Zimbo Supersomms – the movie

Rob Warwick filming Joseph chez Sue Pugh

Erica Platter, who introduced four remarkable Zimbabwean Supersommeliers to us in April 2016, now reveals that a film is to be made of their quite remarkable story. 

Next Saturday 14 October crack tasting teams from 27 nations are heading to Burgundy to compete in the World Blind Wine Tasting Championships. Current champions, and hotly favoured to retain their title, is the team from China. But injecting new energy, charisma and crowd appeal into this esoteric sport is the unlikeliest team in the competition, from Zimbabwe. 

Tongai Joseph Dhafana, Tinashe Nyamudoka, Marlvin Gwese and Pardon Tagazu swirl their glasses, sniff deeply, taste, spit, pronounce. Then do it again and again. They are four of Cape Town's classiest restaurant sommeliers, respectively from La Colombe, The Test Kitchen, Cape Grace Hotel and Aubergine, and on their day off they are in training for the World Championships. Slotting their own references and associations into their memory banks.

‘Cow dung', they all agree about a (rather famous) South African red blend. ’Derere!’ (okra in Shona) they pronounce on a Cabernet. ‘Nhunguru’ (a wild plum) identifies a Merlot. And so on... This is a new world of wine. These are new-generation sommeliers, making wine their own and – with big-number WhatsApp, FaceBook and Twitter followers – bringing wine to a thirsty new generation of non-traditional drinkers.

Filming them is a crew from Australia-based Third Man Films, the production arm of major distributor Madman Entertainment. This is the ‘the first cab off the rank’ for Third Man, newly created by director Warwick Ross and producer Rob Coe. This formidable team was behind the hugely successful international documentary Red Obsession (voiced by Russell Crowe, rave-reviewed by Robert de Niro), which won a swathe of international awards. It documented China's insatiable thirst for expensive French reds.

For three years, they had been looking for a new story to tell. Ideally a wine story. Warwick is himself a vigneron and owner of Portsea Estate on the Mornington Peninsula, producing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Jancis made the pitch [I thought this was such a great story that it deserved to be a film and circulated news of it to likely contacts – JR]. On 8 September there was news from Down Under. Warwick Ross, after meeting the team collectively and individually via Skype emailed: ‘It's on!’ Specialist advisor and MW Andrew Caillard, of Pinnacle Drinks in Australia, messaged: ‘We are thrilled to be launching into this great story with you and the guys.’

Zimbabwean-born Tamlyn Currin of JancisRobinson.com commented: ‘It’s a powerful story, totally unique, and deserves to be told. Film would bring it to life. It would be especially moving if you could get some footage in Zim, to show people quite how staggeringly determined and courageous these men are.’ 

Just two weeks later, the film crew hit the ground sprinting in Cape Town, and immediately began shadowing the team at work and play, with family and friends and mentors, tasting their personal wines (Jo and Tinashe have their own labels) and others, in many of the significant places which signpost their paths from refugee centres to the top restaurants in South Africa. Above right is team captain Jo being filmed recently by Rob (left) and Warwick in the Cape garden where he used to work. It belongs to Sue Pugh, an old school friend of Tam's from Bulawayo. Small world. Below are the guys in their team T-shirts.

’I almost thought I was dreaming', says Joseph.

Marlvin, youngest of the team: ‘To be able to share our own stories with the world! It was a dream come true.’

Pardon echoes his teammates: ‘It feels like a dream but exciting. I never imagined myself in this high magnitude documentary and being filmed by one of the best film producers in the world!’

The pace and rigours of movie-making quickly kicked in. Joseph admits, ‘This film demands lots of time and I struggled a bit to juggle with all my duties. You need to be off or wake up early do the filming and then work double shift.’

It is not going to get any less hectic in France, pre-competition. In Champagne, Alsace, Burgundy and on a side-trip to Germany with their coach, French sommelier Denis Garret, they will be cramming in as many wine experiences as possible, with the film crew still on their tail. Tinashe is especially looking forward to posing in front of the Eiffel Tower (‘signalling my long-overdue appearance in France', he jokes). And the whole team is fervently hoping to walk through the Romanée-Conti vineyard. (Joseph's dream is also to taste there, ‘with less spitting, though’.)

Are they taking any good luck charms or rituals into the competition, apart from their Zimbabwean flag? They are horrified. There are no such things in blind tasting, they all insist. ‘Your first guess is the answer', says Joseph. But they are devout Christians and agree with Tinashe, who advises: ‘A prayer always gives belief and confidence...’ Pardon firmly closes the discussion: ‘The only charm is prayer.’ (A game plan that may be hard to beat...)

And so, right now, all eyes, noses and palates are on the big tasting competition, organised by the French wine magazine La Revue du Vin de France. Team captain Joseph is not entirely a stranger to this particular world championship. He had taken so brilliantly to his new life in wine, passing every exam and coming third in the South African sommeliers competition in 2015, that he was drafted into the South African team. But coach Jean-Vincent Ridon (again taking the SA team to Burgundy) knew that Joseph's heart lay in Zimbabwe, and it was J-V who arranged with the organisers the admission of Team Zim this year.

The burning question of how to finance the team's flights and day-to-day expenses was answered in an appropriately modern way: crowd-funding. Articles on this website drove the process on JustGiving. In under three months, thanks to 82 donors, the target was surpassed. The team had lift-off! Cue Zimbabwean flags, jackets, t-shirts, team photo shoots and arrays of training wines.

It will be a relatively short and sweet journey this Sunday night, by air to France, compared with the long hard treks they made in search of a new and better life, by rural bus and slow trains from Zimbabwe to the Cape nearly a decade ago.

Captain Jo wrote to Jancis: ‘We are overwhelmed by your support. We all celebrated at our respective establishments when we saw that the target was reached. Really great news. I would like to thank each and every one of you for your effort and support to make this dream come true. Honestly, words only cannot express how we feel right now. This world is full of generous people. We as a team will do our best to make everyone happy...’

He signed off, as he does all his emails, with these words:

‘In water you see your own reflection, in wine you see the heart of another.’

After the competition, and a visit to the Netherlands to one of their most generous crowd-funding benefactors, the team comes home, back to work. They are all acutely aware that they are trailblazers. That they have a duty to show others the way. And to continue breaking new ground.

After the excitement of the competition, whatever the result, Joseph is committed to ‘educating the new crop of sommeliers, raising wine awareness and paving the way for the young ones’. He will also be campaigning for much more widely representative judging panels, which feature up-and-coming and well-qualified young wine tasters. Marlvin is targeting ‘mentorship and wine education’. But most of all, ‘I would really like to get people to find wine FUN!’ Pardon hopes to ‘inspire as many upcoming sommeliers as possible; to contribute to the growth of the wine industry in Africa'.

‘Living up to expectations', is Tinashe's mission. ‘Lots of young aspiring somms are looking up to us to perform and lead from the front. I want to do my part in motivating, supporting and mentoring future talent.’

Next year, the final scenes of their movie will be shot. Zimbabwe will feature. And here is a prediction: Robert de Niro will love this one, too!

Nyama yekugocha!

This is the team's Shona rallying cry. Literally translated, it means 'the meat is braaing'. (Cooking on the fire.) Joseph explains: It is ‘a motivational song which we Zimbos sing when the national soccer team is playing. Just to boost the morale.’