“I competed against the best cellar workers in South Africa, worked hard and studied even harder. All these things make me proud of this award,” says De Grendel Wine Estate’s Joseph Phiri, South Africa’s Cellar Worker of the Year.
Joseph adds that his eagerness to learn, seven years of cellar-worker experience in the wine industry, along with his enthusiasm for his work, were major contributing factors towards his success in the competition.
The SA Cellar Worker of the Year Programme, funded by Wine Cellars South Africa and Winetech, aims to recognise all permanent cellar workers in South Africa’s wine industry. The intention of the project is to create role models for cellar workers, thus improving productivity, encouraging healthy relationships, transferring knowledge and promoting training.
There were 102 participants in the first round of the 2012 programme, of which 34 went through to the second round. After delivering a presentation to a panel, 20 cellar workers were chosen to move on to round three. The three finalists were chosen from this group following an intensive wine tasting. Gladys Jafta of Vergelegen and Gerrie Grootboom of Roodezant Wines were included in the top three, along with final winner Joseph Phiri of De Grendel.
“The competition has so many levels: a written exam, a presentation and a wine tasting,” explains Joseph. “I concentrated on the wine tasting in particular because my years of experience at De Grendel had prepared me sufficiently in the other areas. We tasted wine every morning in preparation for this competition. As we don’t have defective wines here, we made a few examples ourselves – with too much sugar, acidity or water. We even left a glass of wine outside to oxidise, just so that I could identify a defective wine!”
Joseph found his presentation – The Costs of Making Wine and the Factors that Influence It – the most demanding aspect of the competition, especially as it was difficult to identify a subject that was fresh and interesting, as well as to be able to speak about it with conviction.
“I wanted to deliver a presentation on a subject no one had touched on before, which would also be relevant. Fortunately I find this an interesting subject myself and that made the whole process easier.”
According to Charles Hopkins, cellar master at De Grendel, this award is significant because of the winemakers’ responsibility regarding the training and equipping of workers within the cellar.
“Being able to say the Cellar Worker of the Year works for us makes us proud and we feel we have achieved something significant. Joseph has travelled a long road with me and has grown in leaps and bounds from the inexperienced worker I met seven years ago. He is curious about everything and isn’t afraid to ask questions, particularly about the cellar and our wines. The fact that we share everything with him prepared him well for the competiton.”
Chairman of the Durbanville Wine Valley Association and cellar master at Diemersdal wine estate, Thys Louw, says this award is a feather in the cap of Durbanville as a wine region and a suitable reward for the time and effort invested in the area’s cellar workers. He also believes it will have a positive ripple effect on the rest of the valley.
“I think this achievement is fantastic for both a cellar worker and a cellar. There is far more team work involved than one would think. I’m talking particularly about the training Joseph received from Charles Hopkins and De Grendel’s winemaker, Elzette du Preez. This is a great incentive for me and the rest of the industry. It shows we can all work together. I’m certain that this accolade will inspire the other cellar workers in our valley to bring home another award.”
Joseph says the cycle of wine production brings many challenges and much excitement into his life, especially during harvest time. “Every harvest comes with its own stimulation and challenges, but it’s always an exuberant time for all of us. We work long, hard hours but when you’re part of a team like the one at De Grendel, it feels more like fun than work.”
His advice to other cellar workers to improve their skills is simple. “Make the most of the opportunities that come your way every day. Ask questions, make sure you understand the tasks you are given, work closely with the wine maker and ensure that he or she knows that you want to be a part of the process. Taste wine regularly, have self confidence and stand up for yourself when it counts.”
Although Joseph has this award to his name, he says he still has much to learn. Apart from his work in the cellar during the week, he works in the storeroom and tasting room over weekends – and this is where his heart truly lies.
“I enjoy marketing wine because I am a sociable person. I love meeting new people and starting interesting conversations. If there’s one area where I’d like to develop more skills, it’s in sales and marketing.”