When it comes to wine, there are those of us who exhibit a Michael Scott level of knowledge – perhaps we buy based on the label or on the heaviest savings ratio at our local. Then there are others – four Zimbabwean refugees who fled their country separately and somehow ended up in a wine tasting team competing at an international industry event, let’s say – who can guess from a sniff and a swish the most intricate details of a drop’s creation, and have a good chance at being right. Blind Ambition, the new documentary from Red Obsession’s father-in-law and son duo Warwick Ross and Robert Coe, tells the stranger-than-fiction story of four men with one passion – and it’s absolutely delish.
Opening on the orange flowers of Zim’s hills, we are introduced to our four protagonists – Joseph, Marlvin, Pardon and Tinashe. This is Team Zimbabwe, who in 2017 became the first representatives from their country (ever) to take part in the World Blind Wine Tasting Championship. But how did these four men, who’d never met prior to settling in South Africa and entering the restaurant world in some capacity, end up rubbing elbows with experts in one of the bougiest industries in the world?
Each has a similar origin story; watching their countrypeople suffer poverty and malnutrition from Mugabe’s economic mismanagement, they embarked on a dangerous journey to cross the border into South Africa in search of employment and funds to send back home. We hop between individual stories (first with Joseph, who started at the bottom as a vegetable gardener and worked his way up to sommelier) and each is given time to breathe as we settle into the team dynamic between these enterprising gents.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that wine runs in the blood but it wasn’t love at first sip for any of the members of Team Zim. Joseph is matter of fact about his displeasure (“I didn’t like it”) while Tinashe was reminded of biting into greenery. Pardon was sick for two days after pushing his newfound limits way too far. Marlvin, who comes from a deeply Christian family, had the fear of God put into him from a young age about the dangers of the drink. But he never understood his Pentecostal church’s condemnation of alcohol as he cheekily reminds us that “one of Jesus’s first miracles was turning water into wine.” His inquisitive spirit flows through the veins of his teammates too as they navigate the many obstacles that face them in the wine tasting world (not least of which is how to identify notes of fruits they’d had no exposure to in their homeland).
The odds are stacked against Team Zim but this does very little to damage their hopes for success, as they instead focus on training their palates (and noses) by trying as many wines as possible. While their competitors have access to boutique wines and vineyards at their fingertips, our team drives around to obliging wineries in South Africa, often with half-empty bottles precariously stacked in the back of their van. Upon fundraising enough scratch to make the intercontinental trip to France, Team Zim embark on a winery spree to rival white girls in Margs for the weekend, visiting as many cellars as they can (and studying up at odd hours of the morning). Their triumphant entrance at Languedoc, draped in the Zimbabwe flag and hanging out the windows and sunroof of their ride, shows a level of underdog pride that must be revered.
Ross and Coe let their subjects tell the stories without interference and it allows us greater insight into the established world our protagonists entered – one that was previously “a wall of white faces”. British wine journalist Jancis Robinson is the author of the quote and describes her excitement at discovering the team and the chance for new perspectives in an industry that had somewhat lost its tannins. Jean Vincent ‘JV’ Ridon shares similar sentiments as the scout for the South African team who coached Team Zim for much of their journey. And every story needs a villain (or a lovably flawed oaf intent on reaching the heights of his glory days): enter Denis Garret.
Interviews with Denis reveal his eccentricities in full form; he drinks his orange juice from a wine glass in a deck chair out the front of his house and left his wife one day because “she was too much for me”. He finds joy in annoying people and vintage photos paint him as a character right out of Ratatouille. But there’s something endearing about a genius way past his prime (he’s almost completely deaf and definitely can’t buy off the rack anymore). Team Zim are hungry for a win and Denis is just plain hungry – “I’m not rich, I am poor. You have to pay me half now,” he reminds a team funded entirely by crowd donations. We watch with trepidation, a side effect of having seen fictitious collabs between former prodigies and the newbies through which they live vicariously in countless sports films from the past. Will Denis be their saviour or their curse? Only wine will tell.
To describe Blind Ambition in wine terms is to expose myself as a Steve Coogan of sorts but I care not. The film is full-bodied, lively and remarkably well-rounded as we end amongst those same orange flowers of Zimbabwe. Tinashe recounts his hesitation in returning to his homeland – his mother died before he was able to come back and see her – and stands, finally at peace, in the same hills his grandfather tended to. Ross and Coe have skillfully blended all elements into a crowd pleaser of the purest variety, evidenced by the film having won the Audience Award at the Tribeca and Sydney Film Festivals. So pop the cork, settle in and be prepared to finish the bottle – it’ll do you good. 8/10.
Blind Ambition is out Thursday March 3rd and for the ultimate experience, there is a Wine Tasting Screening at Luna Outdoor on the night of.