What does a viticulturist do?

Published on August 25th, 2011
What does a viticulturist do?

We caught up with Unathi Mantshongo to find out more about her very interesting career…

What exactly do you do?
My job involves growing premium grapes for our brands. I do this in liaison and consultation with our grape growers throughout the year.

What I am literally doing every day depends entirely on the time of the season. From January to March I am busy making harvesting decisions, taking samples from our vineyards and completing any experiments that I had running for the season.

From April to June I am evaluating the season, looking at the different cultivars, yields, colour analysis results, etc. This is also the time to start sowing cover crops in the vineyards. I meet with all the respective grape growers to discuss the harvest past and to start planning for the harvest coming.

From July to mid-September, I visit all of our farms to make and implement pruning recommendations in order to obtain the optimal yield of the vineyard without compromising on quality.

From September to December we are busy with summer canopy management actions. We do this to ensure that there is enough light penetrating the canopy at the most critical time of the season. These actions are really important as they affect fertility in the coming seasons and flavour development in the current season. These actions are also very important in ensuring that we reduce disease incidence in the canopy.

From January to March it’s time to harvest all over again. My job is very interesting as every season is different; Mother Nature makes sure of it!

Why did you decide to study viticulture & oenology?
I did not specifically want to study this course; I knew that I wanted to work outdoors with a scientific background. So I applied for a number of bursaries in the building environment and natural sciences as well. Fortunately for me the B.Sc viticulture and oenology had the most comprehensive bursary and the rest is history…

How did you get here?
I started applying for various bursaries in grade 11 already. My mom was helping me and she found a bursary from the National Department of Agriculture in the Sunday Times newpaper. I applied, and four years later I graduated from Stellenbosch University with a degree that not a lot of people even knew about. I was recruited by KWV South Africa as a trainee before I had even completed my final-year exams. The company agreed to fund my honours degree and I have been working at KWV since 2008.

What subjects did you need to pursue your career?
Mathematics, science, biology, English and Afrikaans (the course is offered in Afrikaans only at Stellenbosch University and Elsenburg College).

What drives you crazy?
When Mother Nature throws us a curveball during or just before harvest. It takes us a full year to prepare and it can all be reversed with just one too many heatwaves.

What’s the best part of your job?
When our wines win international awards and I know that I have had a part in it!!

Is there anything that still baffles you?
The grapevines’ ability to survive various extreme weather conditions. The grapevine is a really complex and hardy plant.

Tell us about a challenge you faced that you solved using your knowledge and skills.
I disagreed with a colleague on something and we were each convinced that we were right. In order to solve the problem I turned it into a challenge and in one week we both had to collect as much literature as possible in order to support our arguments. I asked another experienced colleague to be an independent objective mediator and we each got a chance to ‘plead our case’.

In the end we were both right but it was only that the newest literature available on the topic was not available to both of us. Through this exercise we both learnt more about a topic that we clearly did not know enough about.

My ability to read, understand and explain scientific articles was renewed and the whole exercise was good for all involved!

Did you enjoy maths and science at school?
Certain parts of it yes. In maths I preferred algebra to geometry, and in science I preferred chemistry to physics.

What are your top three gadgets?
I am not really a gadgets person, so I guess it would be my cellphone, my boyfriend’s iPad and a good book!

Any words of wisdom for aspiring viticulturists?
Have an open mind to everything and everyone you encounter, in your studies and in life. It’s the only way you are going to grow and learn more about other people and yourself.

Be prepared to learn from people from all walks of life. When you leave varsity with your degree, do not think that a farm worker can not teach you anything. Respect experience.

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