The Journey of BLACC
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Cape Town, South Africa

The Journey of BLACC

The Black Sommeliers of Cape Town, South Africa.

Love and hope brought me to South Africa.

Twenty-two years ago, my husband and I opened a restaurant here in Cape Town. I was the chef and my husband, a South African returning home after 12 years in the U.S., was the GM. It was just a few months after Nelson Mandela was elected president.

In this freshly post-apartheid time, we were one of the first restaurants in Cape Town to have black waiters. “Colored” people (the accepted catch-all term for people of mixed race, indigenous and/or Malay heritage), were part of the front-of-house work force. Black people were not.

Our black waiters were inexperienced; in fact, few had ever been employed. English was not their first language and they had been forced to attend substandard schools. Most lived in shacks in bleak townships, miles from the city. They were hired as bussers or dishwashers, and in time, we trained them up.

None of our black waiters had tasted wine before they worked for us. In fact, none had eaten in restaurants. Wine was not part of their culture. It was not African; it was for whites only, they believed. Most of them hated it, even after regular guided tastings.

We worked around it, with my husband imparting the basics: “You can tell the customer that this Cabernet Sauvignon is a heavy-bodied red that would go well with the rump steak.” But like other aspects of running a California-style restaurant in South Africa, it was frustrating. We didn’t just want our staff to sell wine. We wanted them to love it. Wine was not black or white. Wine was South African—the product of a wine-producing nation. It was for everyone.

Two decades later, I heard about BLACC—the Black Cellar Club—the face of a new wave of black sommeliers in South Africa. And now, I’m here at #BLACCMonday, one of BLACC’s semi-monthly winelands road trips, to see for myself that this is not a dream.

It’s 9:30 am. Twenty BLACC members are waiting to board a bus headed to Solms-Delta Wine Estate in the Franschhoek Valley, an hour’s drive away. The only umlunghus (white people) are the photographer and myself.

We’re in a parking lot at the V&A Waterfront, Cape Town’s working waterfront and major tourist attraction. It’s a convergence of shipyards, seafood restaurants and steakhouses, retail shops like H&M and Zara, and several of the city’s best hotels. It’s also where many BLACC members work, in restaurants and five-star hotels, like the One&Only Cape Town, whose head sommelier, 35-year-old Luvo Ntezo, sits on BLACC’s board. Ntezo, who grew up in a local township, got his first break in the hotel industry as a pool porter. Today, he’s one of the country’s most accomplished sommeliers.

BLACC is a lively mix of established sommeliers and up and comers, wine stewards (who conduct guest tastings at wine estates) and waiters wanting to expand their wine knowledge. Many are simultaneously studying at the Cape Wine Academy. All come from humble backgrounds, and none grew up with wine in their culture.

Just as membership in BLACC, a non-profit organization, is growing exponentially, Cape wineries are also lining up to host their outings. The red carpet is rolled out, private tastings are held with winemakers, beautiful lunches are served, but the guests are more than wooed. They are respected.

South African wine estates have woken up. The country has a huge potential market of black wine drinkers that remains virtually untapped. It’s time to connect with it. It’s also time to celebrate the first generation of black wine professionals.

On the bus, I sit next to Lennox Bakeni, a slight 31-year-old wearing a beanie who calls me ma’am. We get straight into it. After all, this is South Africa, where skin color has always mattered, but also where people speak more frankly about race than in America—for better and for worse.

Working toward his Level 3 at the Cape Wine Academy, Bakeni is currently a wine tutor at Delaire Graff Estate, a slope-hugging winery high above Stellenbosch. It’s a job with a four-hour commute: two hours each way from Gugulethu, the Cape Town township where he grew up, and still lives, in his mother’s house. He’s also worked at Dubai’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel and in the Maldives, where he was an assistant in operations for a wine distribution company. His aim is to one day go to California to work in Napa Valley.

Twenty years ago, this was the stuff of dreams. Today, it’s a reality.

Bakeni has come a long way since cutting red wine with Coca Cola, which many BLACC members tell me is a thing. The Coke makes wine palatable to novice wine drinkers who find it sour.

While Bakeni is South African, at least half those around me are foreign-born. Immigrants from Zimbabwe, Malawi, Somalia, the DRC and other African countries have flooded into South Africa over the past 20 years, hoping to better their lives. There is xenophobia in this land, and tensions erupt periodically, especially in densely populated townships.

Around us there is English, but also Shona, the language of Zimbabwe. One thing there is not: animosity. “We’re here for a common thing,” says Bakeni. “To educate ourselves. Wine is very international, universal. We are African brothers here. If we talk about something that we know, what we love, that brings love between ourselves.”

BLACC was formed in 2016 after a couple of random observations. Aubrey Ngcungama, a director of Vula Afrika and hospitality industry veteran, was looking at a list of sommeliers, when he realized that half a dozen of the top somms were black. He called his partner Ian Hamilton Manley, who’d recently had a similar conversation with Joseph Dhafana, head sommelier at La Colombe, an award-winning Cape Town restaurant.

Shortly after, they founded BLACC, with a Who’s Who of black sommeliers on its board, including Tinashe Nyamudoka. Thirty-one-year-old Nyamudoka, the son of a teacher and a lab technician, had never tasted wine when he emigrated from Zimbabwe in 2008. At present, he is sommelier at The Test Kitchen, arguably one of South Africa’s best restaurants. Last year it ranked number 22 on the World’s Top 50 Restaurant list. Established somms like Nyamudoka are role models. They also spread the message to young black South Africans that wine is cool.

To date, BLACC has 450 members, with 300 in the Western Cape. Unlike the South African Sommeliers Association, BLACC has no membership or tasting fees. The wine estates host the events and provides transportation. Several members tell me they find the BLACC environment more comfortable and non-intimidating. There are also plans to launch a BLACC-labeled Chenin Blanc and brandy to raise funds for the group. For now, the focus is on providing a forum for networking and wine education.

As the bus travels north, the suburbs start to thin, and soon we are passing vineyards flecked with red and gold autumn leaves. We disembark at Solms-Delta Wine Estate. I know this place well; it is a model for social transformation in the winelands. Most around me have never been here.

We stand under the autumn semi-shade of old oak trees. While Solms-Delta CEO Craig MacGillivray tells the story of this place, many are taking notes. It is a remarkable story. The 327-year-old farm was derelict when purchased by Professor Mark Solms, a world-renowned neuroscientist, who returned to South Africa in 2001 to do something good for his country. It has been transformed physically and emotionally, with worker equity, decent housing,and cultural and early childhood education programs. The process began with an excavation of the site, to dig up the full history of Delta Farm.

We are taken to a museum in the farm’s original wine cellar, which houses excavation relics, some of which date back to pre-colonial times. One wall is covered with marble plaques with the names of slaves who lived on the farm. We stand in respectful silence before walking out into the sunshine.

Today, we are told, Solms-Delta is 45-percent worker-owned (with an additional five percent held by the National Empowerment Fund), and is one of the farms spearheading the government’s 50/50 Strengthening the Relative Rights of Workers Program. In a country in which land reform is a pressing issue, this is groundbreaking.

I walk toward the tasting room with Carol Madziwa, Shelter Mupunga and Minnie Mthombeni, three Zimbabweans who switch between English and Shona. They talk about how moved they are by this farm.

Madiziwa studies at the Cape Wine Academy, and has a diploma from Blackfordby College of Agriculture in Zimbabwe. “I want to someday have my own wine farm.” I ask where. She says: “In Zimbabwe, as my father already owns a farm there.” It’s one of many conversations that surprise me today.

Mupunga, who has a lovely smile, looks familiar. When she tells me she used to work at Bocca, a popular Italian restaurant in town, I realize she’s been my waitress, twice. Now, she works at The Stack, a private members club and public brasserie.

“The more I’m in the industry, the more I’m loving what I’m doing. It’s not only about the money,” she says. “I want to know what’s behind this grape juice. I want to be one of those people who can talk about the wine. I want to be a sommelier.”

It’s her first BLACC tasting. “There’s so much that I love here,” she says. “There’s no stigma, no weirdness. We’re all doing the same thing.”

The group sits at one long table in the tasting room. While the tasting glasses are being filled, the smart phones go crazy. Lots of posing with wine glasses, laughter and hash tags. Things get serious though once we start tasting with winemaker Hagen Viljoen. There is intense focus on the wines. Swirling, sipping and spitting into a spittoon. And questions.

“What sets these two apart?” Mthombeni asks Viljoen, referring to the two muscat grapes—Muscat de Frontignan and Muscat d’Alexandrie—in the Solms-Delta Koloni.

“Are these wines organic?” asks Mupunga.

“I think this wine [a blend of Grenache, Cinsaut and Syrah] needed to be warmed up a bit,” says Brenda Karamba, sommelier at Majeka House, a five-star boutique hotel. “It’s a bit too chilled for the Grenache, which is a softer grape.”

We move to the restaurant, which has a glass floor covering the excavated substructure of the nearly 300-year-old wine cellar. Above this piece of history, we eat, drink and toast this wonderful new wine life.

After lunch, there are speeches. The mellifluous voice of Mthombeni, the most senior BLACC member present today, fills the room: “Thank you for sharing the great heritage and rich history of this farm. To the winemaker, thank you for your works of art: your winemaking and your craft. Your wines are excellent. Your wines are pristine. They’ve got longevity. We are going to tell the people about Solms-Delta and the history of this great place.”

It’s a jovial ride back to Cape Town. I sit next to 29-year-old JB (short for Jabu, which is short for Njabulo) Ngwenya, an operations assistant at boutique hotel Tintswalo Atlantic. Ngwenya grew up in Johannesburg; he’s also worked in Dubai. “Most of my guests don’t care about the soil, the climate. It’s the memory of the experience that’s everything. Now, I can talk about this farm. That wine, that place was real; that was flippin’ real.”

As we get into the city, we pass a Johnnie Walker billboard, which sparks a conversation about brand consciousness among South African blacks. “The middle class can afford to buy wine,” he says. “We need to embrace our own product, rather than just buy the big international status brands. I’d feel proud to share a Shiraz with a friend.”

“We’re all here, in BLACC, because we want to be here. Word will spread and next week we’ll be bigger. I am not a racist. You can’t tell me wine is only for white people. You can be whatever you want to be, and drink what you want to drink.”

We have arrived at our destination.

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