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The taste of success

The taste of success

A heartwarming new documentary tells the story of four Zimbabwean refugees who compete in the Olympics of wine-tasting

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.

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, when 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 Afro Barometer estimates three to four million. Zimbabweans make up 14 per cent 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 ten 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, 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 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.


Afghanistan: Getting Out (iPlayer)

“A history of missed opportunities.” That’s how General Douglas Lute describes the West’s 20-year stint in Afghanistan in this new BBC documentary marking a year since the fall of Kabul. Across two episodes, the story of the conflict is told by those who were involved in making some of its key decisions in the US, UK and Afghanistan – including Taliban negotiator Suhail Shaheen. Although cramming the entire history of the Afghanistan war into two episodes is, frankly, impossible, this miniseries gives a good overview of the conflict. Whether it was Obama, Trump or Biden, the US president at the time always seemed to view the war through the lens of how it would affect their own domestic political goals, rather than what it would mean for the people of Afghanistan. A fascinating if tragic primer.

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 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.

Thanks to Tomini Babs, social media executive and host of Tortoise’s Daily Sensemaker podcast for her recommendation of Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist (Netflix)

If you were a fan of Tortoise’s six-part podcast series, Sweet Bobby, this documentary is for you. The sixth instalment in Netflix’s Untold sports documentary series recounts the peculiar 2012 story of college football star, Manti Te’o, whose experience with a catfisher puts him at the centre of a very public hoax scandal. The twists and turns get crazier by the minute with accounts from both the victim (Te’o) and the catfisher, Ronaiah – a complete stranger to Te’o, who struck up the relationship posing online as their friend Lenay. You also get a real sense of just how massive college football is in the US and the celebrification of its players. While I’m not much of a sports fan, this had me glued to the screen.


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 unlivable, 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 – like 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.

The White Rock – Anna Hope

Employing a similar narratives-across-time technique as David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and Emily St. John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility, Anna Hope’s characters in The White Rock are spread across several eras. The novel flits between a Spanish naval lieutenant in 1775 on a voyage of conquest; a Yoeme girl taken from her home by force in 1907; the lead singer of a rock band in 1969 whose career has dried up after being branded a public menace by the press and the president; and an English writer in 2020, accompanied by her infant daughter and soon-to-be-ex husband. What binds them is the place they’re all headed to – the White Rock in Mexico. Throughout, Hope ensures the reader becomes fully invested in each of the characters and eras while maintaining the thread that runs through it. A great book to dive into on holiday. 


‘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.

Thanks again to Tomini Babs for her recommendation of Traumazine – Megan Thee Stallion

On a track titled ‘NDA’ – the first on rapper Megan Thee Stallion’s latest album – she declares “Wait. Stop. Bitch, I really rap,”  before effortlessly proceeding to prove just that. The 18 tracks are elevated by Megan’s stylish lyricism, straight-up badassery and confidence that seemingly knows no bounds – inspiring the same in anyone who listens (myself obviously included). If she’s not there already, Thee Stallion is well on her way to the hip-hop hall of fame.

From the Fringe

Thanks to Tortoise member Jelena Sofronijevic (@jelsofron) for her dispatch from the Edinburgh Fringe, detailing her top five shows:

  • Caste-ing is a triple threat – and a must-see. Is it theatre? Live music? Or spoken word? Satirical raps from ‘If I Was A White Girl’ to Craig David’s ‘7 Days’ (Zulu No. 1 on Monday, Slave Girl No. 2 on Tuesday) speak to the real experiences of young Black women breaking into acting. (For those of you in London, you can catch it at Shoreditch Town Hall from 13-15 September.)
  • Home is Not the Place is a granddaughter’s portrait of the short life of the Kerala writer Paduthottu Mathen – or P.M. – John, the only other artist in her family. “So much for independence,” Annie George begrudgingly mutters, as she shares her gendered experience of being a “1.5 generation” migrant from post-Partition South India. 
  • Exodus explores the aspiration and changing tides of Home Secretary Asiya Rao (who is essentially Priti Patel, right down to the pout). When a migrant baby washes up at her feet during a shores-of-Dover photoshoot, the tides of drama start to turn. While the plot is surreal – one word, Thermowomb – so is modern politics. 
  • Bloody Difficult Women by Tim Walker seeks out the stories of Theresa May and Gina Miller (but speaks more to the sweary, great man narrative of Brexit perpetuated by Paul Dacre).
  • Isto è um Negro? No spoilers, but it lays bare how European colonialism still colours racism in Brazil.

(You can listen to Jelena’s full reviews on Saturday’s edition of the Culture Bunker podcast.) 

That’s all for this week. Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations to editor@tortoisemedia.com.

Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.

James Wilson

Photographs Getty Images, Protagonist Pictures, Netflix, BBC