The following interview was originally published by Gilbert & Gaillard in July 2020.
Lizelle Gerber, Nederburg cellarmaster
“It is every winemaker’s pursuit to make excellent wine, no matter what your gender is”
How did you come to the realisation that you wanted to become a winemaker?
I wanted a career that would bring me closer to nature, perhaps because I was not raised on a farm. Had I been, I surely would have been up to much mischief! So, during my first year after school, I felt extremely lucky to have been one of only a few women selected for a one-year stint with the South African National Defence Force (as part of the then SALVKOL, a military school for women situated in George). What an experience! Here I learned perseverance, persistence and precision, all elements that are serving me well in my current career in wine.
But it was after my year in the military, when I visited various educational institutions to find a suitable career for myself, that I became aware of the Elsenburg Agricultural Training Institute of Stellenbosch and its many fields of study. I had never before even considered becoming a winemaker, so that was it! Suddenly the idea gained momentum and not long after, I enrolled to study to become a winemaker. So, in all honesty, it was my total ignorance when it came to wine, that actually triggered my curiosity in this sacred liquid. I’ve been hooked ever since.
Did you ever encounter any “obstacles” because you were a woman?
Maybe I’ve been lucky, but I have not personally experienced major gender stereotyping during my career to date. Winemaking is all about teamwork – everyone has a role to play, and that has nothing to do with gender, in my view. What I do feel is important, is working hand-in-hand with everyone who is part of the team. My career has been shaped substantially by what I learnt from co-workers in the cellar. It’s important – especially at the start of your career – to get your hands dirty. You must understand where it all comes from and how processes happen. Maintaining good relationships is especially crucial.
Have you ever felt you needed to work harder than your male counterparts to prove yourself?
No, not in my experience. Respect for one another regardless of gender or position is key, and this extends to the winemaking process and ingredients. For me, winemaking is about making the best wine in the appropriate style. To identify components that work well together is a challenge and very insightful. It’s great to be able to grow with your wine and to experience the dynamic of this living product. Eventually, we all represent South Africa on the international wine platform.
In what ways would you say that being a woman is an advantage as a winemaker?
It has been said that women are better wine tasters as their senses are more attuned, but I’m not convinced that this is always the case. What I do know for a fact, is that practice makes perfect. The more you taste, the more you learn and discover, the broader your wine knowledge, vocabulary and memory references become. There’s perhaps one aspect that gives female winemakers an advantage, and that’s our natural nurturing instinct. After all, when we create a wine, what we’re essentially doing is nurturing grapes through various steps for them to eventually become wine.
What would you consider to be the highlights of your career so far?
Every single vintage has its own highlights. This is also why the job is never uninteresting. Every year brings the opportunity to create new wines, each with its own personality and charm.