He knew from the moment that he tasted his first communion wine that wine was his calling, his passion and his future.
But how would a boy from a small village in Ulundi on KwaZuluNatal’s humid north coast find his way to the hot, dry vineyards of the Cape, and acquire the skills he’d need in the process to get his foot in the cellar door?
Fate intervened, and Nelson chanced upon a wine magazine article about South Africa’s burgeoning wine industry and the many programmes being put in place to open it up to previously disadvantaged people. He was still in school at the time, but that didn’t deter him.
“I was so excited, I couldn’t believe it! I called the vineyard straight away and said I wanted to work in the wine industry. We made an agreement; as soon as I had matriculated, I would travel to the Western Cape and begin my journey to working in the wine industry,” Nelson recalls.
Fresh out of school and full of optimism for his future, the ambitious young Nelson travelled to Cape Town where he got a job working in a wine shop. It wasn’t the authentic vineyard experience he’d hoped for, but Nelson knew – like the vines he so desperately wanted to tend – that he would have to start at the bottom and slowly work his way up.
“I was responsible for cleaning the floor, washing the wine glasses, packing the shelves, setting up tastings for clients and later, assisting with wine sales. As time went by I started tasting and smelling wine; I was exposed to many different wines this way and began to acquire more knowledge about wine and the industry. One day I was explaining a wine to a customer in the shop when they asked me if I would be interested in working in a cellar at a wine estate. I jumped at the chance!” he laughs.
Nelson’s passion for wine was obvious, and soon he was employed at Ashanti Wines in Paarl, working under the watchful eye of current Signal Hill owner and winemaker, Jean Vincent Ridon.
So began the journey into wine that Nelson predicted all those years ago, fuelled by his unrelenting desire to live his passion. Today Nelson is assistant winemaker at Delheim Wine Estate where he is involved in every aspect of wine production, from receiving the grapes to bottling.
Since joining Delheim he has really made a name for himself, winning Farm-worker of the Year and Best in Middle Management at the 2016 regional Western Cape Prestige Agri Awards.
Nelson’s story is not unusual, and there are many people from previously disadvantaged backgrounds who wish to pursue a career in the local wine industry. Acknowledging this, the sector stepped up to the plate and actively began recruiting members of local communities to the industry through initiatives like the one that first attracted Nelson.
Today there are many programmes in place aimed at nurturing fresh young talent, as well as that of older farm-workers who have an interest in wine making. The idea behind these programmes is not just that they upskill workers and provide sustainable employment opportunities, but that these new winemakers are ultimately able to branch out and start their own wine ventures.
“I would like to eventually be self-employed, and use all the knowledge I have acquired to make world-renowned wines of my own. I want my wine to be known for its character and quality, and for me to be judged for my skills as a winemaker and not by the colour of my skin,” says Nelson.
While he agrees transformation in the wine sector has come a long way, he says increased opportunities should be created for new, young winemakers using uncultivated land with a view to strengthening the local economy.
“This would not only mean more employment opportunities, but also increase competitiveness in our sector, raising industry standards,” he notes.
There is no recipe for success in the wine industry, but having access to equal opportunities and being guided by credible mentors are the first essential ingredients. To this, Nelson says, aspirant winemakers must add heaps of passion and a large dose of patience – two qualities he has cultivated in abundance.