she was a woman in a male-dominated industry.

"I was a bit of a novelty - like their mascot," says Norma Ratcliffe, the first female winemaker to become commercially successful in South Africa. "They couldn't believe that I was making this fabulous wine."

A quarter-century after selling her first bottle of wine, the self-described tomboy from Edmonton is today seen as one of the pioneers of contemporary South African winemaking, an industry that has boomed globally in the post-apartheid years.

Her company, Warwick Estate, has gained recognition as one of the best wineries in the world, with its products often landing in the annual top 100 lists of leading wine magazines. Even in the midst of a global recession, her winery is expanding, adding new buildings to boost its capacity by 30 per cent.

And now she is helping other women breach the barriers to South Africa's wine industry in a mentoring project that involves apprenticeships and networking events. There are 50 women winemakers in Stellenbosch alone, she says, yet none have been invited to join the Cape Winemakers Guild, the elite group of South African winemakers.

Ms. Ratcliffe is still the only woman in history to become a member (and chairwoman) of the Cape Winemakers Guild, which remains a highly exclusive body. "I think it's very bad," she says bluntly. "It's disgusting. They've never had another woman member. The attitude seems to come from the young guys, not the old guys. I'm after them all the time about it."

Ms. Ratcliffe, a science graduate from the University of Alberta and a former competitive skier, was running a restaurant on an island in Greece when she met Stan Ratcliffe, a South African who owned a 200-year-old farm in a stunningly beautiful valley near Stellenbosch, capital of the South African wine industry.

They were married in Edmonton in 1971 - in the middle of a blizzard, to the shock of the South African family members - and then settled at his farm, where they grew pumpkins and cabbages and drove them to local markets at dawn. They soon began to take an interest in wine, planting grapes vines and making experimental wines throughout the 1970s and early 1980s.

The apartheid system was a constant presence in South Africa at that time. An ancient "slave bell" - for calling the workers to the farm - is still visible at Warwick's entrance, a legacy of its history. Until the end of apartheid, the farm's workers were sometimes hauled away by police for lacking the "passes" that blacks were required to carry under the notorious pass laws. And global boycotts kept South African wine out of the international market.

Lacking any background in the wine business, Ms. Ratcliffe started at the bottom. She studied the Afrikaans language, took classes in winemaking, pored through books, bought second-hand equipment, learned to fix pumps and patch leaks in barrels and worked for months at a wine cellar in the Bordeaux region of France. In 1984, she released the first Warwick vintage, a cabernet sauvignon, which became an instant hit.

She credits the valley's rich soil, and the help she got from generous neighbours, as big factors in her success. But she was also innovative: she was one of the first South African winemakers to make Bordeaux-style blends and to put wine into French oak barrels.

Her true genius, however, was the branding and marketing of her wine, which soon built an international name for Warwick, especially after the boycotts were lifted when apartheid ended in 1994. Her winery created the First Lady and Three Cape Ladies vintages, a reference to her pioneering status and her daughter and granddaughter. One of her most famous wines, Warwick Trilogy - a blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc - has become a South African flagship brand and has been served at state dinners.

Her daughter, Jennifer, has inherited her mother's touch for marketing. A wine master and wine judge in her own right, she wrote a sex-themed wine manual entitled Spit or Swallow: A Guide for the Wine Virgin. The book helped to demystify wine and "sold like crazy," her mother says.

Ms. Ratcliffe and her son, Mike, who has taken over management of the winery, still travel the world constantly to market their wines and keep up with global knowledge. "Some of the best information you can get is from a wine bar in Bordeaux," she says.

Although her estate is still considered a boutique winery, it sold 420,000 bottles of wine last year, including 144,000 bottles in the United States and tens of thousands more in Asia and Europe, and managed to remain profitable even during the world recession.

Her Canadian homeland, ironically, has been the toughest market to penetrate. Warwick sells fewer than 5,500 bottles annually in Canada. She blames the stodgy managers of Canada's government-controlled liquor monopolies, who have little knowledge of South African wines.

"They're out of touch," she says. "If they don't sell the wine in a certain period of time, they don't care, they still get their paycheque. They favour volume brands from South Africa - real plonk. Nobody here would touch it. We've been fighting this for a long time."

But the problem of the Canadian liquor boards is far from her mind as she drives around her 127-hectare estate, surveying the vineyards on a beautiful summer day. "Everything is so healthy this year," she marvels. "Everything is looking stunning. We're really full of joy."

Follow on Twitter: @geoffreyyork

 

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