Talitha Venter

Backsberg Estate Cellars
For Talitha Venter, being hands-on means exactly that: getting manually stuck in to the physical aspects her job entails.

For Talitha Venter, being hands-on means exactly that: getting manually stuck in to the physical aspects her job entails.

Despite holding an MSc Agric degree in viticulture which might make one assume theory and laboratories are more Talitha’s forte, she is at her happiest out there in the vineyards. And if this involves fixing a tractor or mending a piece of irrigation equipment along the way, even better.

“One of the reasons I was attracted to work for Backsberg was because the position involved a bit of mechanical know-how of farm equipment along with viticulture,” she says. “I love working with vines. My studies have given me a deep sense of wonder at, and fascination with this amazing plant. As well as the role a viticulturist has in ensuring the winemaker gets quality fruit with which to make good wine.

“But I have always been a bit of machine and car nut,” says Talitha, who hails from South Africa’s motor city of Port Elizabeth. “I love tinkering with engines and any bits of machinery. And believe me, here a working wine farm such as Backsberg gives me ample opportunity to be hands-on - in the vineyard, the tractor garage or the repairs room.”

Studying at Stellenbosch University for a BSc degree in oenology and viticulture, she chose to concentrate on the plant itself. “A famous South African viticulturist, Professor Eben Archer, gave us a lecture and demonstration once, right up on a hillside in the vineyards. I can’t explain what it was, but the way he spoke about the vine and the attention it needs throughout the various seasons just grabbed my imagination.”

So much so that Talitha ended up completing a post-graduate MSc degree.

“After my BSc, I spent three years as a viticulturist at Thelema Mountain Vineyards in Stellenbosch, before I felt I needed to go back to university to learn more about my subject,” she says.

During this time as a part-time student Talitha worked as a technical officer in viticulture for the Institute of Grape and Wine Sciences at the University of Stellenbosch. And as an MSc graduate she lectured at Elsenburg Agricultural Training Institute before deciding to hang-up the white laboratory coat and return to farm life.

“As a student becoming aware of the Cape wine industry, Backsberg is one of the icon farms you hear about due to its tremendous legacy and the pioneering role the Back family has played here,” she says. “So it is a great honour to be given this opportunity - not only to work alongside visionaries such as Michael and Simon Back, but to be a part of a wine estate with such a tremendous reputation.”

“I must ensure the grapes that reach the cellar are of the best quality for our winemaker Alicia (Rechner) and her team to work with,” she says. “Alicia likes to check on the vineyards, too, and it is a bonus to work alongside your winemaker in deciding how we can deliver wines of quality and a style worthy of the Backsberg label.”

Biggest challenge?

“You can’t manage or predict nature, you can only work with her,” says Talitha. “You can have the best viticulture skills, the best equipment, the best techniques but at the end of the day you are in the hands of the Gods.”

She describes Backsberg’s terroir as stunningly expressive for growing various varieties of grapes, and there is no better time to be in the wine industry than now.

“We have shown that South Africa can make wines of the quality matching the best in the world,” she says. “The next step is to grow an awareness of regional identity and site-specific character of our wines. This is something Sydney Back was already propagating 40 years ago, but an aspect the current generation of winemakers and viticulturists has to make happen.”

When not tending to vineyards or fiddling about under the hoof of a car, Talitha plays classical saxophone and clarinet for among others Stellenbosch University Symphonic Wind Ensemble. Although accompanying the growth cycle of Backsberg vines to any tunes is not yet on the horizon.