Ever done a wine tasting and found yourself concentrating hard trying to pick up “noticeable hints” of—say—gooseberry, persimmon, pomegranate? What if you’re not familiar with the flavors of gooseberry, persimmon or pomegranate? What if you’re from a part of the country or a part of the world that doesn’t grow or eat these particular fruits?
If you are Pardon Taguzu who, with a small group of fellow Zimbabweans, is cutting it against all odds in the competitive and prestigious world of wine professionals and blind-tasting competitions, you reinvent the wheel. The wine aroma wheel, an essential tool when training, developing and refining your wine palate—key to identifying and appreciating wine.
“I never grew up eating gooseberries, so I will never taste that in a wine,” Taguzu explains. Necessity being the mother of invention, he created his own wine terminology, “adapted to fruits I grew up with and flavors from my own surroundings. We grew up eating a lot of wild fruit and native plants in Zimbabwe.”
So it is that if you were tasting wine with him, a flavor description you might hear is, “Is that a hint of tsubvu?” A wild berry also known in Zimbabwe as “smelly berry fingerleaf.”
“Tsubvu is an aroma I normally pick up in a New World cabernet sauvignon. Then there’s tsine, blackjack in English (a weed with healing components and leaves that can be prepared and eaten like spinach or kale). Tsine is something I relate to a New World cabernet franc. And another one is called derere (in the okra family). The aroma of the derere is something I pick up from an Old World cabernet franc.”
Winning Against All Odds
The personalized flavor wheel clearly works. In 2017, Taguzu placed second in a national contest sponsored by Moët & Chandon to name South Africa’s best young sommelier. Shortly after that, he was named the third best taster in South Africa in a national blind-tasting competition.
“In that contest, three among the top 10 were Zimbabweans; enough to inspire us to create Team Zimbabwe.”
Pretty remarkable given that Zimbabwe is not a grape-growing, wine-producing or wine-drinking country. By way of contrast, neighboring South Africa has a winemaking history that dates back more than 300 years.
“Once we were told we could form a team, we decided to go for it. We got a coach and in 2017 went for the first time to the World Wine Tasting Championships in Burgundy. We were not well enough prepared and came 23rd out of 24 teams (beating Italy). But we learned a lot, did a lot of tasting — and returned the next year .” This time they placed 14th out of the 24 teams, beating among others Spain, Brazil, England and the United States.
See British Master of Wine (and the Queen of England’s wine cellar advisor) Jancis Robinson’s story, Zim somms take on the world—again, to read more on their supporters, their success and why the Zimbabweans are winning against all odds.
Fourteenth place might have been better. However, says Taguzu, it’s not good enough. “We’re aiming to win (this year’s contest is in October). Then we can call it quits!”
Team Zimbabwe, meanwhile, had garnered the interest of Warwick Ross, an Australian filmmaker, who learned about “these economic refugees from Zimbabwe” who are conquering the wine industry in South Africa and working at top restaurants.” Incidentally, but in case Cuisine Noir readers haven’t heard, in February 2019 a South African restaurant, Wolfgat, was named “Best Restaurant in The World” at a Paris awards ceremony.
Ross’ documentary, which follows the Zim team’s path “of hardship, struggle, determination and success” from Zimbabwe to Cape Town and Burgundy, will be released later this year.
Let’s Make a Difference Together
I catch Taguzu in his apartment in The Hague before he sets off for a day of business meetings and tastings. He has been living in the Netherlands for eight months. His wife, fellow Zimbabwean Batsie Abinala Taguzu, and five-year-old daughter, Micaela, who have spent time there on visitor visas, will be back as soon as their permanent residencies come through.
It turns out Taguzu’s long-time dream has been to introduce some of his favorite—lesser-known— South African wines to Europe. Now he is co-owner and co-founder of two companies: African Wines, where the focus is on introducing people in the Netherlands (he hopes, at some point, to include the United States) to wines from interesting South African boutique wineries where the focus is sustainable farming, social project and giving back to the community. SoloVino, the second business, imports Italian wines into the Netherlands. He is also the head sommelier at several restaurants owned by his partners.
Taguzu and his partners cooperate with a hand-picked group of “extraordinary South-African wineries” and import their wines exclusively for the Dutch market at this point, under the motto: “Let’s make a difference together!”
A chance encounter and brief conversation forged the partnership and the move to the Netherlands. Taguzu was a sommelier at an acclaimed Cape Town restaurant when in popped—none of them knew it at the time— but his future partners. Italian-born Damiano D’Alba and his wife, Belinda D’Alba, own ten restaurants, two wine bars and an Italian import company in the Netherlands.
“The family spent the shortest time in the restaurant. But we made a good connection and we kept in contact. They followed my achievements and my career and it triggered in them the idea that ‘maybe we should do something with this guy.’
“In 2017 when we traveled to Burgundy for the first blind tasting, they were part of the crowd-funding that helped sponsor our trip. They extended an invite to come and see them here in Holland. We had a brief meeting. At the time, everyone in the Netherlands was pouring the same wines—all of them from big companies in South Africa. Nobody in the Netherlands knew about the small, interesting boutique wineries. We talked about this being a potential niche: importing such wines.
“I went back to my normal job. Two months down the line I got an email asking me to create a portfolio of winemakers I wanted to work with. During my spare time and on my off-days, I started driving to vineyards to seek out small wineries that were doing sustainable farming and giving back to communities. I came up with a list of 22 producers who were making a difference and who didn’t have representation in Holland.”
And so, African Wines was born. SoloVino, the second business, is an extension and new direction for the D’Alba family. They have their restaurants and wine bars. Taguzu is expanding their existing Italian wine import operation. Plus, their restaurants and wine bar have a new head sommelier.
Franschhoek, the Swartland and Fine Wine
All this is remarkable, given that the urbane, stylish, friendly, relaxed and engaging 31-year-old had never tasted a glass of wine, let alone considered a career in wine, until as recently as eight years ago.
Taguzu was born in the rural eastern highlands town of Mutare in Zimbabwe’s fertile Honde Valley, well known among tourists as a birding destination. The family soon moved to Goromonzi, a rural community quite close to Zimbabwe’s capital city, Harare. After completing school at Jameson High in nearby Kadoma, he enrolled at the University of Harare.
He graduated with a degree in economics and an MBA equivalent. At the time he was running marathons and had an interest in sports, so he doubled up and earned himself a sports psychology degree.
While still a freshman right out of college, his sister, who was living in the Cape Wine Country town of Franschhoek, invited him for a holiday visit. The year was 2010.
“I didn’t go to South Africa to look for a job, but my sister knew jobs were hard to come by in Zimbabwe and started looking for me,” he says.
She found him work as a runner at the Royal Hotel in Reibeek-Kasteel, one of the oldest towns—and oldest hotels—in South Africa, about 45 miles from Cape Town.
A runner? “You do all the shitty work for the waiter,” he laughs when I ask him to explain.
After two weeks the owner, who watched staff through closed-circuit cameras and did weekly reviews, called him in. “You’re a fast learner,” he said before offering Taguzu a waged job as a waiter, which also involved working in the bar.
Reibeek-Kasteel is in the Swartland, which has gorgeous scenery, mountains, farmland vineyards and wine trails—and several wineries producing award-winning wines. Being there, Taguzu found himself working with wine and his interest was piqued.
He soon enrolled himself in classes through the Cape Wine Academy and then the London-based Wine and Spirit Board. “I found this new-to-me wine world fascinating: the language behind wine; how people described wine; the culture around the wine. What I learned got me interested in knowing more.”
A message drilled into him by his dad reminded him that, “you need to excel in academics” to get promotions, to achieve success. “So that’s what I did. I didn’t want to stay in one position.”
After not too long he moved to a pizzeria in Reibeek-Kasteel, Mama Cucina, where he got his first wine steward job and to drew up his first wine list, from around the Swartland.
“The region produces some excellent wines with a lot of heart.” He mentions chenin blanc and shiraz as especially noteworthy varietals produced there. “You get premium wines and beautiful terroir; beautiful soil. For me it is the best ‘new’ place to be in South Africa when talking wine.”
Reibeek-Kasteel, meanwhile, was becoming too small for him. He wanted to move on.
So when Aubergine— contemporary style, innovative food, classic service—one of the finest restaurants in Cape Town with one of the biggest cellars and wine programs, headhunted him, he didn’t hesitate. He started there as an assistant sommelier, began entering competitions and became head sommelier. The rest, one might say, is history still in the making.
The Art of Personal Branding
With Taguzu, the term Renaissance man fits as perfectly as does his stylish Italian wardrobe and distinctive style.
“I love fashion,” he says. And he is savvy. He understands the concept of personal branding and its essential nature. “As a sommelier, you have to dress how you want to be addressed. You become the product before you sell the product.”
He developed his distinctive style in South Africa. “It’s easier here in Holland.” Easier to get the Italian clothes he loves from the family-owned Italian clothing store he favors. He also has his own specialty wine brand (label) coming out soon.
He is on the board of BLACC, South Africa’s Black Cellar Club, set up in 2016 to recognize and unite sommeliers, winemakers, media and hospitality industry professionals committed to empowerment. “It’s a very good initiative recognizing the Black community in SA and giving them more exposure in wine and education so they will excel in the wine business.
“The wine industry in South Africa used to be an all White party. No longer. The industry has transitioned and is growing up.”
For a backgrounder on this, read Nigerian Filmmaker Akin Omotoso Blends Race, Gender and South Africa in Colour of Wine.
Taguzu’s apartment is in the Netherlands’ most famous seaside resort, Scheveningen, one of eight districts of The Hague. He’s finding his feet in what he describes as “a tough market business-wise.”
It’s an international environment with lots of experts, so it’s been easy to get away with speaking English and “infancy” Dutch, which has been helped by the Afrikaans he learned while living in Reibeek-Kasteel.
He notes that he’s a risk-taker who likes to explore. He’s proved his staying power but says if something is not working, he’s inclined to flip a coin and try something else.
“I am exploring to see if I can fit here business-wise.” He has plans and dreams. He hopes he will fit.
What Food to Pair with That Wine?
“In Zimbabwe, our staple food is pap or sadsa.” Made from mealies (corn), it’s something like grits but more versatile. “Prepared traditionally, it is full of flavor. You can make it with a relish, with chicken or with beef. It can also be improved to five-star culinary with the right herbs and spices.”
Not surprisingly, given his curiosity and sophisticated wine palate, “I really enjoy tasting new flavors. I cook a lot.” French food and Mediterranean dishes, he says. And also East Africa and South Africa. “I like a lot of flavors and mixing cultures and cuisines.” Of course there must always be a bottle of wine. His choice? Often a riesling.
“Here I am among different cultures, mainly Italian and Dutch. I am still exploring the cuisine. They have some adopted cuisine here from southern and eastern parts of Africa and also South America. It’s a bit of a mixed masala.”
His attraction to Europe? The potential, he says, of the large economy.
Plus, he is keen to explore the Michelin Star cuisine. “And by perfect coincidence, I am literally two-and-a-half to three hours from all the famous wine regions: France, Germany, Italy.”
He is also a 10-minute cycle ride from the center of The Hague. “I cycle, yes. When I was running, my half-marathon time was 63 minutes. But I stopped running in 2011 after an accident when I broke my patella. My right knee can no longer take hard impact training.”
He plays pool “very well,” so beware if you meet him in a pub. And just recently he’s taken up photojournalism.
“I am going to be blogging soon. I like to communicate through pictures—art that speaks volumes—and I think that will be interesting for my company to have a blog.”
So far, as he says himself, it’s been quite a journey—and these are early days.