The story of Blind Ambition

Blind Ambition guys in Burgundy

How JancisRobinson.com and you helped make a multi-award-winning documentary. A version of this article is published by the Financial Times.

Erica Platter is a journalist-turned-wine-producer and publisher. Her surname will be familiar to anyone who knows anything about South African wine. In 1978 she and her journalist husband John launched Platter’s South African Wine Guide, a pocketbook unashamedly modelled on Hugh Johnson’s international annual.

The Platters’ guide was initially dismissed by the South African wine establishment as ‘a waste of time’ and the then-dominant wine organisation, the KWV, even refused to supply any details for it. But it has since definitively established itself as the bible of the blossoming Cape wine scene and this century has been run by a crack team of tasters who try desperately to keep up with the many new developments there.

But a journalistic instinct never subsides and back in 2016 she contacted me with a great story. As a result, on JancisRobinson.com we published the extraordinary tale of how a small group of economic refugees from Zimbabwe, whose upbringing had been devoid of both wine and fine dining, were all now the head sommeliers at Cape Town’s top restaurants.

One of them, Joseph Dhafana, was typical. He arrived in Johannesburg in 2009 as a destitute 27-year-old, walking the streets looking for work and sleeping rough. He joined asylum-seekers in the city’s Central Methodist Church, which had become a refugee centre and featured in TV news bulletins. He was spotted 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 in the local town of Riebeek Kasteel. The restaurant’s owner promoted him – to dishwasher. He eventually became a waiter and, as he told Platter, ‘on 7 March 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 can someone 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 saw people were having fun when they drank wine. I realised it made people happy. It is different to when you have a glass of water.’

Joseph moved to Cape Town and up the ladder of restaurant service, taking wine exams, so that he ended up in charge of the wine list at the famous La Colombe restaurant. He made contact with other young Zimbabwean men who had come to South Africa in the 2000s in search of a better life and, extraordinarily, mirrored Joseph’s work ethic and fascination with wine. They all became top somms: Tinashe Nyamudoka at The Test Kitchen, Pardon Taguzu at Aubergine and Marlvin Gwese at Cape Grace Hotel. (Left to right in the picture above of the tasters running through the vines of Le Montrachet, a still from the film, are Joseph, Pardon, Marlvin and Tinashe.)

Joseph had 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, Joseph set about assembling a Zimbabwean team, to include his three friends, for the 2017 international competition.

The only problem was the cost. Some of the employers helped but the team needed quite a lot more. We chipped in with a crowdfunding drive on JR.com. A total of £8,262 from 82 supporters was eventually raised, more than they needed, so by the beginning of August 2017 they were set to take on the world in Burgundy two months later.

This seemed like such a great, visual 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 had attended a fine-wine conference at the Ventoux estate of Xavier and Nicole Rolet, producer of Chêne Bleu wines. Also there was my fellow Master of Wine, Andrew Caillard of Australia. He had been an advisor 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 happens, producer-directors Warwick Ross and Rob Coe had been actively looking for a subject for a second wine-related documentary and were seriously thinking of making a film about the annual Oxbridge wine-tasting competition in London. Andrew Caillard had scribbled a note about the Zim somms 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 well into August when he found it and mentioned the idea to Ross and Coe. They were ecstatically enthusiastic and by 8 September had the finance in place, planning to fly to Cape Town just 11 days later to film the first footage, about the Zims’ preparations for the competition.

My Zimbabwean-born colleague Tamlyn Currin and I went out to Burgundy to witness the 2017 competition on 14 October, and the filming of it, and were thrilled to meet the four members of the Zimbabwean team. They were truly inspiring. At the dinner the night before, our new Zimbabwean friends broke into an impromptu a cappella song in Shona, the main language of northern Zimbabwe, 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 just how time-consuming it all is but this particular film, called Blind Ambition by the Australians, was particularly 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, was recently voted Best Documentary at the Mendocino Film Festival in the US, and this Thursday will, at last, get a London premiere, at the Curzon Mayfair – at a screening in aid of the International Rescue Committee that has helped so many refugees all over the world get back on their feet.

It would be unsporting of me to say any more about their 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 acting as a sommelier for Roar African travel specialist, Joseph has his own line of wines and gin, Mosi and Tongai. Tinashe has his range of South African wines, Kumusha, which are quite well distributed in the US. Pardon has moved to the Netherlands, where he has the only 100% African-owned wine import and export company in Europe. He has also made an Austrian wine called Dzimbahwe. Marlvin is now group sommelier at the new five-star hotel The Cellars-Hohenhort 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 Erica’s nickname Exie, and all four plan to attend this week’s London premiere.

Wine-related films

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.

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

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

Sideways or 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 globalisation of wine.

Blind Ambition will be released in the UK by Curzon Films from 12 August and it will also be available on Curzon Home Cinema. A scripted series based on the documentary is underway.