Another Zimbabwean breaks glass ceiling in wine industry…

The tale of refugee -turned-sommelier in SA

A new range of wines has been making its way onto shelves in select Pick n Pay stores across the country. But these aren’t just any wines. The Tongai Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Freedom Red Blend are the fruits of years of labour and a story of success in one of the most unlikely places.

In 2009 Joseph Tongai Dhafana fled Zimbabwe with his wife as his home country’s economy was crashing, in search of a semblance of a better life. Arriving in SA, he found himself living in a refugee camp.

“I was living without knowing when my next hot meal was, without knowing what my next move was,” the 40-year-old tells me in a phone call. “Anything that is happening in my life now I never thought would happen [back then].”

I was living without knowing when my next hot meal was, without knowing what my next move was

They made their way to Riebeeck Kasteel in the Swartland — an area bursting with vineyards — where he found a job first as a gardener, then dishwasher and finally as a barman at the Bar Bar Black Sheep Restaurant. It was here his interest in wine was sparked.

To get experience in the fine dining scene, he joined Aubergine Restaurant in Cape Town for a few months. “They had a sommelier in the restaurant. That’s when I realised there’s a term called sommelier.”

Dhafana set out to learn all he could about wine and enrolled at the Cape Wine Academy in 2013. He studied through the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, went through Michael Fridjhon’s Wine Judging Academy in conjunction with the University of Cape Town and he has obtained an SA Sommelier Association Foundational Sommellerie Accreditation — the top sommelier accreditation available in SA.

In 2014 he had his first taste of winemaking at Meerhof Cellars’ Antebellum Wines and in the same year was appointed as head sommelier at La Colombe, which has been ranked among the best restaurants in the world.

In 2015 he represented SA at the World Blind Wine Tasting Championships in France and in 2017 he captained the first Zimbabwean team in the championships — a story captured in a documentary, Blind Ambition, which was released last year. It won Best Documentary at the Sydney Film Festival and the Audience Award at the San Francisco Film Festival in 2022.

After seven years at La Colombe, he gave up the top spot as head sommelier to pursue winemaking full-time last year.

With time he’s also added to his repertoire the titles of founder, owner and director of Mosi Wines and Spirits; qualified wine judge; wine consultant; and board member of the Black Cellar Club (BLACC).

A not-for-profit company founded in 2016, Dhafana describes BLACC as an inclusive group of like-minded people who came together to make wine less intimidating to the masses and impart wine knowledge where they saw gaps.

“Now we have so many wine enthusiasts coming from the townships. If you look at sommeliers who are actually running the floors now in all these established restaurants, they’re all people of colour.

“When I got into this industry it was all white-dominated and it was very difficult for a black person to get into it. When I walked into a room, out of 200 people there would only be one black person. You can imagine how intimidating that became.”

His latest venture is the Tongai wine range which has been bought by Pick n Pay. The sauvignon blanc and red blend were made at Diemersdal and the chardonnay at Van Loveren. The one word Dhafana uses to describes the wines is “delicious”. With the accolades and reputation he’s garnered, I dare not argue. – Sunday Times

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