Meet our YNGAL – Jemma Grobbelaar
A chance meeting at last year’s Game of Rhones festival in Auckland started a series of conversations that now sees wine specialist, world traveller, kite surfing champion and part-time model Jemma Grobbelaar as an integral part of the Planet Wine sales and marketing team.
Going to school in the heart of South African wine country gave her an early affinity for the grape, but it wasn’t until her professional kite surfing career (which saw her named amongst the Top 200 Young South Africans in 2010) was cut short by injury, that Jemma started working in the wine industry. Several wineries, a fair amount of international travel and many hours of study later, she settled in New Zealand 18 months ago, and has wasted no time in finding her feet here.
When Jemma is not conducting tastings and presenting the Planet Wine portfolio to stores, restaurants and bars around Auckland, she also holds a position as Fine and Rare Wine Specialist at Mosgreen-Webbs auction house, is in her second year of the WSET Diploma and is working her way towards certification with the Guild of Sommeliers. Oh, and did we mention she walked in last month’s New Zealand Fashion Week?
We managed to tie her down for long enough to answer some questions about her background and what makes her so passionate about working in the wine industry.
Can you remember your first wine ‘experience’?
My most vivid memory is sipping nectar Bellinis with my friend Daisy in Little Easton in Essex. She introduced me to prosecco and we would laze about during the English summer days in a daze of Bellinis and Syd Barret. My first experience of pinotage taught me that it has the heart of a lion and the tongue of a woman; after drinking a certain quantity you can talk forever and fight like the devil!
You went to school in the heart of the Cape winelands. Did that influence your early appreciation of wine?
I went to many schools. A bit of a gypsy that has become engrained into my lifestyle. While I was at school in England I was introduced to Rioja and Bulgarian wine by my dad, who would take me to dinner at The Priory in Cardiff. Then, when we moved back to South Africa, I went to school at Parel Vallei in the heart of Stellenbosch winelands. Iconic wineries Vergelegen, Morgenster and Lourensford were practically on our doorstep and I would love the feeling in the air come harvest time. So much action on the roads. Workers on the backs of bakkies (utes). Glimpses of stained fingers at the petrol station kiosk. Wine talk overheard wherever I was.
How did you get involved in the wine industry?
After my second knee injury I had to stop kite surfing professionally. One door closed and another opened when I got a waitressing job at Vergelegen Wine Estate in Stellenbosch. Quite the fall from a professional kite surfer touring the world non-stop. That progressed to becoming the assistant manager at the estate’s latest offering – Camphors at Vergelegen – a fine dining restaurant.
It was here that I met Christo Deyzel, the sommelier who told me to smell everything. To keep a small diary of smells. He taught me a lot about wine. I was like a sponge. He had an enormous amount of knowledge and training to offer, and I was honoured to learn from him. Just like I am learning from Martin now.
Then of course I have to mention Andre and Maritza van Rensburg. Andre is a formidable winemaker in South Africa. He was ousted from The Cape Winemakers Guild, he is a bit of a rebel and I love that about him. He has a blunt and brash way of doing things but he is salt of the earth and has the biggest heart. I have learnt SO much from them as people and winemakers.
You’ve taken the trouble to complete a lot of formal wine study. Tell us how this impacts the work you do now?
I’m not just another blonde trying to sell you wine! But seriously, it is a great help. Although I do sometimes find myself rattling off things and afterwards I’m like “Geez Jemma, rein yourself in, too much information!” Wine is so in-depth that you can lose yourself and go into so much detail that no one around you knows what you are talking about. So, an important aspect of studying wine is knowing when to use it and to what degree. You don’t want the sommelier at your table to harp on for hours about a wine when all you want is your glass of white wine. A ‘know it all’ is boring, I try to listen to my clients instead of preaching. After all, I don’t know everything about wine; there will always be so much more to learn.
Why have you chosen to work in the wine industry?
It connects people. Food and wine are only incredible in the presence of good company. Wine takes you all over the world. It becomes your connection to a place and its people. I can travel (in my mind) to Spain, South Africa and Chile in one night if I wish. The next morning I can hop over to Champagne for breakfast and stop off in Bordeaux for lunch. There are endless learning opportunities and the opportunity to meet really inspiring people along the way.
It’s fair to say you’re quite an international traveller. What would you rate as your favourite wine destination?
Travelling was school for me before I started studying wine. My favourite wine destination, now you’re asking something! Hmmm. Look, I have got to be honest here. South Africa. The combination of natural beauty, an array of diverse varieties, climates, terroirs and the Swartland Revolution are all draw cards. Vergelegen itself, where I used to work, has got 400 year old Camphor Trees, Camelia gardens, a homestead, orchards, vineyards, restaurants, libraries and rose gardens to show off, and proud peacocks prancing around the estate all day. They have leopards in the mountains, owls perched with their babies on the Camphor trees and a magical Yellowwood forest. Sound like an advert? Believe me, it’s better! A must see when visiting Stellenbosch. Then, right next door is Morgenster, where you can sample glorious olive oil and balsamic vinegar that received its seal of approval in Modena.
Do you have a personal favourite wine/varietal?
I love my voluptuous, inky, oozing, full bodied, vivacious red wines. Whether it is a Châteauneuf-du-Pape, a South African Bordeaux-style blend, grenache noir, a Gran Reserva Rioja or a carmenere. And if I could plant my own vineyard it would consist of plenty of cabernet franc.
What wine would you take along to a dinner party to impress your hosts?
Depends who they are. I wouldn’t take a really good bottle to a dinner party if they don’t appreciate good wine. I’d rather take them a six pack of quaffers! For the hosts who appreciate good wine, I would take a bottle of Sadie Family Soldaat (grenache noir) from Swartland in South Africa.
You’ve also worked as a chef and restaurant manager, so you’ll be adept at matching food and wine. What is your personal favourite match?
You can’t beat a meaty syrah with a chunky sirloin steak.
What regions or wines do you find are proving the most in demand from Planet Wine’s portfolio at the moment?
Pisco from Chile, pinotage from South African and torrontes from Argentina.
How did you first become aware of Planet Wine?
I met Martin while floating around the 2015 Game of Rhones tasting with my WSET diploma fellow student Flo, winemaker at Delegat/Oyster Bay. We came across Belinda and Martin superbly dressed up as characters from Game of Rhones. I told Martin that I, too, was South African and told him, “Look I need to send you my CV.” Eight months later I did. I am truly blessed to be working with such an incredible person and mentor. Haven’t looked back!
What is it that you appreciate about working with the Planet Wine portfolio?
Work? What work? It’s all for the love of liquid gold and sunshine in a glass!!