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The incredible journey of a sommelier

2016-04-03 15:00

Joseph Dhafana is one of the country’s leading wine stewards. But his success story begins in darkness and difficulty, when he crosses the border from a broken Zimbabwe with his wife to start a new life with nothing but hope in his heart. 

The darkness smelt of sweat and dirt as Joseph Dhafana and his wife Amelia Chakamba crossed the Limpopo River on a sweltering summer’s evening in February 2009. They were wedged into a steel container with 60 other people for the 18km train journey over the parched, flat land from Beitbridge in Zimbabwe to Musina in South Africa.

They had cheated death earlier that day, when, squeezed into a similar container, their train had been delayed for two hours between the two border towns. Locked in from the outside, the passengers screamed as the mercury hovered at around 42°C outside, turning the container into a furnace. Six women fainted before Zimbabwean railway workers finally heard them and prised open the door.

Crossing the border, Dhafana (34) and Chakamba (28) had no money. All they had were cautious dreams. They were leaving behind their two-year-old son, Tinashe Sean, with Chakamba’s parents in Athlone, a well-off suburb in Gweru ­– the city in southern Zimbabwe where the couple met in 2002 while Dhafana worked at Sino-Zimbabwe, a cement company. It was tough, but sacrifices had to be made.

It was dark when Dhafana and Chakamba finally carried their plastic suitcases to join thousands of others in a camp on Musina’s fringes. They slept under a tree. From early the next morning they queued all day outside the brown-brick department of home affairs building where asylum seekers could apply for permits, which would allow them to work in South Africa for six months. They stayed at the camp until they received the permits. It took two weeks.

Next, the couple headed to central Joburg by train, where, for another two weeks, they stayed at the Central Methodist Church, Bishop Paul Verryn’s crowded haven for refugees. Chakamba slept huddled in the basement with hundreds of other women and children, and Dhafana with the men outside on scraps of cardboard and blankets laid out on the urine-stained pavements.

Fear hung in the air. A year earlier, foreigners had been killed in a series of bloody riots throughout South Africa in the first of the country’s major outbreaks of xenophobic violence.

“There were so many fleas, but we had nowhere else to go,” says Dhafana. “Luckily the bishop was so kind. He would come every night to have a sermon and pray with us.”

A tireless gravitation towards optimism laces Dhafana’s speech like a golden thread, and it is manifested in the upturned corners of his mouth and shiny eyes.

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Seven years after first arriving in South Africa, he is dressed in a crisp white shirt with embroidered cuffs and speaking to me on a deck flanking La Colombe, one of the country’s premier restaurants high on the slopes of Table Mountain. Dhafana has served as the restaurant’s head sommelier since 2014 and is introducing fellow staff with a flourish.

“This is Savio Jacobs, one of my favourite waiters. He asks all the right questions,” says Dhafana as Jacobs places a glass of spicy Blaauwklippen Zinfandel 2012 and a dish called “three ages of boerenkaas” – a dessert of aged cheese and cheese mousse paired with pickled onion, cherries, candied walnuts and cumin ice cream – before me.

Around us the lunch rush is ebbing. A few last couples dressed in cotton with glints of gold still linger over coffees. Earlier I had been informed that La Colombe was fully booked for the whole of February, with a waiting list of 73 tables. It was second only to The Test Kitchen in Woodstock in South Africa’s Eat Out Restaurant Awards for 2015; its chef, Scot Kirton, scooped chef of the year.

Dhafana says: “Don’t forget to taste your wine with that dessert – does it work well?”

La Colombe’s dark, leather-bound wine list has 540 offerings, including the Chenin Blanc Fraternity bottled by Dhafana himself at the Antebellum Wine Estate just outside Riebeek-Kasteel in the Swartland in 2014. “Luckily I wasn’t charged for using the cellar – as a way of promoting young entrepreneurs,” he says.

The wine list describes his Fraternity as “a terroir-driven wine from old bush vines with intense fruit flavours of ripe peaches, apricots and limes, and floral notes”. Dhafana penned those poetic words himself, he tells me.

To date he has sold 500 bottles of the Chenin Blanc. It costs R300 a bottle at La Colombe and goes for R100 if you get it from him directly. It is paired best with oysters, scallops or pork, he says.

Watching Dhafana striding between white-clad tables, it’s easy to see why he was head-hunted to work here and at other high-end Cape Town restaurants. Recommending wines best paired with dishes ranging from springbok loin to strawberry and cucumber sweets, he exudes a quiet authority and style.

Last year in April, Dhafana served as a judge at the Chenin Blanc Top 10 competition in Stellenbosch; in September, he finished third at South Africa’s 2015 Wine Tasting Championships, earning a spot in the team that represented the country at a world blind-tasting event in France in October. South Africa ended 12th out of 20 countries.

He is gracious about the times he did not win: “I was also a nominee in Eat Out’s best sommelier category, but I did not win that one. So that was 2015 for me: busy!” he says.

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Dhafana’s voice raises a notch when he speaks about the xenophobic attacks: “The argument that we [foreigners] are stealing jobs? No. I had to work so hard for this. I had to starve; my family had to starve. I had to sleep outside home affairs’ offices to renew my documentation.

“Determination leads to success. I mean, I saved money to pay for myself to study wine.”

Dhafana enrolled at the Cape Wine Academy in February 2013; which meant driving from Riebeek-Kasteel to Stellenbosch every Tuesday for classes.

He and Chakamba moved to the restaurant-dense town of Riebeek-Kasteel in March 2009, where initially they slept in the lounge of his cousin Yvonne Gumbo and her husband Casius. At the time Casius was working at the town’s Kasteelberg Restaurant. It was Yvonne who sent Dhafana and Chakamba the money they needed to travel the 1 360 kilometres from the Central Methodist Church in Hillbrow to the gold hills of the Swartland, where Riebeek-Kasteel sits at the foot of a tiny mountain shaped like a castle.

In Riebeek-Kasteel Dhafana soon got a job as a gardener at the popular Bar Bar Black Sheep Restaurant, which afforded the couple their own tin shack in the township of Esterhof, a typical relic of apartheid planning, on the other side of the town’s railway line.

He recalls: “I tilled the restaurant’s land of about 50 square metres, planting vegetables. Within a few weeks, the manager, Mynhardt Joubert, asked to sit down with me. The meeting was for a promotion from the garden to washing dishes in the kitchen, which I gladly accepted.”

After that, Dhafana and Chakamba moved into a caravan park near Bar Bar Black Sheep, with its bright umbrellas and bougainvillea.

In January 2010, Dhafana was promoted to barman, and on his 29th birthday, on March 7, Joubert poured him his first glass of wine, a Pieter Cruythoff Methodé Cap Classique.

“I had my very first glass of bubbly from Mynhardt, as it was my birthday,” he recalls. “I struggled a lot to finish. Looking in the glass, which was fizzy, with my mind in the vineyards, I was thinking how someone could convert grapes to such a wonderful liquid. The wine bug followed me from that day.”

Dhafana worked at Bar Bar Black Sheep for several years, followed by stints at high-end Cape Town city restaurants Tjing Tjing Torii and Aubergine – where Chakamba is currently a waitress – before landing his sommelier gig at La Colombe.

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The pair now lives in a high-security complex in the industrial Cape Town suburb of Brooklyn.

The road to their flat in the new Palm Springs building leads past dusky alleys and second-hand shops. But their home is bright inside, with empty Champagne bottles decorating high cupboards in an open-plan kitchen. It is 11am, but Dhafana is pouring glasses of Graham Beck Brut sparkling wine: “I’m a sommelier; I need to welcome you properly,” he says, seated on a cream sofa alongside a hip-high teddy bear. Next to him is Chakamba and his mother, Calista, whose ankles are still swollen after a 30-hour bus trip from Chirumhanzu, Dhafana’s drought-ridden birth town near Gweru. Dressed in a pleated cream blouse with a blue skirt and jacket – her Sunday best, even though it is Wednesday – Calista smiles with folded hands.

Acting as translator, Dhafana says she was disappointed that much of her travels through South Africa happened at night, so unfortunately she couldn’t view as much of the scenery as she would have liked. Her bus stopped at Cape Town’s civic centre at 4am the previous morning; it is her first visit to the country that has become her son’s second home.

Calista and her late husband, Flavian, were subsistence farmers. “My mother is very good with her hands,” says Dhafana. “She would make baskets, even school clothes, with fibre.” He is planning to take his mother to meet his friends in Riebeek-Kasteel the next day.

Their son spent a month with them in Brooklyn over December. Of course they miss him, but he will complete his schooling in Zimbabwe, as the eduction system is still good there, they say.

Their South African work permits are up for renewal again at the end of 2017 – a constant sword over their heads. Dhafana says he hopes that his standing in the local wine industry will help them secure a more lasting arrangement with home affairs.

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Have their sacrifices been worth it?

“It’s not a secret that Zimbabwe’s economy shrank,” he says. “I was working there, but we could hardly survive, as the Zim dollar was so weak. So those with education left to look for greener pastures. South Africa was our only hope ... I would never have achieved this back in the country of my birth.”

Standing with his flute of fizzing wine, dressed in a green
T-shirt emblazoned with “South African Wine Tasting Championships” in yellow letters, Dhafana’s pride fills the room. Chakamba’s beautiful face looks tired, but she smiles.

Little more than a gruelling work ethic fuelled by searing ambition have propelled them from their humble beginnings to the top of South Africa’s foodie realm, with its unapologetic ethos of luxury and fine dabs of snobbery.

Despite the haunting uncertainty of more bureaucratic struggles ahead, the couple’s cherished new home away from home is filled with a courage that’s driven by Dhafana’s unflinching will to succeed ... and to drink and recommend many more fine bottles of wine.

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