The stories are inspirational. The people behind them, more so. Sommeliers, waitstaff, servers, bartenders, restaurant hosts and hostesses. People in the hospitality industry who advise or work with customers.
Before and through COVID’s wine industry devastation, South Africa’s Black Cellar Club — BLACC — has afforded solidarity, advocacy and support.
“BLACC was founded on the terrace of The Stack restaurant in Cape Town (one of the many eateries forced to shut due to lockdowns and the virus) with ten members in 2016,” says the not-for-profit club’s chairman, Aubrey Ngcungama.
“The club has grown from being a handful of Black sommeliers to an institution recognized as an important link between producers of wine and the consumer; specifically, the Black consumer. We now number in the hundreds with branches in three provinces and we have many international members.”
“A primary focus of BLACC is on providing experiential opportunities to waiters and barmen, so they are more confident with guests,” says Ian Manley. “The sommeliers who are members have these skills and are seen as people to respect and learn from.”
Black Somms Matter
BLACC launched to reach emerging Black African wine enthusiasts as an initiative of Vula Afrika, a Cape Town-based hospitality, international event curation and brand management company of which Ngcungama and Manley are co-founders and directors. They had seen the need for an organization that could reach out to Black Africans interested in furthering their wine knowledge.
“BLACC was founded by the Vula Afrika team after recognizing the great rise, over the past few years, of Black sommelier and wine stewards in South Africa,” says Ngcungama. “Its establishment was motivated by the need to open doors for up-and-coming Black somms and wine stewards still finding their voice in the industry.
“Out of this, BLACC Mondays were born. Here, wine producers met the people responsible for selling their wines. This provided an opportunity to educate and motivate the teams in restaurants, empowering them to talk about wine more confidently. To this end, BLACC is for everyone with an interest in South African wines and spirits.”
“There is a huge emerging Black middle class in South Africa and across Africa for whom affordability is not an issue,” says wine and beverage specialist and top sommelier Pearl Oliver-Mbumba, BLACC’s former chair turned club ambassador.
- Black Winemakers Take Center Stage Coast to Coast for Black History Month
- Pardon Taguzu’s Wine Legs: From Zimbabwe via South Africa to the Netherlands
“Of utmost importance is the raising of awareness with regards to correct use of alcohol and promotion of responsible drinking. Our aim is also to nurture and support wine professionals and those wanting to enter the industry both in South Africa and in the rest of the African continent.”
For Cuisine Noir readers, Oliver-Mbumba — see her website for her curated experiences and go-to services — stresses that “we have phenomenal wines in South Africa and great somms and wine stewards who are true ambassadors of service and our local products. And for every cuisine, there is a South African wine to pair.”
BLACC During COVID
Thanks to Zoom, BLACC and Tuanni Price, an exuberant presence from Los Angeles who runs Zuri Wine Tasting featured in the Cuisine Noir article, “Winemakers in Black History Month” back in 2016, I found myself on a wine trajectory of friendship and knowledge during COVID.
“While we were confined to our homes, watching the hospitality industry suffer great hardship during our early days of extreme lockdown here in South Africa, it was incredible that Tuanni was able to keep the educational aspect of wine alive for BLACC members through online sessions.”
During the first three weeks of heavy lockdown and during subsequent weeks when alcohol sales were forbidden here in South Africa and our wine industry was sent reeling, I noticed Master Class invites arriving via my BLACC WhatsApp group (I am a long-time media member).
“It started with me reaching out to winemakers and others in the industry to share their knowledge via Zoom. Soon people both in South Africa and international were reaching out to me, offering to engage in our BLACC education initiative via online classes,” says Price.
Sheltering in Cape Town
It is a circuitous wine story as to why Price found herself sheltering in Cape Town.
“Growing up in LA, my mom occasionally bought jug wine for sangria, but wine was not part of the culture like, say, in Italy or France,” share Price.
While at college in Louisiana (where she studied political science), “I drank strawberry-flavored wine and white zin.”
Back in LA after college, she got a job in the accounting department at an upscale Beverly Hills hotel. She was in her late twenties when her manager gave a comped dinner at the hotel’s restaurant. She invited her mom and twin sister. And on being seated, was presented with a wine list by the sommelier.
“I realized I was expected to order and had no clue what to do.”
She “stumbled” through. Chose something “not too pricy.” He bought a bottle, poured a teeny amount. She waited for him to top her up. “Then my mom nudged me. She whispered that I should taste it and say I liked it.”
It was Price’s first experience sipping on a quality wine and she was intrigued. Curious.
To learn more, she started an informal tasting club with a group of girlfriends. “We took turns to choose a wine and provide a meal to go with it. We’d research the wine and share what we’d learned. Explain why we’d chosen to pair it as we had. We had our club for about four years. Then I started doing something similar as a business venture. Inviting people to my place and telling them about wine.”
From there, she took the concept to art galleries and restaurants and began taking people on wine tours close to LA. Then Sonoma.
Wine South Africa
Fast-forward to 2020. She was by now bringing small groups from the U.S. to tour the Cape Winelands through her Zuri Wine Tasting “international wine lifestyle company curating experiences for customers in both Los Angeles and Cape Town.” And she was experimenting with the idea of living six months in Cape Town, six months in LA.
Backtrack to 2018, which is when she learned about BLACC.
“I was invited on one of their wine outings. We met winemakers and there were tastings. I started getting regular invites. It was a great way to learn about the wines and the wine industry through the people making the wines and directly involved.”
BLACC, she discovered, had no social media presence. So she volunteered to help out. Gratis. Giving back.
She continued doing BLACC’s social media when back in LA. “They would send me the pictures to post and I would do whatever was needed.”
While in South Africa she is able to run her U.S-based business, it being online for now. Teaching wine tasting virtually, linking people in the industry, running workshops featuring different wine cultivars —and even, recently, setting up and hosting an online wine festival event.
With COVID keeping her in Cape Town beyond the anticipated six months, she added “education” to her social media volunteer portfolio with BLACC. It worked well for her as she is studying for her level 3 certification through the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET). And it has been a blessing for many members of BLACC impacted in ways great and small during this long and convoluted coronavirus year.
Wine Connoisseurs Unite
When one meets and talks to BLACC members, what stands out is how many of them didn’t grow up drinking wine. Read, for example, our 2019 CN interview “Pardon Taguzu’s Wine Legs: From Zimbabwe via South Africa to the Netherlands.”
When Taguzu arrived, as an economic refugee, in Cape Town, he had never had a glass of wine. Fast-forward through wine courses, awards for blind tastings, sommelier positions at top wine establishments and now a cool wine-importing position in The Hague.
There are many similar stories, it being a case that if you don’t know a career path exists, you might have all the latent talent for success and the potential to develop a passion and it will never be realized.
For three similar inspiring BLACC tales you might like to check out this “Tale of Three Somms” article, which focuses on three Durban sommeliers at three of the coastal South African city’s most exclusive venues. All are innate-talent-actualized success stories.
Winston Matthews, somm at 9th Avenue Waterside; Zwai Gumede, who pre-COVID was at The Chef’s Table; and at The Oyster Box, Job Jovo, who swopped economics for being a sommelier and is well on his way to being an international Master of Wine.
Activist for Empowerment
Ngcungama’s story, while different, has similarities. He was born in a village in rural KwaZulu-Natal. His biological mom was employed as a domestic worker by a family who owns a hotel chain in the U.K. They adopted him, sent him to one of the country’s best private schools, Michaelhouse, and — well, here he is, co-founding BLACC and being an activist for empowerment.
On top of this, Ngcungama became a household name, face and favourite, saluted for his wine appreciation (quaffing impressive quantities of it) in combination with his culinary skills, charisma and more when he appeared on BBC Entertainment’s first season of “Come Dine With Me SA” back in 2012.
“My family business is in the hospitality industry, so I’ve grown up with good food and the hotel world is what was always the centre of family life,” he tells me. “My father was a great cook, and he nurtured and encouraged my interest in food from an early age. With great food, one needs great wines, so it was a natural progression for me,” he says.
He also pops up on Google doing all manner of things, from singing opera (with bubbly), giving an interview as a brand ambassador and sharing cooking tips via his Dinner with Aubs YouTube series. He’s on Instagram as @dinnerwithaubs.
Son of The Soil
Cape Town’s Denzel Swarts‘ grandfather and father were both wine estate farmworkers. Through determination and “as a farm child who envisioned a different future and received support and encouragement,” Swarts has become “the first third-generation farm child” to produce his own wine brand (called Son of Soil) and to hold a senior management position: Simonsig’s brand ambassador for coastal South African.
He was recognized in October 2020 by the African Brand Summit as the country’s top “community builder influencer” for the work he is doing in his wine-focused community through his Son of The Soil Leadership Foundation — the focus being on coaching and mentoring young people so that they can discover their true potential.
He joined BLACC “because I saw it as a platform for me to come into contact with like-minded people keen to promote South African wines and to share knowledge to create opportunities.”
The future of BLACC, he says, “Is for us to become agents and mentors to younger entrants into the hospitality field.” This is similar to what he’s doing through his foundation, which he hopes his wine brand will support, and through other outreach work. In the Winelands where he lives, he says, gangsterism and drug abuse are rife. “I don’t believe in hand-outs. What we need to give our youth is hand-ups. An attitude of ‘I’m taking you with me.’”
BLACC with its extensive network of members, success stories, role models and networking and collaboration is playing its part.
- By way of context: If you click through to our 2018 interview where “Nigerian Filmmaker Akin Omotoso Blends Race, Gender and South Africa in Colour of Wine,” you can read how, post-1994 and the country’s first democratic elections — slowly at first and with roadblocks and huge challenges — the country’s 300-year-old wine industry started to transition. First-generation Black winemakers were, essentially, industry pioneers.
Ntsiki Biyela, the country’s first Black woman winemaker, featured in Omotoso’s film. From a rural village, Biyela had never tasted wine before she won a scholarship to study it. Read her story “Ntsiki Biyela Uncorked: South Africa’s First Black Female Winemaker Delivers.”
- Nigerian Filmmaker Akin Omotoso Blends Race, Gender and South Africa in Colour of Wine
- Ntsiki Biyela Uncorked: South Africa’s First Black Female Winemaker Delivers
She has won many accolades. The most recent, announced last month: Biyela is one of five finalists shortlisted for the title Winemaker of the Year by Wine Enthusiast magazine.