Wine runs in her blood

Isabel Khowa delights in sharing her knowledge and benefits of mentorship, writes Sam Venter

Newly-appointed premium wines account executive for DGB, Isabel Khowa, is a formidable and delightful personality in the wine industry
Newly-appointed premium wines account executive for DGB, Isabel Khowa, is a formidable and delightful personality in the wine industry
Image: Sam Venter

There are a few things one should know about Isabel Khowa: she doesn’t take “no” for an answer, there’s no such thing as a stupid question, and she’s completely not bothered by those who think it strange to find a black woman in the traditionally white, male-dominated wine industry.

“Yes, there was a bit of resistance at first, but I’m a positive person and those who I can’t convert, I just ignore their negativity.“I believe in what I know, and this is who I am,” says a confident Isabel. Through sheer grit, and a healthy dose of chutzpah, Isabel, 45, has risen in the wine industry from a tasting room assistant to the newly-appointed premium wines account executive for DGB (the company many still know as Douglas Green-Bellingham) in the Eastern Cape, Garden Route and KwaZulu-Natal south coast.

Witnessing her in action at a recent tasting for the PE Wine Lovers group, where we were treated to some of the top DGB offerings – from the rich and elegant Boschendal Jean le Long Prestige Cuvée 2008 bubbly through to the sumptuous reds of the Bellingham Bernard Series and Boschendal’s Black Angus and Grande Syrah – showed her experience and skills.

Her warm and engaging personality, together with an infectious passion for wine, a fund of knowledge and hands-on winemaking experience, make her audience quick converts and new wine friends.Isabel’s job as ambassador for DGB’s top-tier wines like the Bellingham Bernard Series and the premium ranges of Boschendal sees her presenting wine tastings and events, assisting restaurants with food-wine pairings and wine lists, and training hospitality industry staff in understanding and serving wine with food. Speaking six of South Africa’s 11 official languages, along with her stance on “there are no stupid questions”, enables her to quickly put people at ease and demystify wine.

Growing up in Port Edward, Isabel says she had a “typical rural childhood – herding cattle, milking cows, working in the banana and cane fields”, while dreaming of travelling the world.Wine has made that dream come true, via a start in studying public administration at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology.There, just as she was finishing up her year-end exams, she saw an advert looking for a part-time tasting room assistant at Fairview - no experience required – but the person needed to be multi-lingual, energetic and enthusiastic.“I looked at it and thought ‘that’s me!’,” she laughs.

From there, Charles Back took her under his wing, taking her through the vineyards and explaining the role of the soil in making wine, showing her the processes in the cellar.

Gardenview Guest House Fri 20 July 2018

Her knowledge and confidence grew in leaps and bounds, and the dream of world travel came true in 2003 when Charles sent her solo to represent Fairview at ProWein in Germany, the world’s largest wine and spirits trade fair.

There followed international exposure for Isabel as the 2005 “Face of WOSA” for Wines of South Africa, the international marketing body for SA wine, and being lured away from Fairview to Stellenbosch Vineyards, where she managed two of their cellars and then became national brand development manager.

Along the way she’s completed the Cape Wine Academy’s diploma course and now has her sights set on doing the final exam this year to reach the sommelier qualification, followed by achieving their Cape Wine Master qualification next year. – “there are currently 101 Cape Wine Masters and I intend to be no more than number 105”.

Although she describes herself as “very lucky – everywhere I have worked, there have always been people who believed in me, someone who saw my potential”, it’s clear there’s been plenty of hands-on hard work too.Her move to DGB saw her becoming the brand ambassador for the flagship Bellingham Bernard Series and getting involved in vineyard work and wine-making with then winemaker Niël Groenewald.

The Bernard Series, especially the fabulous SMV, is “her baby”, she says, exceptionally proud that she worked alongside Niël in the cellar and had a hand in their making and so can share all the intricacies that make them special when presenting them.