How BLACC is Changing the Game in South Africa
Sommeliers Pearl Oliver, Joseph Dhafana, Tinashe Nyamudoka and Gregory Mutambe work closely with the Black Cellar Club (BLACC), a South African association of wine professionals, to boost the profile of blacks in an industry once fraught with inequality.
Like many black wine professionals in South Africa, the four didn’t grow up in a wine-drinking culture. They hope to change the perception that wine enjoyment is an elitist pursuit. BLACC’s main target is the emerging middle class in South Africa and other African countries like Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
The organization’s aims include investment in education and work opportunities for young blacks in the industry. It also seeks to increase per capita spending on wines in South African townships and to advocate for responsible drinking.
“The idea is to have young Africans come on board and find a place [where] they feel comfortable,” says Pearl Oliver, the BLACC chairperson and bar manager at One&Only in Cape Town. “And it’s not just about South Africa. It’s about reaching out into Africa.”
With regular meetings and excursions to visit farms and producers who support its ethos, BLACC’s key members are producing wines, establishing businesses and dreaming big.
Ishay Govender-Ypma is an ex-lawyer, freelance journalist, cookbook and guidebook author. Her work appears in local and international publications like National Geographic, Saveur, The National UAE, Food & Wine and Literary Hub. www.ishaygovender.com; @IshayGovender
In 2002, Pearl Oliver joined Catharina’s restaurant at the Steenberg wine estate as a food runner. After she worked her way up to sommelier, Oliver headed several top Cape Town restaurants before her current role at the city’s prestigious One&Only hotel. Oliver plans to open informal township-style bars in the future.
You made an unlikely leap into wine. Tell us about that.
I lost my father when I was 19. As the youngest child, I had to fend for myself. I started working at a steakhouse and then as a runner at a fine-dining restaurant. The next day, I was promoted to waiter.
With BLACC, we are building bridges between the old guard and the newcomers. I also want to help women who are trying to balance careers with motherhood.
My manager at the time told me, “To make it in this industry, you need to start drinking wine.” At first, it tasted terrible, but it planted a seed. Many black sommeliers I know started out with wine only in adulthood.
What inspired your interest in entrepreneurship?
We grew up in Lavender Hill, a very poor area, but not a poor home. My dad ran a few small businesses fixing cars [and] selling fresh produce. He encouraged us to make our own way in life. At Steenberg, I learned that to succeed, you need to climb the corporate ladder. I recently had an opportunity to study wine business management, and I started my post-grad [studies]. This is where I began to examine the business of the beverage.
Has that helped you in your new role?
Absolutely. People have questioned why I gave up a career as a sommelier to manage a bar. I’m learning more about the beverage side, how to be innovative, how to manage people. It’s a details-driven job. Also, I’m in a transition phase. As [a] mother, I get to spend more structured time with my children.
What are your plans for the next decade?
With BLACC, we are building bridges between the old guard and the newcomers. I also want to help women who are trying to balance careers with motherhood. There are sacrifices you need to make, but you also need a support structure. And I want to open a string of shebeen-style bars [speakeasies usually found in townships]. I can picture myself rocking the industry like that.
From asylum-seeker to winemaker for Mosi Wines and head sommelier at La Colombe, one of the premier fine dining restaurants in the country, the Zimbabwean-born Joseph Dhafana has made some waves. He recently passed the Level 2 South African Sommeliers Association (SASA) qualifications, one of only seven sommeliers to do so.
You had a harrowing entry to South Africa. Tell us about that.
In 2009, my wife and I paid $20 to escape Zimbabwe on a cargo train. But we were trapped in the container in the blazing sun, and the women were screaming, passing out. Luckily, we got out and tried another time, by night. We had to jump off as soon as the train stopped in Musina, and we were led to a refugee camp.
My first job in South Africa was digging graves, then gardening. We moved to a rough part of Johannesburg. I slept on the street, my wife in a church camp. Those were difficult days.
Your trajectory into wine and the fine-dining scene was swift and seems at odds with those days of struggle.
I made a big jump in a short space of time. I worked as a waiter in the Swartland [approximately 1½ hours from Cape Town] and then a wine waiter. In 2010, at the age of 28, I had my first sip of wine. I studied and completed various wine qualifications from my own pocket.
In 2014, I was promoted to head sommelier at La Colombe, where I still am. [The same year] with the advice of top Swartland winemakers, I produced my maiden wine, under the Mosi Wines label. In 2015, I became a certified wine judge and recently, I completed the Level 2 qualification with SASA.
Has your journey influenced your thoughts on mentorship?
Yes. La Colombe played a risky card by employing me. They trusted me, and I told myself I will pay this forward. BLACC is a group of like-minded people who want to help the community.
I’m working on several fundraising projects. Ten years ago, there wasn’t a black sommelier on the floor. Now, we’re the pioneers and have to be mentors. I’m grooming the next generation of sommeliers.
Tinashe Nyamudoka, head sommelier at The Test Kitchen in Cape Town
As the head sommelier at world-renowned The Test Kitchen in Cape Town, Tinashe Nyamudoka serves patrons with a worldly palate. The native Zimbabwean also uses his accounting qualifications and skills learning during a stint where he managed a supermarket to build his Kumusha Wines brand.
In that way, we can move the language in wine writing from Euro-centric to what we Africans know.
Tell us about your role at The Test Kitchen
Unlike [other places I’ve worked], here I’m the beverage manager and sommelier. So all the responsibilities for sourcing, purchasing and food pairings, I carry. I can taste a wine today and have it delivered tomorrow. At [one] stage, I was the only black guy on the floor, and my suggestions didn’t go down well until Luke [Dale-Roberts, the owner/executive chef] stepped in. It’s an intense environment, and everyone wants [to] get on our wine list.
Why the move to creating your own wine?
I am always looking at the bigger picture. I love wine. I like the theory. I’m a qualified judge, but I don’t want to sit around debating the nitty-gritty. I’ve always been business-minded, having studied accounting.
With Kumusha, I knew I’d handle all aspects like sourcing grapes, production, creating the labels and distribution. Being part of the whole value chain—that’s real empowerment. Kumusha means “roots” or “home,” and [it] reminds me of where I come from.
Is that a message you’re sharing with BLACC?
Yes. There are many blacks making their own wines now, but selling it isn’t easy. We have to leverage all our skills, drive the whole value chain, from production to sales. Also, in that way, we can move the language in wine writing from Euro-centric to what we Africans know. I drive that message home.
Gregory Mutambe, head sommelier at Cape Town’s 12 Apostles Hotel & Spa
Gregory Mutambe, head sommelier at Cape Town’s luxurious 12 Apostles Hotel & Spa, left his native Zimbabwe in 2006 to study wine and business in Johannesburg. Soon, he worked his way up to craft one of the most comprehensive and exciting wine lists in Africa. He was recently chairman of the Black Cellar Club (BLACC), founded in 2016 as a professional association for black sommeliers, chefs and other hospitality professionals. In his work with BLACC, Mutambe seeks to make the wine industry a more equitable space for black consumers.
How did you come to have such a huge role in South Africa’s wine scene?
I started my career in one of the most unlikely places to be in wine, at Mukuyu Winery in [Zimbabwe], where there are only two or three wineries still in existence. Compare that to more than 600 in the Cape. I moved to Johannesburg initially, and by the time of the soccer World Cup [in 2010], I was at the Vineyard Hotel in the Cape, which has a very strong wine program. That was an exciting time with the stream of tourists. At the 12 Apostles, I have a more hands-on role. I helped to put the hotel on the map as a wine destination.
“If you look around and see a person like you doing great things, you feel like you can achieve it, too.”
What are some of the challenges you face?
It’s inevitable in this job that you will be undermined, either at a tasting room or by patrons. I’ve been to many events where I look around, and I’m the only person of color. That can be discouraging.
How do you view mentorship?
I’m lucky to count [Zimbabwean] Winemaker Tariro Masayiti of Springfontein [Wine Estate] as one of mine. If you look around and see a person like you doing great things, you feel like you can achieve it, too. This person becomes a catalyst for your own dreams. The lack of exposure may discount many of us, but we want to change that. I have a few guys I am mentoring currently at the hotel.
What are BLACC’s immediate goals?
It’s important that we support black winemakers, sommeliers and emerging professionals. BLACC aims to provide holistic support at every step. We want to raise the capital consumption of wine in the black community. There is already a huge spend on premium brandies, Cognacs and single malts. Of an 80% black population, if we can get just 10-15% buy in, that’s huge. From my side, I plan to open a wine academy one day
- 1Pearl Oliver
- 2Joseph Dhafana
- 3Tinashe Nyamudoka
- 4Gregory Mutambe