Meet the stars of “Blind Ambition”, the Zimbabwean refugee sommeliers who made history in France

“I did not like.”

You wouldn’t expect an award-winning sommelier to say that about their first wine tasting. But Joseph Dhafana still remembers the bitter, acidic burn of his first sip – he was in his twenties and not a fan.

At 23, Tinashe Nyamudoka also thought her introduction to red wine was deeply unpleasant.

“It was like biting into a green stalk,” he says, of its tart, “mellow” taste. “The first sips weren’t that memorable or charming.”

A few bottles of Gamay, Nebbiolo, Syrah and Chenin Blanc later, they were converted. In fact, the respected sommeliers became Zimbabwe’s first-ever representatives at the World Wine Tasting Championship in 2017.

Their teammates also had unlikely starts to their wine careers. Sommelier Pardon Taguzu was shaken by his first drink. “I got sick for two days,” he says in blind ambitionthe award-winning Australian documentary that follows their memorable journey to world competition in Burgundy, France.

Marlvin Gwese, their other teammate, was a member of the Pentecostal church when he was growing up – and his religion didn’t allow the consumption of alcohol (although he wondered if Jesus’ first miracle of changing water into wine could leave room for a loophole).

Although they are now established in the glamorous world of wine, what makes their successful careers even more incredible is that just over a decade ago they were refugees looking for a second luck in life.

The men are from Zimbabwe, but as conditions in the country deteriorated in 2008 – with prices doubling every 24 hours due to government economic mismanagement – ​​a monthly salary wouldn’t even cover your ticket. bus. Nearly half of the country suffered from chronic malnutrition. “There was nothing: no food on the shelves, no cash in ATMs, it was so hard to get food,” Dhafana says.

He decided to flee instead of starve – choosing not to tell his mother when he left, as he didn’t want to upset her. “She was going to say, ‘no, you can’t go, because you’re going to die.'”

His mother was not mistaken about the dangers of leaving: many people died crossing the border. You could be shot by police or soldiers, or be attacked by crocodiles along the risky road.

He paid smugglers to ferry him and his wife Amelia out of Zimbabwe: they were locked in an airless rail container which began to ‘bake’ its passengers in the extreme heat, with people fainting from relentless temperatures.

“Fortunately, we arrived in South Africa,” he says in blind ambition“but we almost died.”

Nyamudoka, who fled before Dhafana, assumed his relocation would be temporary – perhaps he would return after watching the last World Cup game in December 2008. “We realized it was not improving and that we had to make our life here,” he says. It was 14 years ago.

Being a refugee in South Africa was difficult: Zimbabweans endured assaults, violent xenophobic attacks and other challenges. One man who came to their aid was Bishop Paul Verryn of the Central Methodist Mission church in Johannesburg: he gave them shelter and never turned anyone away, eventually helping 30,000 refugees during his time there.

“This man saved our lives,” Dhafana says in the documentary. “There are so many people who have helped me…I owe the world so much.”

“Luckily we made it to South Africa, but we almost died.”

He is particularly grateful to Mynhardt Joubert, who offered Dhafana a job as a market gardener at his restaurant Bar Bar Black Sheep in 2009. His boss also poured him sparkling wine on his 25th birthday.and anniversary – and the fizzy bubbles gave Dhafana a permanent buzz for fermented grapes. (In fact, the winery that made this memorable drink is the same one that produces Dhafana’s own wine today.)

As the four refugees became sommeliers at Cape Town’s finest restaurants, writer Erica Platter shone the spotlight on them, featuring them on the website of renowned wine critic Jancis Robinson in 2016. When Robinson learned of their dream of representing Zimbabwe at the World Wine Tasting Championship the following year, she launched a fundraising campaign for them. “Every day we watched the money go up and up,” says Nyamudoka, who noticed employees and friends participating happily. “It was an incredible feeling.” The campaign exceeded its £6,500 target, attracting support from people in the Netherlands, Switzerland, the United States and other corners of the world.

And that’s when blind ambitions the filmmakers, Warwick Ross and Robert Coe, first heard of the story in Sydney. After chatting with the four sommeliers on Skype (who happened to be fans of the duo’s previous wine documentary, red obsession), Ross and Coe flew to Cape Town a few weeks later to shoot Blind ambition – although they had no financial backing for their film and had to pay for the film themselves first. “They were already training for the championship and we didn’t have a lot of time to waste,” Ross said.

The sommeliers had to face many obstacles before the competition. First, they couldn’t access the types of wines that someone in, say, London or New York might have. Moreover, they had a modest budget to buy bottles to practice with: the men had to taste a wide range of vintages, grape varieties, regions and producers in order to accurately guess which wines would enter the competition. blind tasting.

“Winemakers from South Africa to Cape Town who knew their history…were kind enough to open up their cellars a bit and help them out,” Ross says. Other people also kindly donated wines or gave them samples.

When the Zimbabwean team landed in Europe days before the competition, the sommeliers embarked on a tasting spree through Champagne, Rheingau and other wine regions. “Here are these chateau owners, opening their cellars, giving them a taste of Rieslings dating back to 1958,” says Ross. Because they could only afford to be in Europe for a few days, they tasted wines at every free moment – even at 3 am in the car. “Guys were drinking in the car, tasting in the car, cutting up plastic water bottles and using them as spittoons,” Ross says.

Another challenge taken up by the sommeliers? Wine books traditionally describe the flavor in European terms: blackberries, strawberries and other fruits unknown to Zimbabweans.

“It was quite difficult to associate [wine with] these blackcurrants, these blackcurrants, these cherries – even until now, I’ve never actually seen blackcurrants,” says Nyamudoka. “I grew up eating mazhanje, matamba, matunduru, zhanje and masau.”

A wine-tasting competition in Burgundy – international as it is – could easily put someone who grew up with a palate shaped by wild Zimbabwean fruits like creamy, pastry maroro, rather than European red currants, at a disadvantage. But the sommelier ultimately saw his vocabulary of African flavors as an asset: “It made me appreciate wine more, because I spoke it in a language I was used to and I had brothers who shared the same experience. with me.

“It was quite difficult to associate [wine with] those black currants, black currants, cherries – even so far I’ve never seen a black currant actually. I grew up eating mazhanje, matamba, matunduru, zhanje and masau.

Another hurdle the Zimbabwean team faced: some of the wines poured into the competition were really obscure. It’s hard to accurately predict that you’re drinking Chasselas when Swiss white wine has no distinct flavor and it’s almost impossible to source it from outside the country (only 2% of Swiss wine is sent overseas). ‘foreigner).

“You have European grapes grown in the New World regions, and how are these guys [to] have you ever tasted these? said Ross. “One of the wines in the competition was a Mexican nebbiolo – I don’t think anyone has pulled off that combination.”

In blind ambition, Nyamudoka challenges the obsession with where wines come from and suggests focusing where the wine takes you. “And he combines that with a sense of kumusha, a Shona word that means your ancestral place, your home — not necessarily a physical location,” Coe explains.

The sommelier actually named his business Kumusha and hopes to one day harvest grapes from his grandfather’s Zimbabwean farm to make wine. Maintaining your family roots is especially powerful when you have had to flee your homeland.

“This movie was [about] much more than just a competition,” adds Coe. “It was more than those four guys. It was specifically about refugee life and what it means to have a connection to a place. It’s a universal theme that can really resonate with everyone.

In fact, the film’s welcome focus on generosity, resilience and inclusion might be why it won audience awards at the Tribeca and Sydney film festivals. blind ambition has been sold to Japan, USA, UK, Scandinavia, Germany and many other countries as well, and the documentary never forgets that this is ultimately a refugee story.

“Four of us are lucky to be able to tell our stories,” says Nyamudoka. “This story is [there are] millions of people around the world who have been there. It’s not our story, it’s the story of human beings, it’s the story of perseverance. We were just lucky – our faces are shown and we can tell the story, but I believe it is the story of many who have been through what we have been through.

blind ambition has been in theaters since March 3.

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