She's a mean pool player, she loves shopping for bags and shoes but if truth be told, she's really happiest in the country, says Stellenbosch born-and-bred Natasha Williams (29), the new Two Oceans winemaker. "Give me the smell of the soil and I'm at peace."
Focused and ambitious, she's worked hard to get where she is, with a portfolio of refreshing, smooth-drinking wines sold at great value prices from coast to coast in over 80 countries worldwide.
"I won a scholarship to study viticulture and winemaking at Stellenbosch University and was on my way but then the donor went bankrupt after my first year. Luckily, the Department of Agriculture was extending opportunities to students and I could continue my studies. But before I did, I thought long and hard whether this was where I wanted to be. It was only then that I discovered how much I wanted this career, and I've never stopped wanting it!
"Something my dad taught me is that the world doesn’t owe you anything. You have to work for what you want. Neither of my parents was in a position to complete their schooling but that's never stopped them encouraging their kids all the way. My father instilled in us a thirst for knowledge and an awareness of the world. My mother has always motivated us to be the very best we can. They are my biggest fans!”
Why wine? "My mother's a really great cook and works with aromatic Asian spices and layering of flavours every day of her life. I guess the taste for flavour, if you like, came from growing up in her kitchen. But also, growing up in Stellenbosch, the heart of the Cape Winelands, makes wine a key part of many people's lives here."
Her grandfather also played a major role. "He applied the same rule to all the grandchildren. When we came of legal drinking age, he introduced us to wine. He wanted us to appreciate and respect wine and not abuse it. That made sense but we had no idea how much wine really meant to him. It was only after his death that we found books on wine among his possessions. Ironically, one of them has a picture of the cellar where I work now."
Of all the wines she makes, she loves Sauvignon blanc most. "Like a woman, it must be handled with care. It's a very fragile variety and super-sensitive to its environment in the vineyard but also the cellar. It's very hands-on. Actually, make that high-maintenance! It demands your utmost concentration. It stretches you and that's what I love: a really good challenge."
She's hungry to keep learning and extend her skills and her repertoire. Once a month, she and her colleagues take part in benchmark tastings. "We taste wines from all over the world, accross the style and pricing spectrum to keep us in touch with international trends. It's a fantastic opportunity to try wines we might otherwise never have access to. It's a brilliant – and most enjoyable! - part of the job."
It's also what spurs her on to try different concepts like making white wine from red grapes or white wine the way red wine is traditionally made. "You learn so much when you work outside your regular parameters and it helps to relook the way you do routine things. Experimenting like this has helped me focus on optimising colour in our Pinot Grigio, for instance.”
She doesn't mind the long hours or the road shows, in fact she loves it all. "When you meet the people drinking the wine you make, you feel proud and humble at the same time. It's such a massive responsibility to create wines they will enjoy and remember. When you get it right, it's hugely satisfying."
And when she's not working? "What luck to live in one of the most beautiful parts of the world: magnificent white, sandy beaches, two different coastlines with different landscapes, different currents, dramatic mountain views. From when we were kids, we used to spend our holidays on the beach, fishing, collecting mussels, picking up shells. There's nothing like a vigorous, bracing swim to give you back your mojo!"
When she's not thinking about food and wine pairings ("I love Two Oceans Pinot Grigio with four seasons pizza and sushi, and our Cabernet/Merlot blend with Malay-style curries"), she likes to relax with music. "I like a fusion of sounds. Give me instruments and vocals, jazz with a modern sound and I'm happy!"
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