A taste for success – four Zimbabwean refugees compete in the Olympics of winetasting

A taste for success – four Zimbabwean refugees compete in the Olympics of wine-tasting | Soho House

Plus, a rundown of this week’s pick of books, TV and music by Tortoise Media, the slow news agency

Sunday 21 August   By James Wilson

This week, UK inflation went into the double digits for the first time in decades; the country is snarled up in rail strikes (again) and the Conservative leadership hopefuls continue to engage in what looks like a race to the bottom to win the keys to Number 10. Thank goodness, then, for Blind Ambition, a new documentary from Warwick Ross and Rob Coe that provides some much-needed respite. attack

Blind Ambition tells the story of four Zimbabwean men – Joseph, Tinashe, Marlvin and Pardon – who fled the economic disaster of their homeland and took up residence in neighbouring South Africa. After getting jobs in restaurants as sommeliers, they quickly become experts in blind wine-tasting, for which participants must identify all aspects of a wine sample – including the vintage, country, grape and winery – without any prior knowledge. Throughout the film there are several clips of the four of them getting together and guessing these with a phenomenal level of accuracy. 

It’s a highly logical, systematic, mathematical method. ‘It’s not the same as drinking wine at all,’ says master of wine Jasper Morris. ‘It’s much more about the structure of the wine… you’re using a different part of your brain… the analytical side.’ It’s a feat that’s made all the more impressive by the fact that a few years ago none of the four men had ever tasted the stuff.

The stories of how they came to be in South Africa are harrowing. Faced with the deteriorating economic situation in Zimbabwe – hyperinflation, mass unemployment and repressive governance – and with it the prospect of being unable to feed their families, each of the men escaped, braving police, soldiers and crocodiles to make it across the border into South Africa. 

The true number of refugees Zimbabwe’s crisis has generated is unknown. The International Organization for Migration puts the number of Zimbabweans living abroad at 571,970, while the Afrobarometer estimates three to four million. Zimbabweans make up 14% of Southern Africa’s immigrants, according to the Migration Data Portal.

But even though South Africa was at least somewhere wages wouldn’t be rendered worthless by hyperinflation, the country’s high unemployment rate and lack of housing meant those fleeing Zimbabwe were greeted by a violent wave of xenophobia. The four sommeliers-to-be were taken in by Paul Verryn, the Methodist minister and social justice activist, whom they credit with saving their lives.

After they all reached the top 10 in South Africa’s own wine tasting championship, the four men decided to form the first Zimbabwean wine-tasting team and enter the World Wine Blind Tasting Championships in Burgundy, France, which is known as the ‘Olympics of wine tasting’. They’re helped along the way by some of the industry’s veterans: Jancis Robinson, the British wine critic, launches a crowdfunding campaign; wine-tasting expert Denis Garret, known in the industry as the ‘mad Frenchman on a motorbike’, helps them prepare for the competition.

With its implausible but charming premise, Blind Ambition is a real-life Hollywood tale that will cheer you up against an exhausting news backdrop. But it’s also a film with a powerful pro-immigration message – documenting the arduous journey the men had to endure, and their seemingly limitless talent and ambition.

‘The world needs to wake up to the fact that migrants are not cockroaches and pests that need to be stamped out,’ says Paul Verryn. ‘Some of the most profoundly developed and incredibly wonderful minds don’t fit where we think they belong.’

With 2022 seeing Europe’s biggest refugee crisis since World War Two and a British government still intent on deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda, it’s a message we’d do well to remember.

Blind Ambition is available to watch at home with Curzon Home Cinema or in selected venues

Here are this week’s recommendations.

A taste for success – four Zimbabwean refugees compete in the Olympics of wine-tasting | Soho House


Red Rose (BBC iPlayer)
Rochelle and her friends have just finished their exams and are looking forward to a summer of laughs. But such simple plans are complicated when Rochelle’s best friend Wren, whom she secretly has a crush on, starts seeing Noah, another member of the friendship group. Enter Red Rose, a dating app which goes above and beyond the usual remit by giving her money for her energy meter and a new dress for a party. But soon things turn sinister as the app conjures up images of Rochelle’s late mother with parts of her face missing. A very modern story about teen romance and tech.

A taste for success – four Zimbabwean refugees compete in the Olympics of wine-tasting | Soho House
A taste for success – four Zimbabwean refugees compete in the Olympics of wine-tasting | Soho House


Nomad Century – Gaia Vince (Allen Lane, 24 August)
For several years now, progressives have been banging their heads against the wall as politicians repeatedly ignored or played down the threat of climate change and exaggerated the threat of immigration. In this new book by the author of the bestselling Adventures in the Anthropocene, global migration is pitched as an inevitable impact of climate change – but crucially also the solution to it. As soaring temperatures render much of the global south unliveable, communities will be forced to migrate to countries in Europe and North America. Gaia Vince makes the point that we should accept this as inevitable and start planning accordingly; it will also help host countries address problems brought about by their often-ageing populations, and provide a boost to global GDP. Deploying blue sky thinking on a range of measures to adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change – such as employing geoengineering techniques and pushing out humanity’s areas of habitation to more niche areas – Vince’s work has been praised as essential reading for a future dominated by climate change, and rightly so.


‘I Don’t Need To Hide’ – DMA’s
The Australian indie trio have returned with a new single which, according to NME, is all about opening up to someone once you realise they love you despite all your faults. That’s an apt description of how I feel about their last album, The Glow, which I thought was one of the best of 2020. Let’s hope this single is the first sign of a new LP. They’ve also announced three new tour dates in London, Manchester and Glasgow – do try to catch this brilliant band, if you can.

That’s all for this week. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.
James Wilson
Assistant Editor

Interested in becoming a member?