Friday, February 15, 2013

Caryl toasts: Wine--A Love Story, Part 2

And, Our Romantic Heroine is A Feminist!

Norma Ratcliffe, the African Queen of Wines

I think you’re going to like this second-life profile; it’s a story of travel and romance, family and fulfillment, of transforming a corner of your world into a global platform. It’s a real woman’s story, one that’s inspiring and instructive. At the end you’ll get a buying tip from the woman herself for one of the most delicious red wines you’ve probably never heard of. Remember red wines are good for you--and your memory.

Pictures from my own South African wine-tasting trip.  And yes, those are all for me!

I learned about South African wines last December when I traveled to Franschoek (you must see the hotel where I stayed) and Stellenbosch for weekend of tasting with my friend Betsy. But I only learned about Norma Ratcliffe, owner of Warwick Estate and First Lady of South African wines when Maryl and I started doing research for our posts on oenology. (Put that word on your SAT list).

First Life: Travel and Romance

Growing up in Alberta, Canada, Norma was a tomboy who loved to ski. She graduated from the University of Edmonton with a degree in chemistry and planned to work in the textile industry. But wanderlust changed her course. She and a girlfriend traveled to France and Switzerland supporting themselves with odd jobs including ski instructor for Norma. Later, the pair moved on to the Greek islands where they worked at a restaurant in St. Stefanos. One day they met a couple of dashing young men from South Africa who were sailing the Ionian Sea. One of the fellows was Stan Ratcliffe who owned a 300-year-old farm just north of Stellenbosch. Soon after, Norma and Stan returned to Canada, got married in a snowstorm—Stan was freaked by the white stuff—and then hurried back to the farm to tend the vines, fruit vines but not a single grape .

Even in the early years of her marriage with two small children in tow, Norma would study viniculture at night.  She traveled to France’s Bordeaux region to learn to blend grapes—and persuaded Stan to plant cabernet sauvignon grapes on the farm. The couple was  among the first in their region to order the expensive 225-litre French oak barrels, and together they taught themselves to make wines. In 1986, they released Trilogy, a cabernet sauvigon, cabernet franc and merlot blend, that put their fledging vineyard on the map—at least the map of Africa.

Second Life: Family and Fulfillment

Fast forward into the 21st century when Norma Ratcliffe becomes recognized as the first lady of South African wines and is credited with modernizing the once provincial industry. This is no small feat given that when she started out she was not only a foreigner who spoke no Afrikaner but also a woman in a male-dominated industry in a country where apartheid still existed. "I was a bit of a novelty--like their (the white men's) mascot. They couldn't believe I was making this fabulous wine." Today, Ratcliffe has used her success to begin a mentoring project for 50 female winemakers in Stellenbosch alone. In addition, she offers exchange programs to the U.S. and France for black workers at Warwick Estate. She makes certain her employees are among the best paid in the region and provides benefits including financial support to buy their homes.

Norma (center) with daughter Jenny and son Mike

The family matriarch is also pleased that her children have chosen to join the business, though she would never have forced it upon them. Her son Mike is the managing director of Warwick; daughter Jenny, a Cordon Bleu-trained chef, became the country’s youngest Cape Wine Master. And, a granddaughter has expressed interest in wine making, holding out the promise of a third generation dedicated to the craft. On the lush estate, there is a small simple cross that faces the Capetown habor, a tribute to Norma’s late husband Stan and his love of sailing. 

Antique wedding chalice (left) of 14 Norma has collected
In her long career, Norma Ratcliffe has received many professional accolades and a few unofficial ones. Michelle Obama, on a visit to South Africa, named a Warwick cabernet sauvignon her favorite. It was appropriately called The First Lady even before FLOTUS fell in love with it. In a less politically-correct appreciation, the most recent James Bond trades in his martinis for a bottle of Three Cape Ladies in an attempt to seduce his date. He uncorks the bottle, takes a sip of the smooth, peppery blend, and pronounces it: “Wonderful.” (How's that for product placement?)

Three Cape Ladies is indeed the star, a stand-out among all Warwick’s wines. It made the Wine Spectator’s influential top 100 and in the process signaled that South African vintners had finally come of age and global prominence.  Norma Ratcliffe is justifiably proud of this vintage with what she calls “the funky label”, the only one of its kind among Warwick's more traditional labels. The drawing of the three ladies (right) is based on Victorian women who used to collect grapes in baskets they carried on their heads. If you want to learn why the label’s meaning is doubly potent to Ratcliffe as well as discover what secret indigenous ingredient she added to the blend to adapt it to American tastes, you’ll want to watch her video below. And,  you'll want to buy a bottle of Three Cape Ladies for yourself to toast her remarkable legacy.

1 comment:

  1. I do love some of the South African wines. It is many years now since I have visited the region but I remember it as being stunningly beautiful. Inspiring story