Sobering thought: How wine fuels all-female firefighting crew

Sobering thought: How wine fuels all-female firefighting crew
Harvesting Pinotage, 2021. (Photo: Charl Steenkamp)

The Juliet Crew firefighting unit comprises young adults from at-risk communities, and a portion of sales of Huis van Chevallerie Circa Pinotage Brut Rosé bubbly goes towards equipping them.

Going against every natural human instinct, firefighters are the ones who run towards a blaze instead of away from it. Among these is Juliet Crew, an all-female team which tackles blazes in the wildlands and mountains of the Western Cape. Leading them is superintendent Kylie Paul. 

Firefighting is a male-dominated world, and Paul is acutely aware of this, being told that Juliet’s members not only have to be the best women, but the best crew on the fire line. “You can’t drop it. They’ll remember the fall, not the rise.”

Someone who understands this is winemaker Christa von La Chevallerie, who has been in another traditionally man’s industry, that of agriculture, for decades. And on farms, often remote, fire is always a threat, be it natural or human-made. These factors inspired her to become involved with Juliet Crew, and a portion of proceeds from the sale of her Huis van Chevallerie Pinotage Brut Rosé goes to them.

“The whole thing resonated with me, when after 20 years of farming you realise you are in a position to give something back, be it time or money. It’s easy to give away money!” she chuckled.

“I’ve farmed in Paardeberg, and when there’s a fire, farmers, it doesn’t matter what their differences are, you get together to deal with it. I’ve had it on my doorstep and lost 20 hectares of grazing for my cattle. That has financial implications because you have to buy feed. Galvanised wire fencing begins to deplete and rust, which incurs another financial burden. 

“A friend from Working on Fire said, ‘it’s easy – you’re a woman, you’re working in agriculture, there’s a firefighting team, all women. They need support’. I looked into it.

“Supporting women just because they’re women is easy but I know that plight. I’ve been in agriculture for 30 years and I thought back to the days when I was the only woman among eight female winemakers, the things we were confronted with in terms of attitudes and egos…you mustn’t fight but you definitely need to stand up for yourself earlier than you think you have to. 

“I always kept my mouth shut, but if that dirty joke makes you as a woman feel uncomfortable, you are allowed to say that. I’m not against men, I’ve got the best male mentors who taught me everything I know about wine making but they also taught me humanly, egotistically, everything else. If we say, no we don’t like it, can’t we just be respected for that? It’s not a challenge.”

Juliet Crew was established in 2019 by NCC Environmental Services, a consultancy providing specialist environmental, health, safety, risk, sustainability, training and quality management services, and integrated conservation biodiversity management; along with Working On Fire, a government-funded, job-creation programme focusing on implementing integrated fire management in South Africa; and youth leadership development NPO Chrysalis Academy, from where the first members of the team were recruited.

Paul, a former teacher who also has an environmental management degree, works in the fire division at NCC; she moved to Cape Town from Pretoria to work with fynbos. “It’s such a mind blowing miracle and I wanted to be here to help protect it. I wanted to be on the frontline but never imagined it would be as a firefighter,” she said. Paul was headhunted from Volunteer Wildfire Services by NCC MD Dean Ferreira, to establish the all-female crew in 2019.

Juliet crew fights wildland fires on the frontline. (Photo: Charl Steenkamp)

The women couldn’t be integrated immediately because there were no facilities and no uniforms for them. While NCC pays their salaries, they remain entirely self-funded – equipment, tools, uniforms, vehicles – and rely on sponsorships and donations. The big goal is to get them their own base, a home. “We’re kind of squatting at Vergelegen in Somerset West at the moment,” said Paul.

The need for proper kit might seem relatively small in the greater scheme of things, but Paul has spent three years in the wrong size boots: sixes for three years, fives for one year and now she has fours. She takes a size three. Add to that about 20kg of equipment and tools and safety gear, hiking over rough terrain, and it’s no wonder Paul tore both Achilles tendons as a result.

“We’re about to be sponsored by a Spanish company that is tailoring uniforms for us, properly fitted, from measuring each member’s biceps and necks,” she said. “We are the first female crew to ever receive a kit specially designed for us – in the world. It’s a universal issue. Western cape is actually doing better than most other countries.”

The region is also doing well in terms of numbers. The global average number of volunteer female firefighters is 3% to 5%; here it’s 30% to 40%.

“We fight wildland fires; roads are where the structural city guys go, and when the fire leaves the road it becomes our jurisdiction,” she explained. “Often there’s a road and a mountain so they feed us water and we work together. We mostly walk to the fire, after going as far as is safe for the vehicles, and we carry everything.”

Their tools are rake hoes, and beaters (also known as flappers) – a long broomstick with rubber fingers on the end, which they use hit the fire and then smother it. “When three overlap you can do a lot of damage to a fire,” said Paul.

Firefighters on the frontline of wildland fires use beaters, or flappers, to hit the fire then smother it. (Photo: Charl Steenkamp)

A rake hoe is simply that: a rake on one side, hoe on the other. “We use it as a cutting tool to cut lines, cut roots, push things back into the fire, pull things out. We seldom have water.”

So, to put it simply, these people walk up to a fire and hit it with a big stick. 

Obviously there’s a lot more to it than that. Proper training is critical, and from the moment their feet touch the ground, it kicks in and there’s no room for fear, said Paul, because “it will distract you from your goal and the situation can change in a second”. 

Afterwards there’s plenty of time to rethink things, and Paul sees a counsellor for this. It’s not something that is done routinely for the crews but she encourages hers to do the same, and is hoping to make it more official.

“Males don’t talk about their feelings and it’s so important to decompress afterwards,” she said. 

Donations and sponsorships will go towards establishing a furnished and equipped base and other needs such as female-appropriate kit and tailoring, and firefighting equipment. (Photo: Charl Steenkamp)

Von La Chevallerie appreciated and understood what NCC was doing by implementing a female crew because she too likes to break “rules” and moulds. Which is partly why she makes Pinotage and Chenin MCCs. Or Kap Klassiek, as she calls them. That, and the fact she had access to those grapes. Telling this story doesn’t hurt her marketing either, and she will tell it as many times as it takes to get Juliet the funding they need.

“We’ve started with Circa, and will by the end of the year include more,” she said.

We are familiar with the “normal” combination of MCC cultivars, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, together or separately. Von La Chevallerie questions this, when Chenin Blanc and Pinotage are intrinsically South African. In fact, the very first bottle of fermented bubbly in this country, the Simonsig Kaapse Vonkel in 1971, was Chenin Blanc – because that’s all winemaker Frans Malan had at his disposal.

Kylie Paul (left) and Christa von La Chevallerie discussing the new Chenin Blanc. (Photo: Bianca Coleman)

The grapes for Huis van Chevallerie wines used to come from Nuwedam Farm in Paardeberg on which the von La Chevallerie family farmed for many years before selling it. For the first decade on Nuwedam, the old vines – 19 hectares of Chenin, one of Pinotage – were nursed back to health by von La Chevallerie, who still had a day job and farmed at night, on weekends and during holidays. “The first thing we did was stop selling grapes to the co-op, but to private clients instead,” she said. This is what she is now – a client buying grapes from other farmers and bringing them to Riebeek Valley Wine Co on the outskirts of Riebeek Kasteel, to its 250-tonne boutique wine cellar (among the all the larger ones), which is called the “playroom”. Everything from harvest to bottle is done there.

Tasting the 2021 vintages from the tank in the cellar, with Christa von La Chevallerie. (Photo: Bianca Coleman)

“Our wines started in 2011 with a Chenin Blanc Kap Klassiek called Filia, which means daughter, and Huis van Chevallerie was built on that,” said von La Chevallerie.

“Then a few years later, farming became more intensive, Filia was taking off, and I gave up the day job. Filia was too little – 1,000-2,000 litres – to be economically viable. So why not use what I had? A hectare of Pinotage. We already knew it was good for a rosé so why not a bubbly? Not sweet, but a decent and ageable MCC style.” 

Firefighters are heroes. That’s all. (Photo: Charl Steenkamp)

It’s nice to be at the forefront of things, said von La Chevallerie. “It inspires you and keeps you on your toes. And for me it’s about sharing as well. I want to tell everybody about this.” 

At degorgement, Filia’s flavour profile begins with green apple, citrus, a little bit of white pear…and then all of a sudden it will start aging, she continued. “A year or so later, it’s a more quincey style, to dried apricot. And because of the age and the influence of the lees maturation you’ll start getting that almost apple tart characteristic. Panera, a bakery in the town, Riebeek Kastell, makes these awesome apple danishes which are a combination of apple, lemon and lovely dough. That combo is what makes Chenin bubblies.

Light salmon colour, with hints of light strawberry and raspberry, make Circa a little less-in-your-face-fruity, but well-balanced bubbly. (Photo: Verity Fitzgerald)

The Pinotage depends on the vintage; it will either be more strawberry or more raspberry. “Circa Brut Rosé always has a red fruit flavour that pushes it,” said von La Chevallerie. “I’m not necessarily trying to capture the sweetness, just the aroma, and what you will get is a little bit of minerality and a little bit of the doughy character if it ages. But it’s supposed to sell quickly. I call it a ‘porch pounder’. You don’t have to treat it too seriously. There’s only so many occasions you can wear a fancy dress and high heels but so many more when you can wear a summer dress and sandals. She’s a little more lighthearted.”

Von La Chevallerie doesn’t mind if you use the Circa to make cocktails or punch with it either. 

“When you’ve paid for my bottle, do with it as you please,” she laughed. Good soups, good broths, good cocktails are made with good ingredients. Please, use my wine for those.”

Huis van Chevallerie produces three bubblies from Pinotage and Chenin Blanc grapes – Circa, Filia and Hummingbird. (Photo: Verity Fitzgerald)

NCC Environmental Services contracts to SANParks (Southern Cluster), CapeNature, Cape Winelands and Overberg District Municipalities, Stellenbosch, and Overstrand Local Authorities and when needed, the City of Cape Town. It has around 35 private landowners – including wine farms – to whom wildfire agent services are provided; and, also specialises in environmental management, biodiversity and conservation, and health and safety.

“Businesses like ours fund transformation out of our own pockets. Extraordinary transformation initiatives require extraordinary interventions,” said MD Ferreira. “All our other crews are contracted and therefore self-funded. But at this stage, Juliet Crew is not. Our drive is to make this sustainable, in that we need work for this crew 12 months of the year.”

Donated funds are facilitated through NCC Environmental Services’ Greener Futures Academy non-profit and directed 100% to Juliet Crew. Sponsors are able to receive 18A certificates. DM/TGIFood

Circa Pinotage Brut Rosé is available at selected retailers and can be ordered along with the Huis van Chevallerie’s other wines directly via the website. For more information, call +27 (0)72 237 7116, or send an email to [email protected]


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • DONALD MOORE says:

    An interesting combination of advertisement for a particular wine, a promotion of a very meritorious fire fighting service and advancing the profile of a journalist. The Article is full of praise for the firefighters and it should be. It is too full of praise for wines produced by a particular wine maker. Some of the merit of the firefighters is presented so as to rub off on the wine maker and her products. It is good that she commits a portion of sales of Huis van Chevallerie Circa Pinotage Brut Rosé bubbly to the firefighting team but the detail I would be interested in knowing is how much in either Rand or % terms. Has there been a one off contribution or is it a commitment for an extended time. Please forgive a little scepticism but the article seems to promote the wine more than the firefighters.

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