Blind Ambition film: The refugees who shattered the wineglass ceiling

Ukrainian refugees feature in UNHCR’s ‘Uprooted’ film

It was on his 29th birthday that Zimbabwean waiter Joseph Dhafana tasted his first sip of wine, a dry sparkling variety. “It was unpalatable, I did not like it,” he laughs today. “I didn’t have any clue how to describe it – now I [would] say acidic, astringent and fizzy. But I grew up in a culture where wine was unknown.” Eleven years later, Joseph, now 40, is a successful winemaker and top sommelier who has competed in The World Blind Tasting Championships – known as the “Olympics of the wine world”. In the 2017 and 2018 championships in Burgundy, France, he was a member of Zimbabwe’s first ever sommelier team alongside Marlvin Gwese, 35, Tinashe Nyamudoka, 37, and Pardon Taguzu, 34.

Not one of them had tried wine until they were in their twenties.

What is even more remarkable is that all four are former refugees who left their homeland and moved to neighbouring South Africa for a better life, taking any work they could get. They encountered wine after working their way up to become waiters in Cape Town, where the hospitality industry dominates the job market.

Now their inspirational story has been told in a heartwarming new documentary, Blind Ambition, which follows the four men as they try to make their name in the elitist world of wine-tasting. The film’s directors, Warwick Ross and Robert Coe, connected with the team online and decided to record them as they trained for the competition.

“These guys were the only people of colour. Everybody else was white,” explains Warwick.

“That very traditional and conservative world had not really been shaken up and these poor guys arrived at the doorstep and started pounding on the door.

“They were ready to disrupt and we found that incredibly exciting.”

The championships are a daunting prospect for the most experienced and talented oenophile.

Teams of four must correctly identify 12 wines – six white, six red – in a so-called blind tasting, guessing the country, region, producer, grape variety and vintage.

They get a point for every correct answer.

Only 24 countries compete and Zimbabwe, where wine culture is in its infancy, is not considered a serious player.

Blind Ambition's stars running

Blind Ambition’s stars, left to right: Joseph, Pardon, Marlvin and Tinashe (Image: Free handout)

Unsurprisingly, the four men were labelled the “Cool Runnings of wine” in reference to the iconic film about the first ever Jamaican Olympic bobsled team.

Robert knew from the start this was a complicated story to tell.

“It had so many layers,” he says. “Four guys from Zimbabwe who have no culture or history of wine drinking entering into the world’s most elite wine tasting competition – plus the refugee aspect.

Then the guys were themselves so different: Tinashe was the philosopher, Joe the serious guy, Marlvin was the jokester and Pardon the cheeky one.”

Tinashe, 37, who worked at prestigious Cape Town restaurant, The Test Kitchen, left Zimbabwe in January 2008.

He grew up on his grandfather’s farm and loved his country.

But hyper-inflation, caused by President Robert Mugabe’s corrupt government, meant an entire month’s wage wouldn’t even buy him a day’s bus fare.

“I was working in a supermarket and saw first-hand how shelves were empty – you couldn’t even find a bar of soap,” he recalls. “Getting food was a mission in itself and to survive… it became unbearable.”

He packed a bag one night and left, telling no one. He knew his relatives would try to stop him. Refugees regularly perished while illegally crossing the border – some shot by police, others killed by crocodiles.

Joseph himself nearly died as he fled Zimbabwe with his wife, Amelia.

But the couple were determined to send money home to provide a better life for their two-year-son, left behind with her parents.

The pair hid in huge railway containers bound for South Africa.

Unbeknown to the 52 people packed inside the sweltering 40C heat, the freight train’s 2pm departure had been delayed by two hours.

“Women started fainting,” Joseph remembers. “Luckily one staff member was doing his patrols so heard us banging on the doors. He untied the containers, opened the doors, and saw people jumping out.”

Blind Ambition film: Joseph and Pardon study wine

Blind Ambition film: Joseph, left, and Pardon, right, study a wine (Image: Free handout)

Determined to try again, Joseph and Amelia boarded the 7pm train and successfully crossed the border.

They learnt of a Methodist church in Johannesburg offering shelter to refugees.
Today, Joseph credits Bishop Paul Verryn, who runs the church and features in the documentary, with saving their lives.

“I lived on street food for two weeks, literally,” he says.
“A local television camera passed in front of my face and my cousin spotted me on TV during a news programme.”

That cousin lived in a wine region near Cape Town and sent Joseph money to visit.

That led to a job as a gardener at theBaa Baa Black Sheep restaurant and Joseph was soon promoted to dishwasher, then barman and then waiter.

Marlvin was a computer studies student, working part-time as a waiter, which is how he caught the wine bug.

His strict religious upbringing forbids alcohol but his family have accepted his vocation. “It’s just the work of God,” he says.

He met the others through Cape Town’s vast wine industry.

Pardon, a former sommelier at Aubergine restaurant, sought out Joseph to teach him everything he knew. He comes from a family of academics and enjoys putting his research skills into practice.

“It is a talent but you have to work on it,” he explains. “There’s a lot of geography involved because you have to know the regions, vineyards and grape origins, and it’s a science because the grape is a living organism that you’re dealing with.

“It’s a complex industry and is only fun when you taste wines but beyond that, it’s a challenge.”

Blind Ambition film: The sommeliers deliberate

Blind Ambition film: The four sommeliers with their competition coach, Denis Garret, centre (Image: Free handout)

Joseph jokes his “big nose pays the bills”, adding: “I can tell you the wine from the north without tasting it sometimes… it’s a combination of a very good nose and palate, plus I have a photographic memory.”

He decided to start a Zimbabwean team after competing in the 2015 World Blind Tasting Championships for South Africa.

The men all had talent and enthusiasm but lacked funds so launched a crowdfunding campaign to get them to Burgundy in France.

Donors around the world were captivated by their ambition and they raised more than £8,000.

While it has an emotional heart, the award-winning documentary provides buckets of comedy, too, in the form of their eccentric wine coach Denis Garret.

Widely acknowledged as one of France’s greatest sommeliers, he also happens to be stubborn, hard of hearing and is, in his own words, “irritating”.

His sometimes strained interactions with the four Zimbabweans as they deliberate on the wines at speed are a hoot.

“Filmmakers, especially documentary filmmakers, sometimes get really lucky when the right project and circumstances fall into your lap,” says Robert.

“And then add Denis to the mix. We couldn’t have made this film without him.”

The four sommeliers laughing

The four sommeliers started new lives in South Africa after fleeing Zimbabwe (Image: Free handout)

The camaraderie between Joseph, Tinashe, Marlvin and Pardon is lovely to see.

“One thing that surprised us was their general optimism,” Rob says. “Despite what they faced, they had a fantastic positivity and outlook on life.

“It’s why everyone wanted to embrace them.”

As for their favourite on-screen moments, Warwick says he “still gets tingles down my spine” watching Pardon talking about his mother.

A domestic worker, she raised him and his sister, after his dad died when he was five.

“She was a strong pillar of life,” Pardon says. “She was the mother, the father, the anchor, the only person I could run to for any advice whatsoever.”

She died shortly after Pardon left Zimbabwe. Today, he lives in Amsterdam with his wife and children and runs an import-export business in African wines.

“She has had a real impact on my life and how I turned out and it’s sad that she’s not here to enjoy the success,” he says.

“She used the last bit of money she had to buy a ticket for me from Zimbabwe to South Africa.

“I hoped she would live longer to see what she invested in and the man I’ve become because of her.”

One of the most moving moments in Blind Ambition is when Bishop Verryn explains why he helped scores of refugees, like Joseph, build a new life in a foreign country.

“The world needs to wake up to the fact that migrants are not cockroaches and pests that need to be stamped out and regarded as an invasion of our sacred space,” he says.

“Some of the most profoundly developed and incredibly wonderful minds don’t fit where we think they belong.”

It’s a poignant message.

“The story highlights that when you give somebody a chance, they can shine and bring an awful lot to the fabric of the society that they’re in,” adds Warwick.

I won’t spoil the story by giving the result of the tasting competition but you may require your hankies.

The four men all share a desire to return to Zimbabwe one day. Marlvin believes his homeland could one day rival South Africa’s exceptional vineyards on the world stage.

“Zimbabwe wasn’t a wine-drinking nation 20 years ago,” he says. “Now, they’ve got so much knowledge and they have been exposed to different cultures… I definitely see a future in growing.”

Joseph now produces his own brand, Mosi Wine and Spirits, and wants his son, now 18, to “be better than me”.

And he has this message for other refugees: “There is no goal that is too high. You can be where you want to be at any given time if you put in the hours of hard work and determination.

“These youngsters now, we pioneered this whole thing. We broke the ground for them and it’s easy for them to break a piece of bread and eat.” All in all, Blind Ambition is a vintage find.

Blind Ambition will be released in cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema from August 12