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 life of hardship in war-ravaged Zimbabwe for South Africa and eventually found their feet, and palates, in Cape Town’s fine-dining 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 Warwick Ross and Rob Coe of Third Man Films (the same team behind the cult classic wine film “Red Obsession”), the must-watch documentary follows the sommeliers, flanked by eccentric French sommelier Dennis Garret as their coach, through the final stages of the journey to the competition.
VinePair chatted with Dhafana, Gwese, and Taguzu about their personal journey into the wine world, their experience competing in the championship, and the advice they’d offer to anyone looking to enter the world of competitive blind tasting.
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1. Can you tell me about your entry into the wine world?
Joseph Dhafana: I was born in a background where wine culture didn’t exist. I grew up in a rural area, where we’d never seen a bottle of wine — only beer bottles. I first tasted wine on my 29th birthday and I 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 transform grapes into wine. Around that time, I’d also been promoted to waiter. From dishwasher to barman then waiter. I could hear and see people being happy and getting food for conversation from sharing a bottle of wine. So, I thought “there’s something in this.” I was eager to know more.
Marlvin Gwese: A couple of years ago, I started working in a restaurant. I knew before what was whiskey, brandy, [and] wine, but I never really got my head around everything. Working in a restaurant really helped me. That’s where I developed a fascination for wine and started studying wine. And then I became a sommelier.
Pardon Taguzu: My sister invited me to Cape Town so I moved to South Africa with the last savings that my mother had. During that time, there were no jobs. We were living hand-to-mouth.
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 enthusiasts from around the world. The Royal Hotel was really understaffed, and my sister fixed me a job as a runner for a few days. After that, the hotel owner asked if I wanted to stay. Then I became a bar man and did waitering. I met Joseph at that time as he was staying in the same valley. He knew my brother-in-law and was working across the street.
One day, I finished work early and went to see Joseph and I had my first glass of wine, a Chenin Blanc. It was an awful taste to begin with — quite sour [and] bitter. I didn’t like it. At some point I was holding my breath and sipping the wine.
The first glass became a second glass, which became a bottle, and then I was sick for two days — I could not go to work for two days. But I guess, despite this, I just got fascinated by this beverage and the stories the people were talking about.
2. How do you use language to describe wine?
JD: Wine vocabulary is very Eurocentric in the sense that they, of course, were the ones who pioneered everything and couldn’t use any better universal language than English.
Then biggest challenge now is for Africa. The indigenous fruits that we find in Africa, they don’t have in Europe. And what they have in Europe, we may have that in Africa, but they can only be afforded by the elite. I’ll give you an example: gooseberries. I didn’t know what they were. We don’t want to reinvent the wheel but tweak it in a way to include some of the fruits that are very known in Africa.
Because of climate change [and] global warming, the wine terms are changing. So, if you get stuck to all this blackcurrant, all this berry stuff, you’ll end up imagining aromas that one day may not exist anymore. So we need new reference points. Things are changing every day.
MG: We try to use our own language, our own vocabulary based on what we grew up around — it helped us a lot. We differentiate wines based on what we can relate to. For example, gavi [tree bark in Zimbabwean dialect], it’s a distinctive note that we get from Italian wines. Whenever we smell wet donkey, we know it’s a Bandol.
PT: Wine is about personal experience. People are always referring to the aroma wheel, which does not correspond with African culture. So, I started using the surroundings that I grew up with in Zimbabwe. For example, I get a muddy character from Pomerol.
As soon as we realized that we could mark wines with something that we could reference, then it clicked. This is the vocabulary that we can use and then relate it to the aroma wheel. But I do think that it needs to be updated to fit other cultures.
I just made my maiden wine in Austria called Dzimbahwe. And on the label, I note the traditional aromas, but also those that I grew up with in Africa. I think that’s what I’ll continue to do.
3. What’s it like competing at the World Blind Wine Tasting Championships?
JD: My very first competition was in 2015 with Team South Africa. It was my first long-haul flight overseas. That trip, I went to [the] Loire, Burgundy, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Alsace, [and] Champagne. It was such a humbling experience.
I’m used to this, but out of almost 200 competitors, there were only two Blacks. I mean you look at the photo and it’s shocking. For me, I’m almost OK with it. But I think the world has to wake up. This has to be diverse. When I went in 2017 with Team Zimbabwe, as the captain, we were the only table full of Black contestants. But I was in Kenya a few days ago and I managed to [set up] Team Kenya. It’s four ladies. So, this year we will be able to see Team Kenya, full of ladies!
MG: We started Team Zimbabwe in 2017 and then we went to the competition. We came 23rd out of 24 but luckily we beat Italy, which was quite an achievement given they are a country with such a rich history when it comes to winemaking. So in 2018, we did a really intense training on the classic international wines with Andrew Caillard, MW. We came 14th in 2018, which was a huge step. During the competition, people are really focused. You don’t want to disturb anyone. But before and after, everyone is really friendly.
PT: We kind of knew we were the “purple cow” in 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 are getting into.” So in a sense it was a little intimating but we knew we were there on merit. We have some of the best palates in the world. Our pressure only came from making sure we truly represented where we came from and claiming our seat at the table.
4. What advice would you give to those who want to get into blind tasting?
JD: Resilience, perseverance, hard work. There is no goal that is too high. I came from a background where wine was not even known but, now, I’m one of the better-known wine people in South Africa, and Africa at large. So, you can be anyone in the world, any day, if you put in more hours; if you give it your all. Honestly, there are so many sacrifices [I made]. I’d come home, not much food to eat, because I’d spend a lot of money on studying. Hard work pays. Determination breeds success.
PT: Well, my greatest inspiration is Madame Jancis [Robinson]. She has been championing the wine world as a woman for 40 years now. She is like the goddess of wine. But my advice is to always have the goal to be lazy. Be lazy to be lazy. Wake up and do the same thing over and over. Listen to people but listen with a careful mind. Don’t listen with your heart, but with your mind.