Follow the true story of Zimbabwe’s first ever wine tasting team with the new documentary Blind Ambition. It’s a heartwarming and passionate account of Zimbabwean refugees Joseph Dhafana, Malvin Gwese, Tinashe Nyamudoka and Pardon Taguzu who strive to become the country’s top sommeliers. The documentary takes you through their training and a visit to France to compete in the highly esteemed World Blind Tasting Championships.
GT WINE caught up with director Warwick Ross, and sommeliers Joseph Dhafana and Tinashe Nyamudoka to discuss how the film came together.
GTW: After your 2013 film Red Obsession, did you ever intend to make another film about wine?
Warwick Ross: We were always on the lookout for another wine story but were wanting to do something very different from Red Obsession. Whereas that film was about the rise of China and shifting global power from West to East, through the prism of Bordeaux wines, this time we were hoping to find a story that explored a personal journey in wine. When we were introduced to Joseph, Tinashe, Marlvin and Pardon, we immediately recognised on how many levels their story resonated. On the surface it was the story of a team heading to a competition, but as their histories emerged, we realised it was about much more. The four had survived deprivations and repression and had overcome cultural, religious, financial and racial adversity to even get to the competition. And it was their abiding love for their mother country, Zimbabwe, that drove them – to prove to the world Zimbabweans could stand on the world stage.
GTW: How did you discover that the group of Zimbabwean sommeliers were heading to Europe to participate in the competition?
WR: Jancis Robinson, who appeared in Red Obsession knew we were looking for interesting stories in the Wine World and had been keeping her eyes open for us. When she heard from Erica Platter (of Platter’s South African Wine Guide) about these four Zimbabwean Sommeliers who were shaking up the establishment in Cape Town, she made contact with us. A few days later, we were Skyping with Tinashe, Joseph, Pardon and Marlvin in Cape Town. They made such an impression that within 4 weeks we were in Cape Town with a film crew. This is Erica’s story that was published on Jancis’s website that got the ball rolling.
GTW: Were there challenges in filming in both Cape Town and the French countryside?
WR: There were plenty of challenges in covering this story, probably the greatest of which was trying to find a way to get permission from the government of Robert Mugabe to bring a western film crew into Zimbabwe and then to roam freely across the country with our four protagonists. We were frustrated at every turn with visas promised but never delivered and hints of needing to make payments to corrupt officials to facilitate things. Eventually, we decided to take our chances and land in the capital, Harare with the vague hope of gaining visas at the airport. Our team split into several queues, to draw less attention, but were soon singled out and questioned. Convinced we were to be booted out, our fears vanished when the senior immigration officer smiled, asked us about Australia, which he’d heard was a beautiful country, stamped our passports and wished us well!
On the other hand, the single biggest technical problem was how to cover the actual competition which was held in the baronial hall of a grand Chateau, filled with teams from 24 nations and dozens of pouring staff, constantly crisscrossing the floor with flasks of wine. Eventually, to supplement our own team of four camera operators, we enlisted students from the local film school and shot the scene with nine cameras and microphones running in sync from many vantage points.
In trying to keep a step ahead of the team so as to be ready to capture events, we had set up at Paris airport at 5am for the arrival of the four somms from Cape Town. The very limited budget they were travelling on forced them to take the cheapest flight which meant a five-hour stop in Ethiopia. Excited to see the sights, the team headed out, mindful they had only limited time. Having grabbed selfies at the major attractions, it was only in the taxi nearing the airport that Tinashe realised he had misplaced his passport somewhere amidst the ancient ruins of Addis Ababa. A panicked phone call from Joseph to their coach Denis, waiting with the crew at Charles de Gaulle, broke the bad news that they had missed their plane and were on their way to hunt for the missing document. With only four days ‘till the competition, general panic set in that the team may be forced to compete without one of its most talented tasters. The feverish hunt ended when the passport was found on the step of an ancient temple and the team arrived in Paris just one day late.
GTW: How did the team garner so much wine knowledge with support behind them? (As an aside, Joseph, Tinashe, Marlvin and Pardon appear to be total naturals in front of the camera, too).
WR: Having been raised in Zimbabwe, a country with no recognised wine culture, our four sommeliers had to start gathering wine knowledge from scratch once they had crossed from Zimbabwe (a country on the verge of collapse) into South Africa. Not having known one another in their home country, each started at the bottom, washing dishes and tending vegetable gardens until each was introduced to wine working as kitchen hands in restaurants. Never having been exposed to the western fruits, commonly associated with wine-tasting, Tinashe, Pardon, Joseph and Marlvin brought their unique technique of identifying aromas and tastes in wine from indigenous fruits they had grown up with as children in the forests and mountains of Zimbabwe, like Nhunguru and Nhengeni. As their wine tasting talent grew and they began winning local wine-tasting comps in their adopted South Africa, they came to the attention of established figures in Cape Town who were enthusiastic to foster their talents by providing wines from their own collections. The four would also spend what they could of their own resources, to buy unusual wines to broaden their palates. Saturdays would often be spent around a BBQ testing each other’s palates with obscure varietals.
GTW: Joseph and Tinash, what surprised you most about France and the wine culture there, and what have you taken away from it?
JD: When I visited France, I wouldn’t say I was surprised but happy to see what I have been reading and what I was told about the country was real. They have a solid food and wine culture which dates back to many centuries ago. Of course, I learnt a lot in terms of how they are open to trying different things or different beverages when they are having food. They make sure there is glass of wine on the table when they are having a meal, even if they are having breakfast, they always have something to drink with their dishes.
TN: We study the concept of terroir of different wine making regions of the world in books. I had experienced it to a certain degree in the South African but not to the magnitude of France. How the wine is so connected to a place, the people and food was mind blowing. The French consider wine as not just a pleasure, but also a form of cultural expression. I left questioning my heritage and belonging. One thing at least was clear to me. The terroir of others is what allows us to understand our own and so I embarked on the “Kumusha Wines” journey. I want wine to be incorporated in our culture and but not change it.
GTW: Warwick, what was the highlight in working with this team of sommeliers?
WR: The highlight working with the team was witnessing the tenacity and determination they brought to their quest to win the Championship for their beloved Zimbabwe; to capture the ground-breaking nature of their challenge – and to watch the ZimSomms dismantle barriers long established by the conservative and traditional white wine world. Their disarming charm, enthusiasm and sincerity won over the teams of the other 23 nations, who recognised and embraced the rewards of diversity.
Blind Ambition will be released on 3 March by Madman Entertainment.