Zim's Supersomms

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23 June 2017 Four of these Zim Somms are now heading to the World Wine Tasting Championships in Burgundy in October 2017. We'd so appreciate your generous help to raise the money to cover their expenses for this trip via this JustGiving link.

15 April 2016 See this thread in our members' forum.

14 April 2016 This is such a heart-warming article, we are republishing it free today so that everyone can enjoy it. 

11 April 2016 When in South Africa last year, Nick and I noticed that an unexpected number of waiting staff, and particularly sommeliers, seemed to be from neighbouring Zimbabwe. Super-sleuth Erica Platter, editor and co-founder, with her foreign-correspondent husband, of John Platter’s South African Winetasting Guide in 1979, went in search of the facts about this influx from Tamlyn’s beleaguered homeland, which Tam, intrigued, describes as ‘without much heritage on the gourmet side of things, or silver-spoon hospitality for that matter'. 

It is almost as unlikely a story as the Jamaican Olympic bob-sled team: young Zimbabweans leaving their country (‘things were bad’) and, after many hardships, re-inventing 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, the only South African restaurant in the San Pellegrino World Top 50. ‘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 glamorous Ellerman House matches the spectacular architecture of the cellar, confirms: ‘If you find your homeboy [a black urban term for someone from the same background] you look after each other very well.’ They belong to their own WhatsApp group and often message during service to ask for advice. Organiser-in-chief Tongai Joseph Dhafana, sommelier at South African top-five La Colombe restaurant, sums up: ‘We help each other to climb ladders.’ The picture above shows, left to right, Tongai Joseph Dhafana, Tinashe Nyamudoka, Marlvin Gwese and Melusi Magodhi.

Melusi Magodhi (above) has travelled far and wide from his roots in rural Mberengwa where his parents were subsistence farmers. From a three-year diploma at agricultural college in Esigodini (‘the hole’) near Bulawayo, where he was quite unaware of nearby Worringham Estate, site of then-Rhodesia’s earliest vineyards (plagued by warthogs and kudu), via Johannesburg, the Swartland and Franschhoek to the Middle East, and finally back to Cape Town.

‘I come from a lovely Christian family, my parents and six brothers. I am the second child, and my name Melusi means shepherd. Soon after graduating in 2007 I decided to knock on South African doors. For the first four months I was based in the city of gold, staying with a cousin. But things never prevailed towards my dream.’ He had hoped for some sort of agriculture-related job, and trekked to the Johannesburg Fresh Market, collecting business cards. ‘Unfortunately, all was in vain.’

He took up an invitation from an uncle living in Riebeek Kasteel, the small country ‘dorp’ in the Swartland wine area of the Cape which is the hometown of star young winemakers such as Eben Sadie, Adi Badenhorst and Andrea and Chris Mullineux.

Melusi knew none of this. ‘I recall on my first day tears cascaded down upon my cheeks. It was the beginning of a new life.’

He started as a gardener but weekends and nights he cycled to the local restaurant Bar Bar Black Sheep where he became a runner. Then the job of his farming dreams, on a nearby piggery, came and went: his employer put him on the back of an open truck in the rain when driving him to the doctor. ‘He was sitting alone in front. I left the job. But all this was a learning curve and made me stronger each and every day.’

He returned to Bar Bar Black Sheep, became a waiter, then in 2010 front-of-house manager. He had still ‘never tasted wine in my life, or any alcoholic beverage’. This was a problem when boss Mynhardt Joubert was invited to compete at a top chefs’ food-and-wine event at Cape Town’s grand old Mount Nelson Hotel and needed a sommelier on his team. He picked Melusi …

‘I remember calling my father to permit me to drink wine. He consented: ‘As long as it has to do with work and you don't get drunk'. Bar Bar Black Sheep was placed third. On social media at the time, some suggested they had been robbed. Melusi had successfully paired two Italian wines, a Pinot Grigio and a Chardonnay-Sauvignon blend, with Mynhardt’s snoek cake, caramelised cinnamon sweet potato, and 'roasted cumin bread sea sand'.

Next stop, bartender at TV glamour-chef Reuben Riffel’s restaurant in Franschhoek where a guest offered him a job in Abu Dhabi. (‘A little nomadic but worth it', says Melusi.) Returning after 19 months, he rejoined Reuben, this time at his restaurant at Chamonix wine farm where he met the brilliant winemaker Gottfried Mocke (now at Boekenhoutskloof) and benefited from what he calls ‘a fantastic learning experience'. Every day off Melusi would leave at dawn to catch a train to Constantia to attend WSET wine education courses. (He has now passed 3 levels.)

‘But the biggest challenge of my wine life was that I never knew anything about it. I had never had alcohol. Picking out other fruits in a fruit! And asparagus! How was it possible? I had no clue. Grapes were to eat! So I had to drink and read in order to know. Actually, it was discovering something gold. A voice calling your name. And you have to answer.’

His current job at uber-posh, exclusive, expensive Ellerman House is ‘yet another learning curve. I want to be an ambassador for the world of wine.’

Tongai Joseph Dhafana (above) left school in Gweru with his O levels, worked at a cement company as a mill operator, then a financial clerk. Gweru was one of a handful of areas in Zimbabwe where vineyards had been planted to circumvent international sanctions against the country in the 1970s. John and I had visited its improbable Bertrams Estate winery in 2001 for our travel-adventure wine book Africa Uncorked. Joseph vaguely remembered what locals knew as ‘the grape trees’.

Travelling to South Africa in 2009 to visit a family member, he simply stayed on, but his story is a mirror of that of so many others.

While in Johannesburg he walked the streets looking for work, and slept rough. He was mugged numerous times and eventually, ‘very scared and destitute’, he joined asylum-seekers in the city’s Central Methodist Church, which had become a refugee centre, often featured in the local and international news. Watching TV one night, a cousin spotted Joseph. She was married to Melusi’s uncle, living in Riebeek-Kasteel, epicentre of the 21st-century Cape wine revolution. She tracked Joseph down and invited him to visit. After a 28-hour journey by bus and train, he arrived. The path to an unimaginable new life lay before him. ‘It was like a calling. I didn’t realise at the time. But it was meant to be!’ Joseph’s and Melusi’s improbable parallel career trajectories had begun.

‘After a few weeks I just thought of looking for a small job to keep myself busy. I told myself: gone are the office days; here I am in diaspora, and any gun can shoot. Meaning I can take any job as long as it keeps me busy and happy. My very first job on SA soil was working as a gardener at two different houses. For the lovely Zimbabwean-born Sue Pugh, and Charlotte Van Dongen who once lived in Zim. They both treated me like a family member. I still visit them regularly.

‘About 10 months later, I wanted more working days as I was slowly adapting to SA weather, culture etc. I then knocked at Bar Bar Black Sheep restaurant's door, looking for a job.’ (Melusi was a waiter there by then.) ‘I was received by the owner, a noble man, very humble and kind. His name is Mynhardt Johannes Tobias Joubert. Yes, the one South Africans saw often on Kyknet.’ Kyknet is an Afrikaans-language TV channel, and Mynhardt, a former ballet dancer with a passion for onthoukos (literally, remember-food, heritage dishes), won its first, wildly popular amateur chefs’ competition. He has since become a local celebrity, and the brand ambassador for KWV wines.

‘He gave me my second job as the restaurant gardener. I tilled the virgin land of about 50 sq m and planted vegetables. Within a few weeks my boss asked to sit down with me at the famous England table.’ (A table painted with an enormous Union Jack.) ‘I was very scared that probably I am going to lose my job. But the meeting was for a promotion. From the garden to wash the dishes in the kitchen! I gladly accepted it with a big smile while shedding tears of joy. I never threw away my two other jobs. I only reduced the days so I could make everyone happy.

‘In 2010 Mynhardt wanted to beef up his team as we were hosting the soccer World Cup in SA. He promoted me to a barman, then to waitering. On the 7 March 2010 I had the very first glass of bubbly in my life, from Mynhardt. 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. Though I tried to ignore it, 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.’

In 2013, four years after coming to the Swartland, Joseph began accumulating the first in a string of formal qualifications from the Cape Wine Academy and WSET. The next year he dived into the practicalities of winemaking. His mentors were Swartland revolutionaries Chris Mullineux and ‘my brother from another mother’ Eben Sadie. In 2014 he bought grapes and made wine with the owner of Antebellum winery, Herman Redelinghuys. Their joint-venture Fraternity Syrah and Chenin Blanc have been warmly received. (John Platter, on the Bushvine Chenin: ‘…lithe, delicious… marked elegance’.)

‘Currently, La Colombe’s big wine list is my baby. I nurse it every day.’

In 2015 Joseph competed in the SA tasting championships. He came third, earning a place in the national team competing against 20 other countries in Châteauneuf-du-Pape for the world wine-tasting title. South Africa came 12th, with its best-ever score. Crowning a year of achievements, Joseph was voted onto the executive of the South African Sommeliers Association.

‘I always like to say that determination breeds success. I am hungry for more, and to turn around people's minds. Especially those who still believe wine is only for wealthy people’.

Chris Mullineux of Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines is particularly close to Joseph and says about this group of wine talent, ‘They are remarkable, and very refreshing. For people not from the industry or even from the country to find such a calling here, it is so positive. They have a true love of wine. And they are so good at it! Perhaps because they really love it.’

Marlvin Tinashe Gwese (above) is the youngest of the bunch, and youngest of four brothers. He grew up in Harare, attending Cranborne school, where ‘all I enjoyed doing was playing cricket’. An orthodox spin bowler, his heroes are Harbhajan Singh of India and Raymond Price of Zimbabwe.

All these somms are super-connected to their friends and followers via Twitter, FaceBook, Pinterest and Instagram, but Marlvin is the one with an official IT diploma, from the Harare Technical and Commercial College. It was to study further that he came to Cape Town. But wine – ‘a revelation to me, having grown up in a beer-drinking nation, and a family that did not drink’ – got in the way.

He had taken a part-time job at the Table Bay Hotel as a waiter, was quickly promoted and moved into wine-waitering. ‘That's when my passion started growing’. He enrolled for a course with the Cape Wine Academy. A few years down the track he has sailed through all the diplomas and WSET qualifications and is en route to becoming a Cape Wine Master. In the Cape Town leg of the SA wine tasting championships in 2015 he flattened the field. He judges at a string of national competitions and, as head sommelier, is the arbiter of drinking tastes at the super-fashionable Cape Grace Hotel, voted one of the top 50 hotels in the world by Condé Nast Traveler in 2016.

He sees himself working in wine education in the future. And, specifically, being ‘a talent-spotter’ of the next generation of sommeliers and wine professionals.

Tinashe Nyamudoka (above) left his Harare hometown in 2008 ‘at the height of Zimbabwe’s woes. Things were bad politically, and worsening economically’. His only South African contact lived in Cape Town. ‘My plan was to join him, and get work ASAP.’ Tinashe had been working as an accounts clerk for a supermarket chain and hoped to find a similar job.

‘Once you were here, it was a different picture. Every job you applied for asked for a work permit and most of us were on temporary visiting permits. Part-time menial jobs, where they didn't bother asking for papers, were all you could get. Painting, paving, tiling. I did all these until I got the refugee temporary permit which allowed me to apply for more formal jobs. But once again you were rejected. They would say you're overqualified or that they needed a citizen for the job.’

Tinashe adjusted his office-job sights and took a baker's position at Spar. ‘I had supervised in a bakery before so I had a rough idea. My friend had since got a job in a restaurant at the Waterfront and it soon became evident to me that's where decent money was being made. After my shifts I would go to the internet shop and browse the Gumtree website, applying for waiter positions. On my off days I would walk the Waterfront dropping CVs.’

Out of the blue he got a call from The Roundhouse restaurant at Camps Bay. They had a runner's job going. He had applied to them via Gumtree. At his new workplace, Tinashe discovered a new interest...

‘Growing up, we never had a bottle of wine at the dinner table. My only recollection of wine was when we would sneak a sip of Green Valley from Mukuyu Winery when our mothers threw birthday parties. And my father's quarter bottle of Montello Jerepigo, which he drank occasionally. But at the restaurant, my superiors quickly noticed that I was keen on learning about wine. They ran an intensive programme called Let’s Sell Lobster. It identified staff without experience or knowledge but full of enthusiasm. Through their training, my wine journey began.’

Tinashe moved on via the fine Showroom restaurant to the hottest new hotel on the Cape Town Waterfront, the One and Only. Seasoned sommeliers Andre Bekker, Eric Botha and Luvo Ntezo spotted his talents and encouraged him to study at the Cape Wine Academy. He shot through the ranks to become sommelier at the hotel’s glossy Nobu restaurant and, off-duty, signed up for a B Comm Accounting Science degree. He won an inter-hotel wine service contest; was lured away to become head sommelier at the Oyster Box in Umhlanga; and was lured back to perhaps the best job in Cape Town's wine-advising world: head sommelier and beverage manager at The Test Kitchen, the table to eat and drink at (and one you have to book, months if not a year in advance).

Tinashe sits on various tasting panels, is off to the Michael Fridjhon judging academy to learn more, writes his final module for the Cape Wine Academy Diploma in June, and is on the home stretch of his accounting degree. Enough? Not nearly. He has now applied to the University of Cape Town Business School for their Wine Business Management course. Stop, mop brow, take deep breaths. There's more.

‘I want to venture into the African wine business network and for that I need mentorship. With proper guidance I am positive I will make a difference in the industry. I love wine, and I want it to succeed. I want everyone who drinks to drink it. Each milestone is a stepping stone to the next big thing...’

I so much enjoyed interacting with this tight-knit group that I kept a record of some of their sayings.

On somming

Marlvin: ‘It is not a one-way stream. You may push boundaries, but people must not feel intimidated.’

Joseph: ‘We have influence, but wine is all about fun! The moment you try to be very serious it is no longer fun.’

Melusi: ‘Cuisine has changed. There are new chefs, a new generation of winemakers and sommeliers. It is all about new blood! But you are an adviser. Bringing everything together. You must make people feel comfortable.’

On team spirit

Joseph, Tinashe, Marlvin, Melusi, in unison: ‘We share ideas. We work as a group. What is new, what has blown our minds. What cheap and good little wine we come across in the supermarket. What we are going to cook at home and drink tonight. We post on FaceBook and Twitter. Whatever we taste we share.’

On popularising wine

Joseph: ‘In South Africa we drink only 7-8 litres per capita per annum. It’s not enough. It’s not on! We need to educate people.’

Tinashe: ‘But education is not about taking a wine show to a (black) location. It’s about marketing. We have the key to make everyone drink wine. The influence. We have a collective following. It starts at our house and your house! Our lives are testimony to what wine is all about. We must, we do, sell that lifestyle. We encourage our friends and their friends to start buying and collecting wines, to take pictures and post them, too. And they are beginning to enjoy doing this!’

On potential envy

With unemployment a major problem among young South Africans, do these Zimbabwean ‘imports’ not encounter resentment; accusations that they are taking locals’ jobs? Xenophobia?

Tinashe ponders 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…’

On the Zimbabwe factor

Why have Zimbabwean exiles have shone so brightly in this field?
‘We grab opportunities and use them.’
‘We know that to end at the top you must begin at the bottom.’
‘It is a trait common to every Zimbabwean: we can make a job into a career.’
‘We are good at hospitality.’
‘We realise how you can change your life.’
‘Maybe people here, who have grown up in wine country, were looking to work outside wine!’
‘We are never satisfied.’
‘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!’
And they are not alone. Other Zim supersomms include SA Sommelier of the Year 2015 Lloyd Jusa at The Saxon in Johannesburg, and in Cape Town Pardon Tagazu at Aubergine restaurant and Gregory Mutambe at The 12 Apostles Hotel. And many more.

Matches made in heaven

So, at work, how adventurous and persuasive are these somms? I asked them to recall a real-life challenge of a dish, the wine partner they chose, and the guests’ reactions. Tinashe Nyamudoka at The Test Kitchen had a serious challenge with a dish of grilled kingklip marinated with curry miso paste, smoked in a concrete bowl with curry leaves and cinnamon sticks, finished under a salamander and served with coriander pesto, char-grilled heritage carrots tossed in yuzu dressing, preserved lemons, cashew nut and apricot purée and finished with a carrot beurre noisette dressing. He recommended the distinctly off-piste unfiltered Lammershoek Chenin Blanc 2013, an example of the hands-off, organic style of Craig Hawkins, no longer at this Swartland farm (football legend Franz Beckenbauer is one of the German owners). It is now sold out and discontinued but they’ve kept what was left for Tinashe. ‘The dish is intensely layered with flavours no ordinary wine can stand up to. After tasting it, I had to search for a wine with fruit, texture, acidity and great balance. It's a wine guests usually question when I pour them a taste because of its cloudiness and cider-like qualities. I always advise them it tastes better with the dish – in fact they combine so well that each and every guest leaves a comment about it! It changes their perception of food and wine pairing. Most have never had a wine like that before, some don't like it, some do, but somehow it works.’

Melusi Magodhi at Ellerman House cited the wine he chose with a dark chocolate dessert, Warwick Pinotage 2013. He claims its red cherries, cedar wood, dark chocolate and very soft tannins carried the weight and richness of the dish and complemented it perfectly proving to the guest that a red wine could indeed be consumed with a dessert.

The considerable challenge for Tongai Joseph Dhafana at La Colombe was citrus-glazed pan-seared scallop, confit pork belly crepinette with Asian barbecue glaze, kimchi, pork crackling, caramelised cauliflower purée and smoked cauliflower velouté. He successfully suggested Keermont Terasse 2014 Stellenbosch, a blend of Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Viognier, arguing that the bright acidity cut through the richness of the pork and the velouté.

Marlvin Gwese at the Cape Grace was asked to recommend a white wine to go with bobotie-spiced springbok loin, butternut arancini, cauliflower and apricot jus. He chose Lemberg Harslevelu 2012 from Tulbagh with ‘flavours of orange, naartjie, cumin and cinnamon, lingering sweetness, a creamy texture with peanut butter character on the mid palate and a long, rich finish. And that's what they drank and ate the whole of their three-night stay with us!’

© Erica Platter