How Zimbabwean refugees became some of South Africa’s top sommeliers

Erica Platter’s surname will be familiar to anyone who knows anything about South African wine. A journalist-turned-wine producer, she and her journalist husband John launched Platter’s South African Wine Guide in 1978, a pocket book unashamedly modeled on Hugh Johnson’s annual.

The Platters’ guide was initially dismissed by the South African wine establishment, and the then-dominant wine organisation, the KWV, even refused to supply any details for the book. But it has since definitely established itself as the bible of the blossoming Cape wine scene. It is now run by a team of tasters who aim to keep up with the many new developments there.

A journalistic instinct never subsides, and back in 2016, Erica contacted me with an extraordinary story. It was the tale of a small group of economic refugees from Zimbabwe whose bringing up had been devoid of both wine and fine dining, but who were all now head sommeliers in top Cape Town restaurants.

One of them, Joseph Dhafana, arrived in Johannesburg in 2009 as a destitute 27-year-old, walking the streets looking for work and sleeping rough. He was given shelter in the city’s Central Methodist Church, which had become a refugee center and was often featured in TV news bulletins. He was spotted on screen one night by a cousin living in what was then an up-and-coming Cape wine region, Swartland, and she invited him to visit.

His first job was as a gardener working every hour he could, including in the garden of a restaurant called Bar Bar Black Sheep, whose owner, Mynhardt Joubert, soon promoted him to the dishwasher.

He then became a waiter and, as he later told Platter, “On March 7 2010, I had the very first glass of bubbly in my life, from Mynhardt [the restaurateur]. It was my birthday. I struggled a lot to finish it. Looking in the glass, which was fizzy, with my mind in the vineyards, trying to think how someone can convert grapes to such a wonderful liquid, I asked myself dozens of questions with no one to answer. The wine bug followed me since that day.”

I tried to think how someone can convert grapes to such a wonderful liquid. The wine bug followed me since that day

Dhafana moved to Cape Town and up the ladder of restaurant service, taking wine exams and ending up in charge of the wine list at the famous La Colombe restaurant. He made contact with three other young Zimbabwean men who had come to South Africa in the 2000s in search of a better life and whose work ethic and fascination with wine mirrored his own. They all became top summers: Tinashe Nyamudoka at The Test Kitchen, Pardon Taguzu at Aubergine and Marlvin Gwese at Cape Grace Hotel.

In 2015, Dhafana entered South Africa’s wine tasting competition and came third, so in 2015 he was included in the South African team in the World Wine Tasting Championships, held every year by the French wine magazine La Revue du Vin de France. The South Africans managed their best performance ever and, inspired by this, Dhafana set about assembling a Zimbabwean team, to include his three friends, for the 2017 international competition.

The only problem was the cost. Some of their employers helped out but the team needed quite a lot more. We chipped in with a crowdfunding drive on my website. A total of £8,262 was raised, more than they needed, so by August 2017 they were set to take on the world in Burgundy two months later.

It seemed like such a great story that I emailed everyone I could think of who might be interested in making a film about their attempt, without success.

In June 2017, I attended a fine wine conference at the Ventoux estate of Xavier and Nicole Sierra Rolet, producer of Chêne Bleu wines. The Australian Andrew Caillard, a fellow Master of Wine, was also there. He had been an adviser on a rather successful 2013 film called Red Obsession about how the Chinese fell for wine, so I tried to sell him the idea of ​​a film about the Zimbabwean wine tasters, hoping he would communicate it to the rest of the team back in Australia.

As it happened, producer-directors Warwick Ross and Rob Coe had been looking for a subject for a second wine-related documentary and were considering making a film about the annual Oxbridge wine-tasting competition in London. Caillard scribbled a note about the Zim sommeliers on a bit of paper at Chêne Bleu in June and put it in the pocket of a jacket he didn’t wear again until August, when he found it and mentioned the idea to Ross and Coe. They were thrilled. By September 8 they had the financing in place and had booked to fly to Cape Town just 11 days later to film the first footage, about the Zims’ preparations for the competition.

In October, my Zimbabwean-born colleague Tamlyn Currin and I went to Burgundy to witness the competition — and filming — and were delighted to meet the four members of the Zimbabwean team. They were truly inspiring. At dinner the night before, they broke into an impromptu a cappella song, prompting a rousing cheer from their fellow competitors from 24 different countries. This, and the team’s fervent group prayer just before the wines were poured, were of course cinematic gold.

Anyone with any knowledge of film production will know how time-consuming it is but this particular film, called Blind Ambition, was hugely hampered by the pandemic. It was due to be launched in Cape Town in late April 2020 but has yet to be screened there. In the end, its debut was at the Tribeca Film Festival last June, where it won the Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature.

It pulled off similar feats at film festivals in Sonoma and Sydney and this Thursday will, at last, get a London premiere, at the Curzon Mayfair — at a screening in aid of the International Rescue Committee, which has helped so many refugees everywhere get back on their feet.

It would be unsporting of me to say any more about the somms’ performance in the 2017 and 2018 wine-tasting Olympics, both of them filmed for the documentary, but I can report on what the team members are doing now. As well as working as a sommelier for Roar Africa, a travel specialist, Dhafana has his own line of wines and gin, Mosi and Tongai. Nyamudoka has a range of South African wines, Kumusha, which are fairly well distributed in the US. Taguzu has moved to the Netherlands where he runs the only 100 per cent African-owned wine import and export company in Europe. He has also made an Austrian wine called Dzimbahwe. Gwesen is now group sommelier at the new five-star hotel The Cellars-Hohenort in Cape Town and has also begun to make his own wine, Mukanya.

They are all still very much in touch with the woman they call “Gogo [granny] Ex”, after Platter’s nickname Exie, and all four plan to attend the London premiere.

Ones to watch — A brief history of wine movies

  • Blind Ambition (2021)
    Documentary about four Zimbabwean refugees-turned-wine tasters

  • Uncorked (2020)
    Drama about a young man’s desire to become a Master Sommelier rather than take over his father’s Memphis barbecue business

  • Sour Grapes (2016)
    Documentary about the prolific wine counterfeiter Rudy Kurniawan

  • Red Obsession (2013)
    Documentary about China’s love of wine

  • Summer (2012)
    Documentary about four Americans’ attempts to become Master Sommeliers. There have been two sequels so far

  • Bottle Shock (2008)
    Drama based (loosely) on the 1976 Judgment of Paris California vs France tasting

  • Sideways (2004)
    Drama based on Rex Pickett’s book about a California wine-tasting trip. It inspired widespread planting of Pinot Noir vines

  • Mondovino (2004)
    Documentary about the increasing globalization of wine

Tasting notes on Purple Pages of More stockists from

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