Norma Ratcliffe hoists a glass of Warwick Wine Estate’s finest.
Forty years ago, Norma Ratcliffe, ’69 BSc(HEc), left the U of A with an insatiable wanderlust. Today, her roots are firmly planted on a South African hillside where she creates some of the region’s most celebrated wines.
A white 1996 Mitsubishi Pajero navigates its way along the steep dirt roads in the Stellenbosch wine country in early July 2010. The SUV’s well-maintained shocks can’t hide how rough the hillside trail alongside a vineyard is.
It’s winter here in South Africa, so this vineyard’s vines are bare and trimmed, but the rows are well-defined, allowing the late-morning sun to show the region’s lush beauty in the shadow of Simonsberg, or Simon’s Mountain.
Norma Ratcliffe, the truck’s driver, points out a jackal buzzard taking advantage of the thermals drifting off the hillside above as she patiently coaxes the vehicle up the rutted roads with obvious experience and self assurance. She then launches into stories of the area’s history — and her own.
Warwick Wine Estate, which stretches for 54 hectares in the Stellenbosch-Simonsberg region, was established by Ratcliffe and her late husband over 20 years ago, and since then it has developed into one of the Western Cape’s top wine-producing properties.
Like the dirt roads the 62 year old currently drives, her life’s path has been circuitous and unexpected. But it was her trailblazing spirit that led this Alberta girl to become known as the “Grande Dame” of South African wine.
In 1969, Ratcliffe graduated from the University of Alberta with a bachelor of science in Clothing and Textiles before heading to Montreal to work for Burlington Industries. Although her specialty of textile chemistry wasn’t directly related to her eventual career, she sees a similarity between it and winemaking: “I think that chemistry has helped me a lot here,” she says. “You don’t think it does, but it does. Wine is science, basically.”
While in Montreal she befriended a like-minded woman, and the two hatched the idea to travel to Switzerland in 1970. She admits it didn’t take too much convincing for her to leave her job and head off across the Atlantic. “It was a great job, but I had itchy feet,” she remembers. “Like a lot of people of that age, I just earned enough money to go somewhere.”
Thanks to obtaining her skiing instructor certification in Montreal, Ratcliffe, a one-time competitive skier, had the perfect credentials to make the most of her time in the snow-capped Swiss Alps. But once the season ended her wanderlust resurfaced. In 1971 another girlfriend suggested a new adventure, a Greek adventure. Ratcliffe agreed. They eventually settled on the island of St. Stefanos, where they shared a flat and a waitressing job at a nearby restaurant.
One day her friend came back to their apartment and said that she had met a couple of nice South Africans.
The two men were apparently sailing through some of Greece’s famous waterways, visiting the many islands and islets. The friend arranged for them all to get together later. It turned out to be a propitious evening, one which would lead to her next adventure: marriage.
“I think it was one of those chemical reactions,” she says of meeting Stan, her future husband. After a speedy courtship Stan eventually went home to South Africa, but the two young globetrotters kept in touch while Norma put her efforts towards making enough money to pay for the journey to Africa’s southern tip.
South Africa sort of caught her off guard. “I arrived here and said, ‘Wow, this is gorgeous,’ ” she recalls. But the county’s beauty was offset by its regrettable policy of apartheid. However, thanks to living in the country’s more progressively liberal Western Cape province, Ratcliffe managed to acclimatize to her new home and, with Stan, got down to the business of living. She soon gave birth to a son and a daughter.
Stan, a farmer with a business degree, owned property north of Stellenbosch, which the newly married couple decided to cultivate to produce grapes for the region’s many wineries.
Having mastered the grape growing, Ratcliffe eventually decided to try her hand at winemaking itself. Once her children were old enough to attend boarding school, she dove headfirst into the task. In 1984, with second-hand equipment and local help, she produced 1,500 cases of Cabernet Sauvignon, still her best-regarded wine, she says.
The Warwick Wine Estate grounds stretching toward Simon’s Mountain
But after the first barrels she realized there was still much to learn.“I made experimental wine all through the ’70s and came out with the ’84 and found out how much I didn’t know.” More studying followed, but this time in France. “I did a season in Bordeaux.”
It was here she learned the art of winemaking, gaining the knowledge that she’d bring back to turn Warwick Wine Estate into a top producer of wines. Stan managed the earth and the finances, and Norma focused on the winemaking. “It was a good team,” she says. “We added on and added on.”
In 1986 they produced Warwick Trilogy, a Bordeaux-style blend. It combined Ratcliffe’s chemistry background with what she had learned in southwestern France to produce what would become one of Warwick’s flagship vintages. They were on their way.
But South Africa’s politics kept full success at arm’s length.
Although many white South Africans, the Ratcliffes included, didn’t support or embrace the government’s oppressive policy of apartheid, they were affected by its stigma. International opinion was strong, and, as a result, embargoes and sanctions had been placed on the country for years. South Africa’s industries developed in isolation, winemaking included. While they were successful and profitable within their own borders, true success was unreachable without the support or wealth of the international market.
All that changed on February 11, 1990, when Nelson Mandela was released after spending 27 years in prison. Ratcliffe says this moment — even before the first fully democratic elections four years later — was the beginning of something new. “From the day Mandela walked out of jail, the doors opened,” reflects Ratcliffe. “From that day on people were flocking here wanting to buy wine. It started turning into a big business in 1990. It was a whole new ball game.”
Ratcliffe with her son Michael.
Timing seemed to work out perfectly for Warwick Estates. When the international market opened up, South Africa’s winemakers were ready for it, as a whole, thanks to shared self-interest.
There’s a sense of community amongst the winemakers of South Africa, and Stellenbosch in particular, that Ratcliffe believes is unique to her adopted home. Ironically, it’s a product of the isolation resulting from the dark days of sanctions and embargoes.
Ratcliffe remembers a conversation early in her winemaking days with an established winemaker. “He said ‘We want to help you,’ ” she says. “ ‘We don’t want anyone in this area making bad wines.’ ” As a result they assisted her, gladly handing over the second-hand equipment to start her off.
“You come back with all this knowledge,” she says of travelling to other wine regions, “and you share it. You have meetings and tell everyone what you’ve seen. How they’re doing this test or how they’re pruning. What they’re doing to the vineyards. What you think is valuable.”
As well as passing down this knowledge to fellow winemakers, Ratcliffe has passed it down to her children, Michael and Jenny. Michael now holds the position of managing director of Warwick Wine Estate and is an ever-present figure on the property, handling day-to-day business. He admits he’s learned much from his mother, in particular, her ability to maintain healthy business relationships with clients.
Ratcliffe with members of the family circle, which includes a large contingent of canine companions.
“The most important thing is good old fashion letter writing,” he says of keeping in contact with clients. “They get a handwritten thank you note, with a stamp on it, and they remember that forever.”
Relationships are important to the “Grande Dame.” Although her winery has played host to many notable figures, including Desmond Tutu, Leonardo DiCaprio and Burt Bacharach (her personal favourite), Norma’s family will always come first. As a testament to her priorities, she politely halted our interview several times to gather visiting grandchildren into her arms and hear their latest news.
An even more tangible reminder of the estate’s family roots can be found amongst the vines. Driving her vehicle through the vineyard, Ratcliffe stops to point out a stone cross on a freshly groomed portion of a ridge. She mentions that it has been placed in memorial for Stan. It faces towards Cape Town harbour, in tribute to his love of sailing.
From the spot near the cross Ratcliffe looks out across the mist-shrouded valleys with that certain pride reserved for those who make a living off the land. Her legacy appears to be secure. Warwick Wine Estate is, first and foremost, a family endeavour.