How four Zimbabwean sommeliers got into the world of blind wine tasting

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Joseph Dhafana, Marlvin Gwese, Tinashe Nyamudoka and Pardon Taguzu took the road less traveled to enter the world of wine. Each of the four sommeliers fled a difficult life in war-ravaged Zimbabwe for South Africa and eventually found their feet and their palate in Cape Town’s foodie scene. Realizing their extraordinary talent for blind wine tasting, the four banded together in 2017 to represent Zimbabwe at the World Blind Wine Tasting Championship.

Their journey and subsequent success is documented in the recently released film “Blind Ambition”. Directed and produced by Third Man Films’ Warwick Ross and Rob Coe (the same team behind cult wine flick ‘Red Obsession’), the must-see documentary follows the sommeliers, flanked by eccentric French sommelier Dennis Garret as coach , through the final stages of the journey to competition.

VinePair spoke with Dhafana, Gwese and Taguzu about their personal journey in the world of wine, their experience competing in the championship and the advice they would offer anyone looking to enter the world of competitive tasting at the blind.

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1. Can you tell me about your entry into the world of wine?

Joseph Dhafana: I was born in an environment where the culture of wine did not exist. I grew up in a rural area, where we never saw a bottle of wine, only bottles of beer. I tasted wine for the first time on my 29th birthday and didn’t like it, so I completely forgot about it.

But the community I lived in was surrounded by vineyards and I was really interested in how someone could turn grapes into wine. At that time, I had also been promoted to waiter. From dishwasher to bartender to waiter. I could hear and see people being happy and getting food for conversation by sharing a bottle of wine. So, I thought “there’s something in there”. I was eager to know more.

Marvin Gwese: A few years ago, I started working in a restaurant. I knew before what was whiskey, brandy, [and] wine, but I never really understood everything. Working in a restaurant really helped me. This is where I developed a fascination with wine and started studying wine. And then I became a sommelier.

Sorry Taguzu: My sister invited me to Cape Town so I moved to South Africa with the last savings my mother had. During this time, there were no jobs. We lived day to day.

So I took a bus to Cape Town where I stayed with my sister. At that time it was the [Riebeek Valley] Olive Festival, which attracts wine lovers from all over the world. The Royal Hotel was seriously understaffed, and my sister got me a courier job for a few days. After that, the hotel owner asked me if I wanted to stay. Then I became a bartender and did the service. I met Joseph at this time while he was staying in the same valley. He knew my brother-in-law and worked across the street.

One day I finished work early and went to see Joseph and drank my first glass of wine, a Chenin Blanc. It tasted awful to begin with – quite sour [and] bitter. I didn’t like that. At one point, I held my breath and sipped the wine.

The first glass became a second glass, which became a bottle, and then I was sick for two days — I couldn’t go to work for two days. But I guess despite that, I was just mesmerized by this drink and the stories people were talking about.

2. How do you use language to describe wine?

JD: Wine vocabulary is very Eurocentric in the sense that they were, of course, the ones who made it all up and couldn’t use a better universal language than English.

So the biggest challenge now is for Africa. The native fruits that we find in Africa, they do not have in Europe. And what they have in Europe, we may have in Africa, but they can only be bought by the elite. I’ll give you an example: currants. I didn’t know what they were. We don’t want to reinvent the wheel, but modify it to include some of the very famous fruits in Africa.

Due to climate change [and] global warming, the terms of wine are changing. So if you get stuck with all that blackcurrant, all that berry stuff, you’ll end up imagining flavors that one day may not exist anymore. So we need new benchmarks. Things change every day.

MG: We try to use our own language, our own vocabulary based on what we grew up around – that has helped us a lot. We differentiate wines based on what we can identify with. For example, gavi [tree bark in Zimbabwean dialect], it is a distinctive note that we get from Italian wines. As soon as you feel the donkey wet, you know it’s a Bandol.

TP: Wine is a personal experience. People always refer to the aroma wheel, which does not correspond to African culture. So I started using the environment I grew up in in Zimbabwe. For example, I get a muddy character from Pomerol.

As soon as we realized we could brand the wines with something we could reference, it clicked. This is the vocabulary that we can use and then relate it to the aroma wheel. But I think it needs to be updated to fit other cultures.

I just made my first wine in Austria called Dzimbahwe. And on the label, I note the traditional aromas, but also those with which I grew up in Africa. I think that’s what I will continue to do.

3. How does it feel to participate in the World Blind Wine Tasting Championships?

JD: My very first competition dates back to 2015 with the South African team. It was my first long-haul flight overseas. This trip I went to [the] Loire, Burgundy, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Alsace, [and] Champagne. It was such a humbling experience.

I’m used to it, but out of almost 200 competitors, there were only two blacks. I mean you look at the picture and it’s shocking. For my part, I almost agree with that. But I think the world needs to wake up. It should be diverse. When I went in 2017 with the Zimbabwe team, as captain we were the only table full of black competitors. But I was in Kenya a few days ago and managed to [set up] The Kenya team. It’s four ladies. So this year we can see the Kenya team, full of ladies!

MG: We started the Zimbabwe team in 2017 and then went to competition. We came in 23rd out of 24, but luckily we beat Italy, which was quite an achievement considering they are a country with such a rich winemaking history. So in 2018, we did a very intense training on classic international wines with Andrew Caillard, MW. We came in 14th in 2018 which was a huge milestone. During the competition, people are really focused. You don’t want to disturb anyone. But before and after, everyone is really friendly.

TP: We kind of knew we were the “purple cow” of the competition. We were the only team with people of color, coming from Africa. So that alone gave us a bit of pressure. But we were like, “OK, this is the room we’re going into.” So in a way it was a little intimidating, but we knew we were there for the merit. We have some of the best palaces in the world. Our pressure was only to make sure we truly represented where we came from and claimed our place at the table.

4. What advice would you give to those wishing to embark on blind tasting?

JD: Resilience, perseverance, hard work. There is no goal too high. I come from a background where wine was not even known but now I am one of the best known wine people in South Africa and Africa in general. So, you can be anyone in the world, any day, if you dedicate more hours; if you give your all. Honestly, there’s so much sacrifice [I made]. I was coming home, not much food to eat, because I was spending a lot of money to study. Hard work pays off. Determination breeds success.

TP: Well my biggest inspiration is Madame Jancis [Robinson]. She has been defending the world of wine as a woman for 40 years now. She is like the goddess of wine. But my advice is to always aim to be lazy. Be lazy to be lazy. Wake up and do the same thing over and over again. Listen to people, but listen with an attentive mind. Do not listen with your heart, but with your mind.

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