Howard Booysen’s name is slowly gaining in popularity within the local wine industry. He is the first black apprentice selected to study the art of winemaking by the prestigious Cape Winemakers Guild, which comprises 41 independent winemakers.
A Capetonian by birth, Booysen always had “an appetite to explore the unknown”. After finishing high school, he tried his hand at IT and deep-sea engineering, but the hospitality industry beckoned and, for a few years, he worked as a waiter and barman.
He enjoyed what he was doing and then enrolled with Elsenburg Agricultural College in Stellenbosch and went on to obtain a BAgric degree in cellar technology and viticulture. He immersed himself in the world of winemaking, gaining considerable skills, which saw him become a much sought-after wine judge for local and international competitions and magazines.
In 2010 Booysen launched his debut wine, Weisser Riesling, and he hopes to follow this up with his first red wine this year.
What sparked your interest in winemaking?
I didn’t exactly know what I wanted to do. I started off by studying information technology. I scrapped the idea and became a trainee engineer at sea on a deep-sea trawler as a gap year while deciding what I wanted to do. I then fell in love with hospitality — a viticulturist came and gave us a wine lesson and tasting, and I knew immediately that this was what I wanted to study.
Was there a particular individual who influenced you in following a career in this area?
The presentation by the viticulturist initially sparked my interest in wine-making. My dad also played a huge part in my decision by sharing his knowledge of the subject and where to study it. A visit to a wine estate possibly sealed the deal.
Briefly explain what winemaking is all about.
Winemaking starts in the vineyard. Firstly, you need to understand nature, soil, terroir (aspects such as climate and trellising) and what should be planted where. Then you need to understand the plant itself, its different varietals, and how its production cycle works. Then you have to know the optimum harvesting time and techniques.
Here, the management of people creeps in as well, because it is not something you do by yourself. Quality management is a key aspect, because this translates to the wine eventually. Once you bring your grapes to the cellar, the production process starts. You have to convert the grapes to juice form first. Clarification and then inoculation (adding of yeast) follows. After these key processes, fermentation (the conversion of sugar to alcohol) starts. With reds, separation of grape skins out of the must follows; with whites, this happens right at the beginning. More stabilisation and clarification happens before filtration and bottling.
What subjects should learners take at school if they want to end up in a career such as yours?
Maths, science, biology, computing and engineering.
What subjects did you choose in grade 10?
English, Afrikaans, maths, science, biology and computer science.
What are your highest qualifications and where did you study?
I have a BAgric degree in oenology and viticulture which I completed at Elsenburg Agricultural College in Stellenbosch.
What do you do when you are not working?
Fire-dancing to relax, otherwise I spend my time resting while watching series.
Why would you say it is important for young people to choose a career in winemaking?
They get exposed to relevant and interesting things that they can use in their daily living. It is an ongoing learning curve that helps you think laterally and helps you express your creative and innovative side.
What sort of marks would they need to get into university?
A matric exemption in any two of maths, science and biology is a must. When accepted, a part-time job in the industry helps to distinguish you from the rest and show your true interest in wine. For older candidates, subjects aren’t such a huge factor, but it surely helps.
What are the job opportunities like locally?
The wine industry is quite small and fairly limited, but if you are passionate, hardworking and have entrepreneurial skills and are driven, you have nothing to worry about. For senior winemakers, the opportunities are a bit limited.
Which institutions offer studies in wine making?
Stellenbosch University and Elsenburg Agricultural College.
What are the job and study opportunities overseas like?
What’s beautiful about wine is that it is a little global village. People happily accept students from every country. There are various exchange programmes, and work is freely available in most wine-producing countries.