Are wine tasting competitions important? These winners say yes.

When Tinashe Nyamudoka and fellow Zimbabwean sommeliers Joseph Dhafana, Marlvin Gwese and Pardon Taguzu arrived at Chateau de Gilly in Burgundy for the 2017 World Wine Tasting Championships (WWTC), they felt surprise in the air.

“Everyone there had that look of, ‘Zimbabwe doesn’t make wine. How did you end up here? », Says Nyamudoka.

They were the first Zimbabwean team and the first all-black team to participate in the event Nyamudoka calls “the Olympic Blind Tasting”, hosted by The Revue du Vin de France, a century-old French wine publication.

Their experience is recounted in the documentary, Blind ambition, which won the Audience Award at Tribeca Film Festival 2021 At New York. The documentary was made knowing how Eurocentric and predominantly white the winery can be, says its director, Warwick Ross, who is also a winemaker.

Although their histories differ, Nyamudoka, Dhafana, Gwese, and Taguzu all fled their economically struggling homelands to South Africa, where they became wine connoisseurs at four of the country’s top restaurants. Their journeys to WWTC highlight the inequalities of some industry events and show how the wine business can become more inclusive.

Why the WWTC is important

Nyamudoka remembers during the 2017 championship, the initial surprise of seeing Team Zim, as they became known, quickly turned to warm acceptance.

“Everyone applauded when they sang an a cappella song,” says Jancis Robinson, MW of the team’s memorable arrival.

For Nyamudoka, this welcome was important.

“It’s a part I love about wine,” he says. “If you’re really in a space of people who love and embrace wine and its culture, there’s this big family, and you’re embraced too.”

Launched in 2013, WWTC began as an exclusively European event. It became a global competition in 2015, and now teams from the United States, China and elsewhere are competing with tasters from France or Belgium.

At the annual event, teams of four must recognize 12 selected wines from nine countries, served blind in the space of two hours. They must identify the grape variety, the country of origin, the vintage, the region and the producer of the wine.

“It’s no joke and it’s so stressful,” said Dhafana, who first competed for the South Africa squad in 2015.

“It’s like you’re in hell. You get the wines, but everyone is everywhere. It takes a long time for you to come to an agreement on who it might be.

For some wine professionals, however, the challenge is well worth it.

The event provides an “incredible opportunity to meet wine enthusiasts from all over the world,” said Gwendolyn Alley, wine writer and 2019 USA Team competitor. It enables aspiring and established wine professionals to forge connections that can lead to new ventures.

The cost of internationalization

Sommelier and winemaker Jean Vincent “JV” Ridon started the South African Wine Tasting Championship in 2013 and coaches the South African team for the WWTC.

“It’s really a world championship,” says Ridon. “New Zealand, China, Japan are participating. It’s not just Lichtenstein, Monaco and Luxembourg. Yes, for European teams it is easier to get there because they are far away from France, but a lot of people travel to certain parts of the world. They work in the wine industry, or they just have a passion for it.

Tinashe Nyamudoka
Tinashe Nyamudoka / Courtesy of Kumusha Wines

There are, however, geographic advantages and disadvantages.

“For South Africans and Zimbabweans, it’s a lot more complicated,” explains Ridon. “There is a huge cost to getting there. “

Prior to the 2017 competition, Robinson helped set up a crowdfunding initiative to help with travel costs for Zimbabweans.

The European localization and the support of French partners means that most of the wines are of local origin. These bottles are not always easily accessible to African competitors.

“There is clearly an advantage on the ground in the sense that wines are bought in Europe,” says John Vilja, CEO of Wine Acuity, an organization that hosts a qualifying competition for Americans hoping to enter WWTC.

At WWTC 2017, nine of the 12 wines paid for blind tasters to identify were European.

Represent the future

Why are so many people making the effort to participate?

For Nyamudoka, the competition brought personal and professional acceptance in the global wine community.

“It’s one thing to read about it, but to experience it is quite another thing,” he says. “As a wine student it means so much. In this part of the world we are not exposed enough [to the international wine industry], and if you aren’t exposed enough, you never get better.

“Going to a global stage gives you this platform to interact with others, learn from others, and understand, ‘How can I use this knowledge at home? “”

“Going to a global stage gives you this platform to interact with others, learn from others, and understand, ‘How can I use this knowledge at home? “” –Tinashe Nyamudoka, Kumsha Wines

As a result of the competition, Nyamudoka developed his own wine label, Kumusha, which means “your home” in Shona.

Peer recognition can be invaluable, says Ridon.

“It’s a way to stop doubting [Team Zim is] here by mistake, ”he says of the surprise of the other participants at Team Zim’s arrival in 2017.“ They are here to stay in the wine industry. ”

Ridon says winning isn’t always the end goal. “The goal is, first of all, 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 top is the roof”. He says the inclusion of the Zim team opens the door for other African wine experts or budding amateurs.

He and Nyamudoka want to see more African countries participate in the championships. Nyamudoka plans to also involve wine professionals from Kenya and Botswana in blind tasting competitions.

According to Dhafana, many Africans “think wine is for those who have money or are born into a family of wine drinkers. I was not.”

Team Zim blind tasting competition
“Team Zim” at the World Blind Tasting Championships in France / Courtesy Kumusha Wines

Philippe DeCantenac, organizer of the World Tasting Championships, wants as many countries as possible to be represented.

“For this, we are trying to make this event known to the world, through videos, Facebook, TV coverage,” he says. “We also help new countries organize their own selection.

Robinson is welcoming new competitors and community members to the wine, while Alley would also like to see more women participate.

“The industry as a whole is changing since we filmed, in large part because of the Black Lives Matter movement,” Alley said. Hopefully the old guard can keep pace.

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