Tinashe Nyamudoka – from Zim somm to winemaker

Tinashe Nyamudoka, Zimbabwean sommelier turned winemaker

Tinashe Nyamudoka was one of the team of Zimbabwean top sommeliers in Cape Town who competed in the World Wine Tasting Championships and who stars in the forthcoming documentary about them, Blind Ambition. Here’s his story. See this guide to all of our recent coverage of South African wine.

I came to South Africa in 2008 without any prior knowledge or background in wine. Wine wasn’t even my preferred choice of alcoholic beverage. My introduction to wine came through the hospitality industry when I found work at The Roundhouse Restaurant in Camps Bay outside Cape Town as a lowly runner (commis waiter).

I was fortunate that the restaurant ran a well-designed hospitality programme called Let’s Sell Lobster, whose sole mission was to equip people like me, without prior knowledge. I came in with a clean slate. Everything was clear black and white and I didn’t have any preconceptions about the wine industry. I was intrigued and was eager to learn more because I knew that the more I learnt and understood, the better I would be at selling wine to guests.

Selling a good, expensive bottle of wine meant that your guest check was high and therefore the chances were that your service tip would be more. The service staff were all Black which was probably intentional on the part of the employers. We perhaps were less privileged and less educated, so kudos to them for the commitment to empowerment. On the other hand, we could also have been an easier target to exploit than white employees.

I remember one of the issues which became evident early on was with regard to the tips. There was a pooling system where all the money was put in one pot and then divided among the staff according to a points system. We quickly realised that the management took a big chunk of the money for other use in the restaurant before sharing it among us. When we raised this, we would be told that we are ungrateful and some of us would have been stuck in a bakery or in construction otherwise.

In another incident, I was dragged to the walk-in fridge, had my work shirt ripped off and was told to leave the premises. My crime was that I had submitted my CV for employment elsewhere and they had called the restaurant for a reference. The situation escalated to the point that a few senior staff and I walked out of the restaurant after being given an ultimatum to leave or stay.

Era of the first Black sommeliers

In March 2009, I was employed at the One&Only Cape Town as a wine waiter. This is when the world of wine really opened up for me. I was part of the wine team that comprised the head sommelier, sommeliers, wine butlers and wine waiters. A few years beforehand some Black sommeliers had started to emerge in South Africa. I remember reading about Luvo Ntezo, Thato Goimane, Micheal Gabagas, Eric Botha and Greg Mutambe. The script was almost the same in all cases: underprivileged young Blacks coming into a space predominantly occupied by white people. The more humbling your story was, the more you were praised and featured in the media. It was evident to me that everyone wanted to be the poster boy, and the ones with strong public relations stood out. The PR people were also clever and in control, in that they elevated some, rejected others, and changed horses to follow fashion.

As I was starting from the bottom, I was clear about my aspiration to be a head sommelier one day. So, curious to learn, I went under the tutelage of André Bekker and Eric Botha. As the years went by, the more I learnt about the wine industry, the more I started to feel uncomfortable. I would attend wine-tasting events and most of the time be the black sheep in the room. You don’t have to be told you are not welcome, you just feel it. You feel so intimidated that you would search around the room for your kind and if you couldn’t find any, it was best to befriend the waiting staff. Over the years I’ve come to realise that this must have been a culture shock both for me and for the white folk. We were coming into their space and probably they didn’t know how best to handle the situation, but I strongly feel they could have been more welcoming. With time I got used to attending such events but wherever I felt unwanted, I would gladly find an excuse to leave.

The wine fraud

The more I learnt about wine and the industry, the more I started noticing the ugly side: exclusion, segregation and exploitation. In 2013, I represented the One&Only in the Cape Legends Inter Hotel Challenge. The biggest prize for the winning wine steward was a three-month stint in Switzerland sponsored by The White Club run by René Dehn. I was the eventual inaugural winner and was told only later that the prize was a scam. Dehn was to be accused of wine fraud. [My encounters with Dehn are described here JR.] After the competition I hosted him at Nobu restaurant for an event at which he opened the wine, or, shall I say, ‘brought some bottles opened already’. I’ve never felt so robbed of my dignity; you cannot remove the thought that you served and drank what was probably fake wine. Worse was to come in facing the humiliation of having told friends and family that I was going for an overseas trip that wasn’t to be. I felt so used.

New lease of life and opportunities

All wasn’t lost. Winning the competition put me on the radar. In the October 2013 edition of Condé Nast’s House & Garden magazine, I was named as one to watch out for in 2014. I got my first wine-judging gig as an unpaid associate at Classic Wine magazine. The turn of the new year saw me moving to KwaZulu-Natal to hold the fort as head sommelier at The Oyster Box Hotel in Umhlanga. I wasn’t a wise move in the eyes of others since KwaZulu-Natal is well outside the mainstream and you become an outcast from the rest of the industry. I used the time to reflect and figure out what I really wanted to do in the wine industry. I read a lot, journalised ideas, and some are coming to fruition only now.

A lifeline

The position as sommelier in the famous Test Kitchen (TTK) restaurant in Cape Town came a year and a half after I joined The Oyster Box Hotel. I was faced with a conundrum: do I stay longer in KwaZulu-Natal and accept the huge salary increase on offer, or do I take a massive pay cut and move back to Cape Town? I chose the latter and joined TTK in June 2015. It was a huge task to hand. I had never worked in such a fast-paced environment with so much at stake. It was the number one restaurant in South Africa and Africa for the past five years in a row, and rated 28th best in the world. The first few weeks were horrendous. I had not been given a proper handover and my fellow managers, who were white, seemed eager to throw me under a bus. I survived only because of intervention from the boss, Luke Dale Roberts, to whom I had gone to seek refuge. The confidence and faith LDR showed in me was second to none. After only a year at TTK, I managed to be given the 2016 Eat Out Best Wine Service award. It was the first time the restaurant had won this accolade. Afterwards, Luke said to me, ‘there’s no doubt you are the right guy for the job. The only challenge is how to keep you and keep you happy. I see you’re an ambitious guy and I will not get in your way as long as you remember where your bread is buttered.’

Ambition and success know no borders

I’ve always had the hunger for success and an inborn need always to prove myself. I took every wine course that I could afford. I was fortunate in that TTK graciously paid for both my WSET course and Michael Fridjhon’s wine-judging academy. My only sacrifice was paying out of my own pocket to gain my certificate in wine business management at the Graduate School of Business, University of Cape Town, while most of my South African colleagues attending the course got free bursaries. This course proved valuable as it opened up the whole wine value chain for me.

I also had the chance to start my own Kumusha Wines project as part of one of the assignments we were given. By then I was judging in local wine competitions as a full member of the jury. Perhaps my wine-judging breakthrough came when I joined as a wine panellist of the Wine of the Month Club. Dr Winnie Bowman and Christine Rudman took me under their motherly wings. They recommended me to most of the wine panels. It was via Christine and Winnie’s recommendations that I was called for the Michelangelo International Wine and Spirits Awards. Three years later, at the same competition, I met and judged alongside Paul Robert Blom, who recommended me for my first international wine judging at Mundus Vini in Germany.

2017 saw me enter the South African Wine Tasting Championships, which led to the formation of the Zimbabwean tasting team. Over the years I had honed my wine-tasting skills and harnessed my palate. I hold the second-highest WSET wine-tasting score at Cathy Marston’s International Wine Education Centre. So with all my experience in wine tasting and judging, my experience as a sommelier and my performance at wine-business school, I felt very confident in launching my own wine brand at the end of 2017.

Kumusha Wines

What started as a passion project quickly turned out to be an opportunity. It was the only way to get my teeth into the wine industry and understand, in practice, the journey from grape to bottle and glass. There wasn’t a blueprint for this. I had to start from scratch with many hurdles along the way. Luckily, Attie Louw from Opstal Estate gave me free guidance and practically gave me my first vintage for free. I also got free NDTech corks from Amorim. That was the easy part.

Then came the selling part. With so many Black people holding sommelier positions in South Africa I thought I would have it easy. It was totally the opposite. I felt betrayed. In one instant I was told it will be complicated because you’ve worked here before and they would have to seek permission from the bosses to get my wine listed. It struck me so hard that I set off on a course of introspection. I realised I had no Black-owned wine listed at my restaurant. Why? I realised that we truly needed reverse colonisation. I also felt the pressure of being questioned about why I’m supporting Black and them doubting the quality.

The following week I put five Black-owned wines on the list in TTK. Ours was the only restaurant in the top 20 to have such an extensive listing and I was never questioned about it nor sought any approval. I did, however, get a question from a manager when I put Mosi Syrah 2015, made by my wine-tasting colleague Joseph, sommelier at the rival establishment La Colombe, on the tasting menu. My reply was, ‘we can ask the chef to prepare the dish and I will let you taste and try all the options blind’.

I eventually got a few listings for my wine. The sommelier at our sister restaurant reluctantly listed my white blend after the boss mentioned it. It became a problem when it was the fastest selling wine by the glass and the predominantly Black waiters were told to sell other wines. A similar incident took place when I made delivery at a Stellenbosch restaurant. The white manageress thought I was the delivery man rather than the owner. She went on to tell the Black waiters in my presence that they should be selling other wines and not just this Kumusha wine. She tried apologising after finding out I was the owner but the damage had been done. It seemed ironic that at TTK I was listing and pushing wines from the wine farm employing her.

The deal that never was

A year after my wines hit the market to critical acclaim, I got a call from Liquorama in Victoria Falls. I was so desperate to have my wines sold in my native country. It mattered to me a lot. Ten years earlier I had left Zimbabwe for South Africa with one change of clothes and a backpack full of certificates, and here was an opportunity to go back home with a truckload of Kumusha wines. In South Africa we Zimbabweans are often criticised: ‘they’re taking our jobs’. I wanted to prove that immigrants can also contribute to the industry, and manging to export my wines was my message.

We needed affordable wines to send and, by chance, Lomond, one of the wine farms I have worked with for my brand, had the volumes and were already using the export channel. When you’re too excited you don’t read the finer details of the arrangement. I wasn’t chasing money but honour and went straight into the cellar to make the blends. We came out with a delicious Merlot, Shiraz and Sauvignon Blanc. A month after reaching the Falls the wines were in 15 different establishments. So good were the wines that we started selling the wines locally, at TTK included.

Then came Pick n Pay supermarket, and things were moving at wasp speed. I had got in touch with the Pick n Pay wine-buying team through Suzanne Ackerman. The discussions didn’t start off well. I also hated it when a wine representative went through my boss to get a listing when in the end I had the final say. Eventually, I went to the headquarters for a wine tasting. The wines and the labels were well received, in particular the ones from Lomond wine estate. My model works on working with the wine farm’s liquor licence. (One of the major hurdles for a South African wine brand is getting your own licence and it’s even worse if you’re not a citizen.) This meant my wines needed to go into Pick n Pay’s stores via Lomond.

The problem was that Lomond had been trying for three years to get a listing at Pick n Pay. If it were not for my brand, the chances are they would still be trying. After Pick n Pay said they would list my wines, I went back and evaluated what I would get out of this whole deal. I then realised I was getting a small share of the pie. I tried to re-negotiate but to no avail. I couldn’t even get the sales figures or quantities sold in South Africa and Zimbabwe. I decided to walk away and it has cost me the Pick n Pay listing. Pick n Pay were infuriated with my decision not to go ahead as planned. Considering how many farms and brands knock on their door, I was lucky and I blew it. My decision was more about honour and integrity. One day I might have the courage to fight for my dues. Luckily, they eventually sent the sales figures before I called quits. By the way, I never heard from Victoria Falls Liquorama and didn’t receive a dime from them either.

The future

I have since left the Cape Town restaurant floor for Johannesburg to seek opportunities in the rest of the wine value chain. I did my time and I’m a firm believer that to see the industry wholly transformed I have to be a player and not a spectator. We need representation and ownership in production, distribution, retail, wine communication and marketing. Kumusha Wines is my vehicle to push through this agenda. The success of the brand will be the blueprint and a case study at wine business school.