40 Under 40: Joseph Tongai Dhafana

Wednesday, 13 December, 2017
Catea Lizbet Sinclair
Zimbabwean winemaker & sommelier Joseph Tongai Dhafana has lived many lives.

In February 2009 Dhafana and his wife, Amelia Chakamba, fled the tide of tyranny that Zimbabwe experienced under President Mugabe’s rule and headed to South Africa. A long, gruelling journey finally led them to Cape Town. It was here, in such a creatively rich—and one often thinks socially free—city that he began building a new life for himself and his family that was beyond his wildest dreams.

For Joseph, patience isn’t just a virtue—it’s a tool. He has worked as gardener, dish-washer & finally as bartender at Bar Bar Blacksheep where he discovered a passion for wine. His determination to succeed – and survive - paid off and after working at several top restaurants in Cape Town during the early days, he was teetering on the edge of intensely promising career in the wine industry a mere seven years after he arrived penniless in South Africa. 

Now, Joseph is head sommelier at La Colombe restaurant and his palate is regarded as one of the best in Africa. He captained the Zimbabwean team at the World Blind Wine Tasting Championship in October 2017. As Dhafana enters the next dimension of his career as winemaker of his own label, Mosi, he is modestly creating a poignant life lightyears away from his hometown of Masinga. Mosi is not just another wine. The brand gives us a window into his life - the places he’s been, and where he wants to go. It will be interesting to see where Joseph finds himself in the next five years as his star, driven by humble and honest knuckling down, is in perpetual rise. We talked small beginnings and the measure of success.

What vintage are you?

March 1982

If you could bottle yourself, what would the tasting note be?

 Honest, hardworking, adventurous, uncomplicated. I always want to give back to the community where I can.

What sparked your love for food & the drink?

It was in Riebeek-Kasteel which is nestled in the heart of Swartland, working as a waiter at Bar Bar Black sheep restaurant. I adored the way my guests would smilingly engage in conversations while enjoying a lazy Saturday lunch and great wine.

Aliens come down from space & you must explain to them in one bottle of wine what it is that you do – what do you make?

If they do exist and if they come down for sure, Chenin blanc will quench their thirst. The variety is so close to my heart, very versatile and so easy to work with. The wine is never boring at all.

What is still on your bucket list for your wine brand, Mosi?

To increase the volumes and make it available and accessible to many.

Tell us about your lucky break?

My lucky break was when Jancis Robinson and Tamlyn Curin tasted and reviewed my 2014 Chenin blanc. A year later I sat next to them at a dinner table in Burgundy when they came to support team Zimbabwe.

What makes a wine fine?

Making good wine is a technique, making fine wine is art. I am still striving to make either of those. Wine is made in the vineyard, the way you treat your vines, handle your fruits during harvest has a huge impact in the cellar. A good start always has a better ending.

What has been your greatest mistake?

Only discovering wine at age 30.

What is your biggest motivator?

Those who strive to make a difference in the society. Mike Ratcliff is very inspiring.

How do you measure success

Many people measure success by looking at material things like wealth. I don’t.  Success is not giving up; trying again and again after failing.

What inspires you?

 Winemakers - especially those that are here in South Africa where wine business doesn’t pay. Clearly, they are doing it for passion.

It’s Wednesday night at 18:30. What’s for dinner?

I always enjoy "nyama yemombe" beef, especially fillet. Please never serve me lamb, I can’t stand the gamey flavour! I will choose a grass-fed fillet, mature, rolled in crushed black pepper corns, pan fried in olive oil, flambéed with brandy, reduce with cream and served with roasted vegetables. A glass of my Mosi Syrah would do with the meal.

If you weren’t working as a somm & making wine, what would you be doing?

 Viticulturalist. I was raised by a farmer and I have tremendous respect to the vocation as my school fees and uniform could be afforded through farming.

What do you rate as your proudest achievement?

I don’t think I have achieved much yet. This is good, but the best is yet to come. Stay tuned for the documentary to be launched in New York in 2019!

What is a big no-no to you when it comes to making wine?

Too much sulphur and heavily toasted barrels.

What would you like to achieve over the next 15 years?

To be a better person by changing lives. Expanding my business with a like-minded business partner.

Who or what is your idea of oenological brilliance?

Eben Sadie. What a genius! I will stick my neck out for him any day.

Where are you happiest?

At home - nothing beats being with my family - and at La Colombe restaurant in Constantia. I work there as a sommelier, making wine is actually just a hobby!

 Biggest vice?

 Swartland wines!

What are the biggest challenges we face in the South African wine industry? Where would you like to see us go & grow over the next ten years?

Drought is challenging. We need to do more to curb climate change. Be the change, make a difference, change starts with you. I also urge those that came before us, our mentors specially in the wine judging fraternity to promote fresh and young palates across the board without looking at gender or race. I passed my intense wine judging course through Michael Fridjhon academy in 2015 but was never on a judging panel, not even as an associate judge since then. Thanks to Ian Manley the director of the BLACC who engineered to have me on the sommelier selection panel this year. If this is practised well, we will never be short of wine judges and this will improve the quality of the judging criteria. Not saying it’s bad but we need to cope as everything is changing so fast these days.

Your cellar is underwater. You can save one bottle of wine from your collection – what do you choose?

My magnum of Hamilton Russell Vineyards Pinot Noir 2016.

What is the best and worst thing about working in the wine industry?

You get to interact with people from all walks of life, get to learn new ideas and of course travelling.)

Looking back, what advice would you give your 21-year-old self?

Never give up, life is never easy. Always keep your door open for new ideas and implement them. Have a never-say-die attitude and remember hard work and determination breeds success. I only started drinking wine at 30 but made my maiden vintage at 34! In 2015 I was the third best wine taster in South Africa and went to the World Wine-tasting Championships in France. In 2017 I went again, this time as the team Zimbabwe captain. No goal is too high. Remember, I also lived a street life for two weeks in Johannesburg.

Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?

I will invite Scott Kirton, Troy Constantakis , Eben Sadie, Mike Ratcliff, Erica Platter, Sasha-Simone Van Zyl and Jeanri-Tine van Zyl. The Van Zyl ladies are very smart!

What would you cook?

Chawanmushi dish. Asian steamed custard with dashi, chilli, roasted gem squash puree, water chestnuts, radish, confit lemon, confit quail leg dipped in Asian barbeque, pan fried quail breast with sweetcorn, coconut volute and miso and served on gem lettuce. I will serve that with Klein Constantia Metis 2014 which is my favourite Sauvignon blanc. James Gaag from La Colombe will be cooking!



 Joseph Tongai Dhafana
Joseph Tongai Dhafana

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