Marylou Nash – University of Colorado Boulder

After travelling the world, Mary-Lou Nash, 50, never expected to settle, and find success, in the Cape winelands

As I swirl and then sip on the fruity notes of a bottle of Shiraz I’ve produced, I think how many people would love the excuse to taste wine as a part of their job – and how fortunate I am to do just that. Strangely enough, I had always been a beer drinker, and my passion for wine only started in my late twenties, when I was thrown in the deep end of a first harvest of grapes at my dad’s newly acquired farm in Agter-Paarl. Along with two farm workers and their wives, I picked more than 2 000 kilos of grapes and drove the load to the co-op in an old Fiat tractor and a three-ton truck.

Marylou Nash – University of Colorado Boulder Photo Gallery

Picking grapes in a bikini with only a pair of secateurs, and not understanding a word of Afrikaans, I had no idea what was in store for me; if someone had told me that 20 years later I’d be managing the vineyard, I wouldn’t have believed them. I’m originally from the US, and before coming to South Africa, my only wine experience was drinking magnums of cheap Chilean wine in the evenings while sailing off the coast of Maine with my dad on his yacht.

I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of New Hampshire in 1989. My major was in anthropology, and I wanted to travel and learn about other countries and cultures, so I took up an opportunity to teach English in Asia. In 1990, I ended up in Japan’s Mie Prefecture, where I spent two years teaching English at a remote primary school. At the end of my time there, I had saved enough money to travel, so I spent the next three years backpacking through the likes of China, Australia, Thailand, and Tibet. During this time, my dad decided to buy a run-down wine farm on the western slope of Paarl Mountain, and he relocated to South Africa to retire. My travels were coming to an end, so I told my dad that if he paid for my food and drink, I would stay for a year on the farm and manage it for him. But after that first grape harvest, I was hooked on wine-making – I chose to stay on longer at the farm.

As I knew nothing about grape farming or wine-making – all my wine experience came from sharing a bottle of it with friends – I enrolled in Cape Wine Academy courses to learn more. We also got expert advice from a viticulturist on what types of grapes suited the farm the best, and got the soil analysed, so we could plant the right grapes, choosing the mid-ripening reds of Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon. The vineyard is dry land with no irrigation so we prune and crop to ensure healthy, low-yielding vines. When our first vintage of Black Pearl wines was released in 2001, it was a hit. I started out with very little money, or experience, and built my business slowly from just eight barrels of wine and a very basic cellar. It was hard work, but the rewards have been huge. I received my Cape Wine Master’s degree in 2011, along with the award for Excellence in Brandy.

I have been a finalist twice in Diners Club Winemaker of the Year as well as Woman Winemaker of the Year. Our Black Pearl wine has received gold medals and is sold overseas – I’m told it’s the most popular South African wine sold by the glass at Disneyland and Disney World in the US. I now have two daughters (who are both fluent in Afrikaans!), and I am so happy to have made Paarl my home – and wine-making my career. I still drive the tractor on the farm, but instead of having a sense of panic at harvest time, I now have a sense of pride. Turning your passion into a business takes courage, but my advice for other entrepreneurs is: just do it – everything else will follow.

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