The Wine World's Unlikeliest Sommeliers?
Tinashe Nyamudoka, Melusi Meghodi
Earlier this year, writer-editor Erica Platter — the editor, most recently, of My Kind of Wine by John Platter — traveled around Cape Town and vicinity to report on the fascinating fact that a group of young men from neighboring Zimbabwe, most of whom had never tasted alcohol in their lives, were becoming some of South Africa's most respected sommeliers. The award-winning English wine writer Jancis Robinson and her husband, noted food critic Nick Lander, had earlier observed the same phenomenon, and Robinson published Platter's report on her excellent website, www.jancisrobinson.com. It is reprinted here, in a slightly different form, with Robinson's kind permission.
It is almost as unlikely a story as that of the Jamaican Olympic bobsled team: young Zimbabweans leaving their country ("things were bad") and, after many hardships, reinventing themselves in an altogether foreign field, as champions of wine, members of the crème de la crème of South Africa's sommeliers. They are now performing so brilliantly that they run the lists and advise diners at many of our most celebrated restaurants.
Here I introduce four members of "the team," as they call themselves. But '"For each one of us there are five others," says Tinashe Nyamudoka, Mr. Wine at The Test Kitchen, in Cape Town, the only South African restaurant in the S. Pellegrino World's 50 Best. "It's like a spider-web," says Marlvin Gwese, head sommelier at the stylish Cape Grace Hotel on Cape Town's Waterfront. Melusi Magodhi, whose list at Cape Town's glamorous Ellerman House matches the spectacular architecture of the cellar, confirms that "If you find your homeboy you look after each other very well." They belong to their own WhatsApp group and often message during service to ask for advice. Organizer-in-chief Tongai Joseph Dhafana, sommelier at South African top-five Cape Town restaurant La Colombe, sums up: "We help each other to climb ladders."
And these four are not alone. Other Zimbabwean supersomms include South Africa Sommelier of the Year 2015 Lloyd Jusa at The Saxon in Johannesburg, and, in Cape Town, Pardon Tagazu at Aubergine and Gregory Mutambe at The 12 Apostles Hotel. And there are many more.
Why have Zimbabwean exiles shone so brightly in this field? Among the answers to that question given by members of "the team" are, "We grab opportunities and use them;" "We are good at hospitality;" 'We have a natural gift, a memory for tastes" (they often use indigenous fruits and berries as "markers" in their minds when identifying grape varieties); but above all, "We enjoy wine!"
With unemployment a major problem among young South Africans, do these Zimbabwean "imports" encounter resentment; accusations that they are taking locals' jobs, xenophobia? Nyamudoka ponders the question and then articulates for the team: "Are we riding on other people's turfs? We have long ago passed that stage. There is a trajectory and a path. We have been accepted for who we are. There is no guilt. It was a white field. They guarded it. We had to break in. Now, if I do well, my brothers do well…" Magodhi adds, "Cuisine has changed. There are new chefs, a new generation of winemakers and sommeliers. It is all about new blood!"