Part Two – Winemakers and Sommeliers
When harvest ended in early April my immersion in African wine culture continued. Have you ever heard the term Sapiosexual, it’s a person who is attracted to smart people. I need a term for people like me who are attracted to wine people...Winosexual? I am attracted to anyone who loves talking about wine, especially winemakers and sommeliers.
After harvest ended I spent most of my days tracking down winemakers at boutique wine farms. With my newly acquired knowledge from working harvest I created a list of questions. I’d happily skip into tasting rooms and politely request to chat with the winemaker. My favorite question, what grape do you enjoy working with? After all the acquired knowledge that was the best question I could think of. It turned out to be a great ice breaker. The winemakers would spend hours chatting with me and sometimes share special bottles of unreleased vintages or their special blends not sold for retail. The winemakers would share stories of their start in the industry, their side passions and their harvest experiences abroad.
One of my favorite visits was to Grangehurst. I met the owner/ winemaker Jeremy Walker. When I mentioned to Jeremy my particular excitement was about women and people of color involved in the wine industry he kindly boasted about graduating Stellenbosch University with the first world renown woman winemaker Dr. Hildegarde Heymann. He also very proudly introduced me to his assistant winemaker Gladis, a beautiful black woman who was extremely shy however passionate about wine. I could feel the passion beaming from her smile.
Jeremy spent a good amount of time talking to me about wine. He poured his vintage wines and talked Pinotage. Jeremy appropriately described the unique and diverse grape in a way that made the grape sound like the world class representation of South Africa that it is. All of Grangehurst wines are vintage, which I absolutely love. It’s like someone gifting me the patience and will power to lay down wine for a while. My favorite was the Nikela. I pronounce it Nike –LA however the correct pronunciation “ne-gay-la”. Nikela means a gift or an offering.
When I was not in the tasting room I was still tracking local wine makers on my hit list. I tracked down Ntsiki Biyela who makes Aslina wines. When trying to arrange a sip and chat she offered me an invitation to a Braai at her home. (A braai is a South African BBQ.) Of course I jumped at the opportunity. I went to her home a couple days before she was to start her USA wine tour. Just one year before I had met Ntsiki at PYDA (Pinotage Youth Development Academy) and interviewed her for my social media page. I was impressed with her story, a student with absolutely no experience with wine who excelled when offered a scholarship to study wine. After graduating Stellenbosch University she landed a job as a winemaker for one of South Africa’s most historic wineries and now has her own brand, Aslina. As you can tell I am a proud ambassador and somewhat groupie. A highlight of my African story, chilling in Ntsiki’s backyard taking selfies, grilling meats and talking about everything that matters in life; food, wine and music. I could not believe I was actually living the story I had once only dreamed about.
I eventually moved from the suburbs in wine country to the city center of Cape Town. The focused transitioned from conversations in lush vineyards to dining experiences in some of Cape Town’s high end, hip and fancy restaurants. Instead of tasting with winemakers at vineyards I sought out to taste at world class restaurants that had the best sommeliers. I started this adventure at the Cape Grace hotel. I arrived for an impromptu visit with Tinashe Marlvin Gwese. For him it was random, for me he was just another somm on my hit list!
One of my dreams when I was an adolescent protesting against Apartheid was to eventually visit the fanciest hotel in South Africa, lounge by the pool and order the fanciest meal and drinks they had. The Cape Grace is definitely one of the fanciest, the pool idea was out of the question due to the water crisis so I waited in the Cape Grace bar stalker style drinking specialty cocktails and wine for two hours until Gwese finally arrived to work. I was excited to meet the Zimbabwe born wine guru. He is the head somm at Cape Grace, a hotel that 30 years ago I would not have been allowed to lounge around in during the segregation era of Apartheid. Gwese was charming and professional. He offered my friends and I a bottle of MCC sparkling wine, we chatted for a bit and took selfies. Mission accomplished! One down and I had a couple more on my hit list.
The next Sommelier on the hit list was Luvo Young Ntezo at the famous One and Only hotel. I learned my lesson and made an appointment with Ntezo. The well-traveled Ntezo graciously gave me the time I needed for a behind the scenes look at life as a top Sommelier in South Africa. I literally thought I was going to burst from excitement as he toured me around the glass, climate controlled cellar. Although the One and Only had a great collection of international wines, I could see that Ntezo was most proud of the amazing collection of South African wines. Ntezo was responsible for sourcing both international and domestic wines for the One and Only. Some of the wines I was familiar with and proud I had the same in my collection. After the tour Ntezo sat with me on the patio to talk wine, people and passions. Although he could not share the names he did hint that he had pulled corks for some of my favorite celebrities. Although eloquent in his language and wine knowledge the conversation with Ntezo was humble and insightful. He made the most exquisite of fine wine sound like everyday table wines. No matter the wine French, German, Afrikaans he pronounced all like they were his native language.
Last but certainly not least my good friend, winemaker and head sommelier at the Test Kitchen Tinashe Nyamudoku. Over the past couple years Tinashe and I have become friends. When I visited South Africa for the first time three years ago I did research, looking for people excelling in the wine industry in South Africa and that is when I found out about Tinashe. From that moment onward he became the first South African Sommelier on my list. I was fascinated with his journey. Like myself he did not grow up in this wine life, our parents did not have fine wine with dinner neither had we grown up traveling the world tasting fine wine. Tinashe paired his natural talents, study, and hard work with amazing character to become one of the world’s top sommeliers. He gained international fame and has become a decision maker at the world’s number fifty restaurant, number one in all of South Africa. Let’s take a break and let that soak in.
A few days before I was to leave Cape Town Tinashe stopped by my apartment in Cape Town to drop off a few bottles of his wine, Kumusha. The wine is beautiful, a 50/50 blend of Cinsault and Cabernet Sauvignon. It drinks like a crowd pleaser but leaves an impression like the life of the party. Exactly what Tinashe intended. When I asked him “my favorite question, what grape do you enjoy working with?”, he replied “It’s about creating texture”, he explained that taste and feel was what he was after when making Kumusha. That afternoon Tinashe and I drank his wine, shared some wine from the US and exchanged stories about our wine experience in Africa. We talked about his wine and what it means to him, to African and to the wine world. He explained that the name Kumusha means a place where you come from, a community or neighborhood. He told me that his motivation for creating his own wine label was to extend his community into the wine world “by telling an African story through wine”. We share this desire and two years ago when we first met it was a dream that now we are both living. Reminds me of the Biggie Smalls lyrics, “It was all a dream, we used to read Wine Enthusiast (sp) magazine.”
I spent three months in the Western Cape of South Africa working a harvest and immersing myself into an African wine story. The goal was to narrate my own wine adventure. The timing was perfect, I escaped from my corporate American narrative just in time for harvest season in the Southern Hemisphere. This was definitely one of life’s bigger decisions for me. My rationale, I could always return to my ordinary story however the opportunity and fearlessness to live my dream as an adventure story may not return. My dream was to learn, to absorb and also to give back in a wine life. To help manifest this dream I wrote down three soul feeding objectives: work a harvest, volunteer and study wine.
Out of all the countries in the Southern Hemisphere South Africa was my number one choice for this adventure of a lifetime. I had previously visited the popular wine region Stellenbosch and was familiar with South African Culture and the wine community. South Africa is a beautiful place where people unite through past experiences. It’s rich in culture and budding traditions, especially in the wine industry. To be transparent, I especially love it because it’s the only place in the world where diversity is prominent in all aspects of the wine world. Workers in the vineyard, the cellar, the tasting room and sommeliers at world class restaurants, people are exceling in all shades which offered a perfect framework for my African wine story.
Now let’s go, take a virtual trip with me and live a South African wine story.
Part 1 of 3 - Harvest & Volunteering
I landed in Cape Town in March full of excitement and ready for whatever wine adventures were soon to come. A couple days later I eagerly reported for work at DeToren Wine Farm. I worked three weeks at DeToren, each day the team was surprised to see me back. Harvest is no walk in the park. Although the days were long and tiring, working harvest was a magical experience. I loved every moment! From picking and sorting grapes, to using every muscle in my body to break through the hardened yeast caps during punch downs, the repetitive pump overs to mix wine and move fermenting juice from one tank to another, and even the spotless cleaning required after every process, the narrative to my carefully crafted wine adventure was unfolding into a soul feeding experience. Every day seem to be filled with good people and better wine. One of my most memorable experiences at DeToren was working the sorting table where we hand selected berry by berry grapes for Book XVII wine. There I stood with migrate workers from Zimbabwe when Tim Atkin walks up, I greeted him with a friendly California hello. After he recognizes my accent and duly noted “positive American vibes” I did my best to inspire one who I thought was a tourist visiting the wine farm. I tell him that working harvest is the best way to learn about wine. (I am thinking to myself quit your job and come join me in the cellar.) I feel proud of myself for trying to recruit another member to my wine tribe. After he walks away, the intern ask if I knew who I was talking to. “Hum, well, yes he said his name was Tim Atkin” She replied “the world famous, Master of Wine, Tim Atkin.... one mention of your name by Tim and you become famous in the wine industry”. Well alright then Tim! For the rest of the day I could not get Beyoncé’s song out of my head...”say my name... say my name”.
One time the assistant wine maker at DeToren asked if I could help stomp grapes for the exclusive Black Lion Label. My heart jumped with excitement. He lower me by fork lift into an over-sized stainless steel crate full of freshly picked Shiraz grapes. I marched in the crate with my bare toes pressing and gently breaking the grape skins. I could feel the soul of wine wiggle between my toes. My own real life, “I love Lucy “moment. I could hardly believe the moment I was living… bare feet in fresh grape juice in the southernmost part of the African continent, blissful. (Not to worry part of the process is to sterilize your feet before the big stomp.)
On my days off from DeToren I volunteered at a school called PYDA, Pinotage Youth Development Association. It is a program that trains Black South Africans to work in the wine industry. The students are between the ages of 18 and 24 in this program they earn a well-rounded education in the wine industry that includes everything from learning about vineyard techniques, to working in a tasting room and even wine tourism. Since my first visit to South Africa I have made it a point to visit with the students. I share wines from America and knowledge about wine and entrepreneurship. This visit I taught an American wine class showcasing wines from all over America, New York to California and everything in between. I usually take an entire case to share with the students, it’s usually their first and in some cases the only time they may have an opportunity to taste a high end California Cab.
Before my first day of class the program director told me the program had grown. Great I thought until I realized that also meant I would have 50 students in my class. Hosting a wine tasting for 50 adults does not scare me, however for 50 youths between the ages of 18-24 made me nervous as heck. The class and tasting went well. So well that by the end of it the students were excited about American wines. We finished the day posing for selfies and exchanged social media information.
I was happy that I was able to share American culture through wine education. I even used hip hop to explain that the Fingers Lake region is in New York, on the East Coast and Napa on the West Coast, in California. Think Biggie from the East and Tupac from West.... oh now they understood the geography of the United States. Part of my volunteer time with the students included arranging a day to work in the Vineyards harvesting grapes. I reached out to my wine farm contacts and secured a farm for us to harvest grapes for a day. Vivian the owner at Seven Sisters helped organize and offered her neighboring tasting room for a Braai. I collected donations from my friends in America to buy food and we had one of the best Bria’s of my life. Oh a Braai is a South African BarBQ. Two of the students cooked on the grill while another group taught me how to dance to South African hip hop. That day I learned how to do the gara~gara and pretty much confirmed I am challenged with rhythm.
Tuanni Price, the owner of Zuri Wine Tasting. A wine Enthusiast and adventurer, loves everything about the wine experience