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They escape political and economic chaos — and rise as sommeliers

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It sounds like the setup to a bar joke or maybe a pitch for one of those comedy drama films - four guys escape political and economic chaos in their home country of Zimbabwe, face harrowing journeys to get to neighboring South Africa - where they slowly rise in the restaurant world - and then somehow meet up, become friends and compete for international recognition as - wait for it - sommeliers. Really. It also happens to be true. Their story is the subject of a new documentary called "Blind Ambition." It was released in theaters and streaming services this month. Tinashe Nyamudoka is one of the four sommeliers profiled in the documentary, and he is with us now to tell us more about it and his story. Tinashe Nyamudoka, thanks so much for joining us. Welcome.

TINASHE NYAMUDOKA: It's a pleasure, and thanks for having me.

MARTIN: I think I'm on firm ground here when I say I think it's the rare youth who grows up and says, I want to be a sommelier when I grow up. Did you know what a sommelier was when you were growing up?

NYAMUDOKA: Geez, I didn't even know there was wine. I knew there were grapes and eventually knew there was white wine and red wine, so the profession was something that I've never conceived growing up. It's only something I found out when I went to South Africa.

MARTIN: So how did the love affair with wine begin in your case?

NYAMUDOKA: In my case is like when I migrated from Zimbabwe and turned up in a refugee in South Africa. It was difficult to find jobs. And the most accessible and easy ones were working in restaurants, and I typically got a job polishing glasses and cutlery at the back. But I was so fortunate that the restaurant manager saw some enthusiasm in me and some eagerness to learn and kind of pushed me towards the direction of hospitality service and which included food and wine. So with that enthusiasm and going to wine school, that's where I discovered there's a profession called a sommelier, which was just waiting for me.

MARTIN: I have to say, I was floored at the level of knowledge required for this international competition, which some call the Olympics of wine tasting. And I'm just going to play a short clip from the film where the group of you are testing yourselves.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "BLIND AMBITION")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I believe the wine is old, probably a Gruner Veltliner, possibly 205 to 207.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: So you're going to Austria?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: But I'm not convinced.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: It's - it's, for me, it's just...

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Seven minutes is going to be up just now, guys. And the wine is a mystery. 2007...

(CROSSTALK)

MARTIN: You're expected to know what's the varietal, like, what country is it from, what vintage? Like, I just - I'm just amazed that you can know that just from tasting the wine blindly as the title of the film says. I just - how do you learn all that?

NYAMUDOKA: It's got to do with, first of all, you know, learning and reading, understanding the grape varieties, the regions they come from on a theoretical basis. And the difficult part, I think, is to relate taste to those variables you pick up. And believe me, I think on the competition itself, we are tasting an average of 60 wines a day, different wines, and trying to nail down the intrinsic which gives you pointers, you know? For instance, we all know if you're smelling a bit of a cat's pee in a wine, that's definitely New Zealand. If you smelling horse manure, that can lead you to a, you know, a Grenache or Garnacha from, you know, Rioja. So with experience and associating and memory, you kind of have clues then nail it down to its final region and origin.

MARTIN: You know, look. At its heart, this is - it's a fish-out-of-water story. It's a story of kind of triumph over adversity. It's - there are a lot of stories kind of tied up in your story. Is there some message that you see in it that you would want to share?

NYAMUDOKA: It's a story of millions of migrants around the world. I know it's pressure to the host country, but, you know, if managed well and treated well and integrated well, I think we can do much more to the economy. And we're not the first, you know? You look at the big businesses in the world or some bright, brilliant innovations we have all over the world is coming from migrants. So I think for me it's important to realize the importance of it. And that just - it's a global wall. It's a global economy. It's a global thing. And, you know, the most difficult thing is I never, you know, intentionally wanted to leave Zimbabwe, but I was forced with pressures that are not in my control, you know? If I had my way, I would have loved staying there, but sometimes, you know, as ordinary people, we forced away from our homelands. And, you know, it's just acceptance and really fitting in and respecting where we going, the host country, which is important for me.

MARTIN: We know that there were times in which migrants from Zimbabwe to South Africa were not as well treated. I mean, initially many were welcome, but then subsequently, as conditions in South Africa became more difficult, many people were subjected to violence. It was frightening, I think, at times.

NYAMUDOKA: Yeah.

MARTIN: And yet, you know, I don't know if you experienced any of that.

NYAMUDOKA: We experienced - it was two phases. The first time I arrived in South Africa, 2008, and the second year was 2014, which was even worse. And I remember working. They actually told us not to come to work for a week until everything subsides. So it was really, really frightening to be honest, and we still bearing the scars.

MARTIN: But also, the other thing that was interesting about the film is it also showed you had allies in unexpected places. Like, I was interested to see how some of the restauranteurs were really - they were really pulling for you. Do you know what I mean?

NYAMUDOKA: Yeah.

MARTIN: I didn't know how that all happened, but it just seemed in many of the cases in many of your stories, there was somebody who just said - like you were saying at the beginning - they saw something in you, and they just wanted to help you. And I wondered if you were surprised by that or what you make of that?

NYAMUDOKA: Geez - it was the most heartwarming feeling I've ever felt, you know? We needed to raise, like, 6,000 pounds, and every day I would be checking our - you know, the crowdfunding going from zero, 5%, 10%, 20%, 30%, and even going to 127%. So for us to feel like it was us they were supporting, but I think it was the idea and our passion and our willingness to change the world that we were really supporting. So it was like a good testament that we're doing the right thing and very overwhelming as well.

MARTIN: And I want to mention, you are a winemaker yourself now. How did that (laughter) - I'm sure that's its whole interesting story, but...

NYAMUDOKA: Yeah. I think that was pretty much me being not rebellious in the context of where I was. I got introduced into wine, you know? South Africa - it's not a hidden fact; it's still a white-dominated and mostly male. And I found that really challenging because whenever you got to tastings, everything was so foreign to me - might be in the Afrikaans language or the way they spoke about wine, you know, blackberries, blackcurrants, cassis. I've never seen a blackcurrant tree, and I'm supposed to pick that up in wine. But with wine education, when you learn that they're actually not putting strawberries in the wine when they speak about it, it's more of association and relating to what you were used to.

And that took me back home, you know, growing up in the village, in the mountains, picking up fruit, what my grandmother used to cook. So I related to that. And I felt the wine world didn't accept or - not accept, but there wasn't any language that spoke of my upbringing, my culture. And I felt Kumusha could be a vehicle for that because I knew there were millions of people like me that might not be in Africa, but somewhere else in the world - we will struggle the same way I do. And I wanted to be that vehicle of saying wine is very universal. You know, wine is just a beverage, but you have to connect it with your culture, your upbringing, and your beliefs.

MARTIN: Tinashe Nyamudoka is a winemaker. You can watch him and his team represent Zimbabwe in the World Wine Blind Tasting Championship (ph) in the documentary "Blind Ambition." It's available now to rent or buy on all major streaming platforms in the U.S. Tinashe Nyamudoka, thanks so much for talking with us.

NYAMUDOKA: Thank you so much. It's a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.