As a child in the Chirumhanzu District of Zimbabwe, Joseph Dhafana never dreamed he’d become a world-renowned sommelier with his very own wine brand. In fact, until just over a decade ago, he’d never even tasted wine.
But Joseph left his loved ones in his home of Zimbabwe and started a new life as a refugee in South Africa, building a foundation of hard work that today sees him as a successful business owner.
It’s a story told in an award-winning documentary, Blind Ambition. The documentary was created by the same team that made the acclaimed Red Obsession documentary, led by Australian directors Robert Coe and Warwick Ross, and was named the winner of the Audience Award at the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival in June this year.
Forging a new path
In 2008, Joseph left his home in central Zimbabwe with his wife, Amelia. They endured a 500km hike before reaching the border, where they had to pay to be smuggled across in a train container in searing heat. And once in South Africa, the couple spent two weeks surrounded by hunger and illness, sleeping on a floor covered in maggots, in a refugee camp in Musina, Limpopo, before they were awarded asylum.
But not once did he doubt his decision to leave Zimbabwe.
“I never questioned myself. I just told Amelia that we have to keep moving forward,” he said.
The couple moved to Johannesburg, where they were given sanctuary at a local church. It was here that Joseph’s cousin found them and sent them money for a train ride to Cape Town. While that R158 ticket was essential to Joseph’s future, it didn’t seem like it at the time. Joseph took on gardening work at several homes and the Bar Bar Black Sheep Restaurant – a natural fit as his education in agriculture in Zimbabwe had given him a wealth of knowledge to draw on.
He moved indoors to wash dishes at the restaurant, and when his strong work ethic was noticed, he was promoted to barman – even though he had never poured a cocktail before.
“I didn’t have a clue about any cocktails. But they taught me about bartending. In 2010, there was an influx of tourists because of the Soccer World Cup, and I was promoted to waiter. I really, really liked that because I got to engage with guests, and I started to notice that when they were drinking wine, there was joy and happiness,” he says.
That same year, he had his first sip of wine, a Cap Classique poured by his boss in celebration of his birthday. Joseph is the first to admit that he found the first sip unpleasant – the acidic and astringent taste perhaps not the best starting place for a future wine lover.
With his love for agriculture, it’s no surprise that Joseph truly fell in love with wine when he experienced his first harvest in 2013. Joseph joined Andrea and Chris Mullineux (Mullineux Family Wines) for a work term while studying with Cape Wine Academy. He would hitchhike between Riebeeck Kasteel and Stellenbosch to work and study, but his life changed when he got an old car. In a few months, Joseph clocked thousands of kilometres visiting every wine farm within driving distance. During one of these visits, when a sommelier noticed that he could taste the eucalyptus notes in a Cabernet Sauvignon at Thelma in Stellenbosch, Joseph realised he had a hidden talent.
“There is no better feeling than discovering your house was constructed on top of gold. I only discovered my hidden talent as a sommelier after falling in love with wine,” Joseph says.
“I think wine found me. It’s a calling I received and embraced.”
A future in wine
In 2015, Joseph decided to participate in the South African Wine Tasting Championships and placed third. This saw him represent South Africa in France at the World Wine Tasting Championship.
A year later, he studied to become a wine judge with the Michael Fridjhon Academy, and in 2017 he led Team Zimbabwe at the Championship.
It was at this point that Blind Ambition was conceptualised to tell the story of Joseph and his three teammates, Marlvin Gwese, Tinashe Nyamudoka and Pardon Taguzu. The inspirational tale has captured the triumph of the four sommeliers and the heart of audiences, though their story of perseverance, and was also part of the official selection for the annual Cinefest Oz in August.
But Joseph’s ambition doesn’t end with being one of the best sommeliers in the country.
In 2019, he took another leap of faith and left his full-time employment to start his wine and gin label. It’s built on his strong sense of family and his deep love of viticulture, with only 15 000 bottles produced a year and each one named after a family member. The ethos is of the business is minimal intervention, as taught by his Swartland mentors.
“Holding that first bottle in my hand was the same feeling as holding my newborn baby. I saved up my earnings to buy the grapes for my first product, so it reminds me of those early days when I was working in the searing heat, saving every cent,” he said.
And if building a wine empire wasn’t enough, Joseph will be embarking on a new wine adventure this year in partnership with the Travel Africa Network. He’ll be taking on the role of host, visiting five-star destinations along with some of the world’s best chefs, and pairing local wines with their creations.
His journey is one he could never have dreamed of for himself in his youth spent in Zimbabwe. But it’s one that he hopes other young people will envision for themselves.
“It feels great. But I should give all the credit to those around me, and my family, who played a role in my career. The industry has shown remarkable transformation in the last decade. Ten years ago, there were no black sommeliers – now we are around 100. And I’d like to encourage the youth to push the envelope and to carve a place for themselves in the world of wine.”