Wine. Cocktails. Luxury hotels. Fine dining. Elegance. International travel. There is that adage, “If you can dream it, you can do it.” But what if you can’t dream it because it’s not part of your reality? And then you go and do it anyway.
That, in essence, is the story of Zimbabwe-born Durban-based Job Jovo, 41, named “Best Sommelier of Zimbabwe 2021” at a taste-off in Cape Town. Remarkable for a man who was almost 30 years old when he tried his first glass of wine. And didn’t like it one bit.
Jovo, who has a four-year economics degree and had anticipated a career in finance and banking, was waiting tables in South Africa’s acclaimed Swartland wine region when he had that (not so) early baptism-by-wine. Little did the larger-than-life people-person know he was destined to develop the kind of refined palate that would win him awards and earn him sommelier placements at top establishments.
Sincere, affable, down-to-earth, funny — with a delightful eye for life’s absurdities — and a great storyteller, he is not embarrassed to share that back then, he added Schweppes lemonade to his wine. Made a spritzer. “Then it tasted amazing,” he laughs.
I spoke with Jovo for the first time by phone during COVID. He had recently moved to Durban to take up a management and head somm position at The Oyster Box, one of South Africa’s most celebrated luxury hotels. He and his wife, Nasstacia Gwatidzo Jovo, whom he met at college in Gweru, Zimbabwe’s third-largest town, were practicing being “part of the solution,” only venturing out for essentials. And prepping for his new gig by reading motivational books, taking turns cooking — “it’s a passion” — and opening “a good bottle of wine every couple of days.”
In the final week of 2022, I had the pleasure of speaking with him in person at 9th Avenue Waterside, Durban’s leading high-end destination eatery. He was not quite a month into his new gig: consulting head sommelier and general manager.
His story is an inspiring one. It shows what can happen when a person is open to opportunities, prepared to take calculated risks, reset goals and make adjustments in a life plan. He might choose to tell you his story over a cup of tea, ideally the acclaimed Zimbabwe brand, Tanganda. He was weaned on tea. True story. Preferred it to his mother’s milk as a toddler, according to his mom.
Fine tea. Fine wine. Job Jovo’s tipples of choice.
The Best Things in Life
Growing up in rural Zimbabwe, there were certain absolutes in the life of Jovo and his siblings. “We had to go to school, study hard and pass all the grades. We had to do basic sports. I played soccer. And we were expected to help in the fields in the rainy season, planting the maize meal, the pumpkins and other vegetables for our own consumption, so we’d never go hungry.” Lessons in self-sufficiency, he says.
His life was informed by his father’s vision and words. “My dad worked for a sugar plantation. With the little money he earned, he wanted the best education he could afford for his children. He would often tell us the finest things, the best things in life were living ‘in here.’ He would pick up a book, open it, point to the pages. He was teaching us that through education, you get skills, knowledge, empowerment.”
To this day, whenever he calls his dad, “he invariably asks me, ‘What are you studying?’” In Jovo’s chuckle, there is unreserved affection.
Jovo graduated from Zimbabwe’s Midlands State University. “We had a banker in our extended family. It was seen as a very fine thing to be. I imagined white-collar work in commerce would be a good career.”
But back in 2010, same as now, things were tough in his home country. The economy weak. Unemployment rife. “More and more, graduates were on the streets.
“So, like many others, I found my way to South Africa. I had a good friend in Riebeek-Kasteel who said I could stay with him to look for work.” Jovo knew he’d found his partner-for-life and didn’t want to lose her, so according to tradition, he paid lobolo or bride price, “which worked out to 11 cows, although most were paid for in money. We had our traditional wedding in 2011 and our white wedding in 2013, both in Zimbabwe.”
He and Nasstacia found themselves in a small town surrounded by vineyards and little else about an hour’s drive from Cape Town. “It’s a funny set-up, Riebeek-Kasteel. Other than restaurants, and there are a lot of them, there is just one of everything. One hotel, one liquor store, one supermarket, which was then called The Friendly Supermarket. One doctor, one internet café.”
From this café, he applied for any economics or finance job he found listed in the classifieds of the main Cape Town newspaper. He never heard back. He also applied for teaching jobs, “because I knew I could teach commercial subjects.”
He adds, “I remember walking into schools in the Paarl area and other winelands towns. It was very frustrating. I kept thinking, so what was the use of going to school?”
Cult Wine Event
Meanwhile, his life began moving in a never-anticipated direction.
One Sunday his friend, a waiter at an upscale French-style bistro, suggested Jovo come help out. “I was surprised at how busy they were. People drove all the way from Cape Town for lunch. I bussed tables, helped as I could. At the end of the shift, the waiters gave me 10 percent of what they had received in tips. I was amazed at how much it was.”
He started helping out two or three times a week.
But not for long because he happened to wait on a man who turned out to be the owner of the nearby Royal Hotel, the oldest hotel in the Western Cape. “He invited me to come and work there. It was a lovely place. Fancy. I started there as a waiter.”
At the time plans were afoot in Riebeek-Kasteel for what would grow into something of a cult wine event. The first so-called Swartland Revolution wine festival was held in 2010. Plans were underway for the second when Jovo got to The Royal.
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The participating winemakers, a legendary young bunch of disruptors and wine stars in the making (see this blog post for a backgrounder), met on the hotel’s stoep (veranda) to discuss and plan. Jovo would come to know them all almost as well as they knew each other. To know their wines. To appreciate, purchase and pour their wines.
Back then, though, he just noted the passion, the humour, the energy—also their unrestrained support once they saw his unfolding interest in wine.
That year, 2011, “We thought 100 people would come to the Swartland Revolution weekend event. Instead, more like thousands turned up, some having traveled from across the world.”
For Jovo, “It was just insane. It seemed crazy. These winemakers. These farmers. All these people. Studying wine, coming to taste wine, to talk about wine, to buy wine.”
Fascinated by what he saw and encouraged by the winemakers who saw his interest, by his friend who knew Jovo was looking for a career, and by his boss at the Royal Hotel, “It hit home that there actually could be a career here.”
Red or White?
He had started purchasing a weekly bottle of Babylon’s Peak Chenin Blanc from the one liquor store and his Schweppes mixer from The Friendly. “That was the first wine I tried. And truthfully, nothing made sense,” he laughs his quiet chortle. “When I tasted it, it tasted sour. But then mixed with the Schweppes lemonade, it tasted amazing.”
He tells the story of what could be called his first somm experience in the restaurant at the Royal Hotel. “Every day I was serving food and wine. There was a popular dish I loved to recommend, Chicken Valentino. Chicken breast stuffed with peppers, thyme, bacon, delicate flavors, cooked sous vide, finished on the griller so it’s crispy. Served with a mash and other nice things. Then the guests would ask me, what do you think I should drink with this?
“I had no idea. Look, I’m from Zimbabwe where we drink beer and maybe some gin, which we mix wrong with Coca-Cola,” he laughs.
Downstairs, though, there was the wine cellar. “So I got into the habit of memorizing from the labels — what the winemaker said — the profile of one white wine and one red wine. By default, the white was the Babylon’s Peak I was already buying for myself. For the red, I memorized the Riebeek Cellars Kasteelberg pinotage.” This being a South African grape.
“So I would ask if they would rather have a white or a red and if someone wanted a white, I would talk about the chenin. If they wanted red, I would talk about the pinotage.” His accent, at a stretch, sounds kind of French, which likely helped. And this wine strategy worked.
Seeing life had taken this vinous turn, in 2013 he finally took the leap. Signed up to do classes with the Cape Wine Academy in Stellenbosch. Every Friday, initially for three months, he borrowed his friend’s car, paid him a fee, and drove to classes in what is arguably, given its history, the country’s most famous wine-producing region with, he points out, eight distinct wine-producing areas, each giving rise to wines with distinctive styles.
“And this course was amazing. All these senior winemakers, in person, teaching us how to taste wine professionally. How to analyse the wine. What to look for. How to taste it. The subtle differences. It was so thorough.” As his palate developed and he learned what to recognize and appreciate — and wine started making more sense — his spritzer days were over.
Highest Standards of Sommeliering
When I spoke to Jovo that first time, during his Oyster Box days, he had recently returned from Austria, where he had done his exams over ten days with the Court of Master Sommeliers, the international institute recognized for teaching the highest standards of sommeliering. This a natural progression after doing courses offered by the Cape Wine Academy and subsequently WSET, the Wine and Spirit Education Trust, governed by the London-based International Wines Education Centre.
In 2015, he became a member of the South African Sommelier Association, which involved more learning and training. Also in 2015, he left the Royal Hotel to join the luxury five-star Grande Roche Hotel in the wine-growing area of Paarl, encouraged by his then-boss, who recognised Jovo had outgrown opportunities at that establishment and invited by a woman he’d waited on, and impressed, who turned out to be the GM.
“When I got there, it was like a candy store. The wine cellar, the collection was amazing. Some of the oldest wines I had ever tasted.” A special memory — he can name all the wines that have given him goosebumps — was when a guest ordered the two bottles of 1998 Romanée-Saint Vivant Premier Cru the Grande Roche had in stock. “He asked if I had tried it. I said no and he poured me a glass to taste. It was my first time experiencing an old red Burgundy. It was magical.”
You’ve Got the Job!
Jovo’s move to the Oyster Box was from Cape Town’s prestigious waterfront Victoria & Alfred Hotel, where he had his most memorable job interview to date. “The GM and I spoke about wine, got to understand each other at a personal level. Then he excused himself, left the room and returned with four poured glasses of wine. I thought, hey, this man wants me to do a blind tasting.”
Sure enough. There were two whites and two reds. Jovo did the whole tasting ritual. First wine a viognier. Second, a sauvignon blanc, “not very green, I thought coastal.” Third, a pinot noir. Fourth, “I couldn’t taste any flavor. There was something wrong with the wine. I realized it was oxidised.” The GM was testing him. Wanted to see if he would try to give a varietal or if he was familiar with faulty wine. Just like that, “he said, you’ve got the job!”
There, he ran the restaurant, organized the hotel’s daily operations and introduced a monthly gin “high tea” where people could pick their botanicals and choose to build their drink from 20 to 30 gins. “What I like about being a sommelier is it is a lot more than selling wine, discovering varietals, talking about flavor and being able to pour every cocktail. It incorporates the business and the management side and daily operations.” And you need to be a culinary pro as you’re working with leading chefs doing tastings, pairings and giving suggestions.
In his industry relationships are key, Jovo (follow him on Facebook) stresses. Relationships with customers, with winemakers, the people you’re working with, often training and mentoring. Working in the wine industry, he says, is more than a career. It’s a way of life. You must be passionate about the world of wine and you need to make a personal commitment to learn something new every day.
Fortunate, it would seem, his banking dreams bit the dust.