When Tinashe Nyamudoka and fellow Zimbabwean sommeliers Joseph Dhafana, Marlvin Gwese and Pardon Taguzu arrived at Burgundy’s Château de Gilly for the 2017 World Wine Tasting Championships (WWTC), they sensed surprise in the air.
“Everyone there had this look of, ‘Zimbabwe doesn’t make wine. How did you guys end up here?’ ” says Nyamudoka.
They were the first Zimbabwean and first all-Black team to compete in the event that Nyamudoka calls “the Olympics of blind tasting,” organized by La Revue du Vin de France, a century-old French wine publication.
Their experience is chronicled in the documentary, Blind Ambition, which won the Audience Prize at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. The documentary was made knowing how Euro-centric and overwhelmingly white that the wine establishment can be, says its director, Warwick Ross, also a winemaker.
While their stories differ, Nyamudoka, Dhafana, Gwese and Taguzu all fled their economically troubled homeland for South Africa, where they became wine connoisseurs at four of the country’s top restaurants. Their paths to WWTC shed light on the inequities of certain industry events, and demonstrate how the wine business can become more inclusive.
Why WWTC Matters
Nyamudoka remembers at the 2017 championship, the initial surprise at seeing Team Zim, as they’ve become known, soon turned to warm acceptance.
“Everyone cheered when they broke into a cappella song,” says Jancis Robinson, MW about the team’s memorable arrival.
For Nyamudoka, that reception was important.
“It’s one part I love about wine,” he says. “If you’re really in a space of people who enjoy and embrace wine and its culture, there is this one big family, and you’re embraced, too.”
Launched in 2013, the WWTC began as an exclusively European event. It became a global competition in 2015, and now teams from the U.S., China and elsewhere compete with tasters from France or Belgium.
At the annual event, teams of four must recognize 12 wines selected from nine countries, served blind in a span of two hours. They must identify the wine’s variety, country of origin, vintage, region and producer.
“It’s no joke, and so stressful,” says Dhafana, who first competed as part of Team South Africa in 2015.
“It’s a bit like you’re in hell. You get the wines, but then everyone is all over the place. For you to come to agree on the one it could be takes a lot of time.”
For some wine professionals, however, the challenge is worth it.
The event offers an “amazing opportunity to meet wine enthusiasts from around the world,” says Gwendolyn Alley, a wine writer and 2019 Team USA competitor. It allows budding and established wine pros to make connections that can led to new ventures.
The Cost of Going Global
Sommelier and winemaker Jean Vincent “JV” Ridon started the South African Wine Tasting Championship in 2013, and coaches Team South Africa for the WWTC.
“It really is a world championship,” says Ridon. “New Zealand, China, Japan take part. It’s not just Lichtenstein, Monaco and Luxembourg. Yes, for European teams, it’s easier to get there because they are a drive away from France, but many of the people travel around parts of the world. They work in the wine industry, or they just have a passion for it.”
There are geographical advantages and disadvantages, however.
“For South Africans and Zimbabweans, it’s much more complicated,” says Ridon. “There is a huge cost involved in getting there.”
In advance of the 2017 competition, Robinson helped set up a crowdfunding initiative to contribute to the Zimbabweans’ travel expenses.
The European locale and support from French partners means most of the wines are sourced locally. These bottles are not always easily available to African competitors.
“There’s clearly a home-field advantage in the sense that the wines are procured in Europe,” says John Vilja, CEO of Wine Acuity, an organization that hosts a qualifying competition for Americans who hope to advance to the WWTC.
At WWTC 2017, nine of the 12 wines poured for blind tasters to identify were European.
Representing the Future
Why do so many make the effort to participate?
For Nyamudoka, the competition brought personal and professional acceptance in the global wine community.
“It’s one thing reading about it, but experiencing it is another thing entirely,” he says. “As a wine student, it means so much. In this part of the world, we’re not exposed enough [to the international wine industry], and if you’re not exposed enough, you never improve.
“Going on a global stage gives you that platform to interact with others, to learn from others and figure out, ‘How can I use this knowledge back home?’ ”
“Going on a global stage gives you that platform to interact with others, to learn from others and figure out, ‘How can I use this knowledge back home?’ ” —Tinashe Nyamudoka, Kumusha Wines
Following the competition, Nyamudoka developed his own wine label, Kumusha, which means ‘your home’ in Shona.
Peer recognition can be valuable, says Ridon.
“It’s a way to stop doubting that [Team Zim is] here by mistake,” he says of other participants’ surprise at Team Zim’s 2017 arrival. “They are here to stay in the wine industry.”
Ridon says winning is not always the ultimate goal. “The goal is, first, not to finish last,” he says with a chuckle. “But, also, to show the world that Zimbabwe is a nest for great sommeliers.”
Dhafana calls WWTC “the apex, it’s the roof.” He says that Team Zim’s inclusion opens the door for other African wine experts or budding enthusiasts.
He and Nyamudoka want to see more African countries compete at the championships. Nyamudoka plans to get wine professionals from Kenya and Botswana involved in blind-tasting competitions, too.
According to Dhafana, many Africans “believe wine is for those who have got money, or were born in a wine-drinking family. I was not.”
Philippe DeCantenac, organizer of the World Wine Tasting Championships, would like as many countries as possible to be represented.
“For that, we try to make this event more well-known in the world, through videos, Facebook, TV coverage,” he says. “We also help new countries organize their own selection.”
Robinson welcomes new competitors and community members to wine, while Alley would also like to see more women take part.
“The industry as a whole is definitely changing since we filmed, largely as a result of the Black Lives Matter movement,” Alley says. Hopefully, the old guard can keep pace.