South Africa’s first winemaker of Indian origin shares his story
Born and raised in Lotus Park, Durban, Thornton Pillay is South Africa's first winemaker of Indian origin.
With a passion for all things agricultural, Thornton found his true calling in the world of wine and has created a range of wines called Thornleigh. Facing the challenges of a typically non-diverse industry, Thornton has made a name for himself after entering the industry at the young age of 20.
We caught up with the up-and-coming winemaker to find out more about his journey and passion for all things wine-related.
Tell us about yourself.
I was born in 1992 and raised in Lotus Park, Durban. My parents were employed in the fruit and vegetable distribution sector, which inspired me to pursue a career in agriculture.
When did your love for all things wine begin? Was there a moment that triggered your love for wine?
I attended an agricultural high school where I completed matric. It was at this school, Weston Agricultural College, where I expanded my knowledge of farming and was introduced to the world of wine-making at a career awareness seminar by the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF).
Did you always dream of being a winemaker?
I had no idea what a winemaker was until I attended Weston! But it captured my attention instantly. I decided to research this interesting career and realised that it was something that would allow me to enjoy every day of my working life. I received a bursary from DAFF, which allowed me to pursue a career in winemaking.
What inspired you to enter the wine industry?
My love for agriculture definitely stems from my childhood. I regularly joined my dad on his farm visits and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. This inspired me to pursue a career in agriculture.
How difficult was it to enter the wine industry as a POC (person of colour) in South Africa? How did you overcome these challenges?
I faced various cultural challenges when I moved to the Western Cape to study in Stellenbosch. Many harsh stereotypes still exist in South Africa. There were people who did not believe that a person of colour could have the talent and ability to be a winemaker.
I’ve learnt to ignore negative energy from others, and instead focus on believing in myself and working hard.
How does it feel to be the first South African of Indian origin to become a winemaker?
It’s overwhelming! I see this as part of a massive step for transformation in South Africa. I hope it will inspire other people of colour to persevere and achieve their dreams.
What are three key lessons you’ve learnt from being a winemaker?
Passion is everything. You have to enjoy what you do – it’s reflected in the quality of the wines you make.
Other people’s opinions do not define you. History would not be as we know it if people didn’t push boundaries and try new things.
I’ve learnt the value of patience, hard work and humility. There are good days and bad days in the wine industry, and all these experiences have shaped me into who I am today.
Tell us more about Thornleigh.
Thornleigh was started by my wife Lee-Ann and I in 2020 – the name is a combination of our names. Our range currently consists of a Shiraz, Sauvignon Blanc, semi-sweet rosé and semi-sweet sparkling wine. My favourite is the Sauvignon Blanc – I love its fruity notes and well-rounded mouthfeel. It pairs perfectly with my favourite dish, butter chicken.
What tips do you have for other young POC individuals wanting to enter the wine-making industry?
It’s always wise to research any career you intend on choosing and to spend some time with people in the field.
Once you have decided it’s what you want to do, don’t look back. We are fortunate to live in an era where these opportunities are accessible to people of colour. We should embrace that, work hard and let our talent speak for itself.
Do you think that the wine industry is transforming in terms of its inclusivity?
There is certainly transformation taking place, but not at the rate that it should be. Stereotypes still exist. Many people of colour wouldn’t even consider this career as they feel it’s something unattainable or not worth facing tribulations for.
What is your all-time favourite wine and why?
Groot Constantia Grand Constance Muscat de Frontignan. I’ve always focused on pairing sweet wines with curries. During my internship I was fortunate to be placed at Groot Constantia and produced my very first intern wine – a naturally sweet wooded Muscadel – as I believe it paired perfectly with curries and spicy foods.
What are your future plans as a winemaker in South Africa?
I hope to continue expanding my brand and sharing my passion with others. I’d like to establish myself well enough to be able to grow my own vineyards and own my very own winery.
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