“I'm not part of any kind of route or club. Sometimes I think it was a very interesting choice for someone as social as me to choose a path that makes me such a … loner,” opens Samantha O'Keefe, owner and winemaker of Lismore Estate Vineyards.
It’s true. Samantha is a bit of an anomaly within the wine world: She’s not Afrikaans, she’s single, and she’s a female farmer. In fact, she’s a Californian TV executive who used to work for the Screen Actors Guild turned self-taught winemaker living out in pretty much the middle of nowhere with her 3 Great Danes named Leo, Juno and Atlas. Even as you turn off the Greyton road to begin the steady climb to her house on the hill, there’s nothing but farmland and her dry-land farmed vineyards cradled by the Overberg mountains to be seen. It all stands out - but in the best and most interesting of ways.
As the pioneering wine farm to put Greyton on the Wine of Origin scheme map, the loner lifestyle comes as part and parcel of the territory. “When I first thought about growing vineyards here, I spoke to my now dear friend Peter Finlayson. He told me: ‘If you try and succeed, you’ll be a pioneer. If you fail, no one will care.’ So I thought, ‘What the hell?’,” she laughs.
Samantha says her greatest asset is the freedom to be able to do her own thing. “No one ever says we don't do it like that around here,” she muses.
With National Women Month this August, I specifically wanted to interview Samantha as she is my kind of woman. Effortlessly beautiful without makeup, her hair in a casual bun, warm and generous and great at managing a crowd of 10, while still focused and acting with intention and kindness. She spends 10 minutes explaining why we should all be willing to pay a premium for properly made Méthode Cap Classique (even though she doesn’t make any herself). And damn, can the woman make fine wine. Before our interview, Samantha treated me and my guests to her entire stable of wines. As always, I marked a star next to my favourite ones on the tasting sheet. By the time we were done, we’d tasted 8 wines and I’d marked 8 stars …
As Samantha’s father was a cattle farmer, farm life wasn’t completely novel to her. Wine was also a part-time passion, with a generous portion of her student years at Berkeley dedicated to visiting Calistoga, Russian River, and Napa Valley farms. “ Today, I aim to give all my wine farm visitors tastings the way I was given tastings back in the day,” she explains. Her love for wine continued to burgeon when she became a young TV Exec with an expense account, giving her access to enjoy some of the finest wines in the world.
Yet, combining these two seemingly separate aspects of her life was still a dramatic shift in gear.
Despite being a stellar chemistry student at school, Samantha opted to study Development at Berkley. “The film industry was actually the wrong path. I just stumbled into it and I joke now, but I kept resenting my way up - the more I hated it, the better I would do.”
At 29, Samantha found herself re-assessing her career, during which time she quit her job and moved to South Africa in 2000. “It's so surreal even for me. I mean, can you imagine?” she asks. “Yet, I’m so grateful I found wine. I get to make people happy and people make me happy and we all have this passion that is so sensorial. You'll never meet someone in wine who has an existential crisis!”
By 2003, she and her ex-husband decided to buy a farm in Greyton. “I could’ve been moving to Humansdorp. I didn’t know anything about where we were going. But when we found Greyton and especially our Lismore farm, we were so attracted to the farm and the energy. Plus Lismore translates to ‘great garden’ in Gaelic. Taking my Irish origin into account, it was simply meant to be.”
While her marriage may not have worked out, her fledgling endeavours as a winemaker did. According to Samantha, something “crazy must have happened” geologically speaking, thousands of years ago because the terroir and soils in the Greyton region are so rich and interesting. On her Lismore farm alone, she works with mainly shale soils over clay, but she also has pockets of Table Mountain sandstone and granite. On top of this, the region enjoys very large diurnal temperature shifts (warm days and cold nights), ensuring the fruit ripens evenly at lower alcohols. Yet, despite its natural beauty, Greyton is also a harsh environment - which is why Samantha opts to dryland farm for more resilient vines. After planting some Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Viognier and Syrah vineyards, Samantha took to becoming the viticulturist, cellar master, winemaker, saleswomen - everything really - for her newfound winery.
Her self-described minimal intervention, oxidative winemaking style makes each of the varieties she has opted to work with shine in their best light. Between the creamy Viognier, the citrusy Chardonnay and the elegant Reserve Syrah, clearly whatever Samantha is doing in the cellar is working.
“I think I was ahead of my time by accident. When I first started making wine here, I didn’t have fancy equipment like a pneumatic press, so my wine style developed as a matter of need - not want. I had to work with what I had,” Samantha explains.
“My Sauvignon Blanc is a great example of this. I didn’t know how or even have the equipment to make highly interventionist, fresh and fruity Sauvignon Blanc. So, I proceeded to press my grapes, put them in a barrel and I thought the end result was really yummy. All of my original white wines, for the first 5 vintages, were pressed in a basket press. So yes, they were oxidative because I didn’t have a choice!”
In 2011, as Samantha’s skillset and experimentation progressed, she moved her production to an Elgin cellar renting space to press her grapes as demand for her wines rose. Here, she met now close friend Justin Hoy of Highlands Road Wine, who encouraged her to use a pneumatic press and tried his best to advise her. When Samantha explained she wanted to continue using whole-bunch and replicate the basket press for her wines, she laughs and says:
“Justin looked at me sideways most of the time - but I just kept doing my thing. And then, when my Chardonnay was finally in the tank, ready for bottling, he tasted it and said to his wife Mary: ‘This could be among the best Chardonnays in the world’. It was a great lesson to learn, as it proved to me that you don’t need a lot to make something exceptional”.
Despite her loner tendencies, Sam and her winemaking talents have demanded great respect and attention from the masses. In January 2016, her Syrah was named one of celebrated wine critic Robert Parker’s ‘Top 50 Picks of 2015’.
“That was a real watershed moment for me. It gave me the confidence in knowing I hadn’t wasted my life going into wine. Until that point, the jury was still out,” adds Samantha. Then, in December 2018, she officially became a Cape Winemaker’s Guild member. One of only three women to be donned this honour.
In truth, Samantha has always been a strong advocate for supporting women in wine, supporting young female winemakers wherever she can. In fact, she’s just hired an assistant winemaker who will be starting in the Lismore cellar soon. “It’s funny because I was actually almost discouraging her. I reminded her that she would need to move to Greyton (she lives in Stellenbosch), that she would be away from her friends and boyfriend and that it’s lonely here. And she just said to me: ‘I want this’. And that’s why I think women are amazing. We are so interdisciplinary by nature, and I think we get stuck in more,” says Samantha.
“Frankly, we can’t afford to be mediocre. If you’re a half-ass winemaker, the job is going to the boy. You won’t see many women in the middle or at the bottom of this industry, because you get filtered out very quickly. It’s why it’s a great time to be a woman in wine - we are the best of the best.”
As our discussion comes to a close, I bid farewell to Samantha and her Danes. The late afternoon sun is just beginning to dip behind the Boesmanskloof mountain, and on my drive down the long, winding road from Lismore, I reflect on the next chapter of women in wine.
Yes, we are capable.
True, we have to work harder and be smarter.
Yet, we can be more successful than ever before.
And for the first time in history, we don’t need a man by our side to do any of it.