Blind Ambition:”The Olympic Games of wine”
Do you know your pinot grigio from your pinot noir, fortified blends from late harvest wines, malolactic fermentation from long chain fatty amino acids, riddling from riesling and, by the way, who is *botrytis cinerea”? All these terms are part of the lexicon of wine making and wine tasting.
In wine terms, most of us rely on personal taste and are comfortable simply choosing a red or a white wine or perhaps we have a palate memory that allows us to select a specific wine to match certain foods. When a group of friends from Zimbabwe, Joseph, Tinashe, Marlvin and Pardon, decide to embark on an exploration of wine, personal taste has very little to do with it.
Joseph, Tinashe, Marlvin and Pardon
Blind Ambition chronicles Joseph, Tinashe, Marlvin and Pardon’s journey from refugees who escape the murderous regime of Robert Mugabe to become sommeliers in some of South Africa’s best restaurants. The story is extraordinary. This is not fiction. This is a documentary about actual people, real experiences and complex wines. Rewind their achievement. Within two years of landing in South Africa, they became sommeliers at top restaurants. This is an astonishing achievement for anyone familiar with wine. It is an even more astounding accomplishment for Joseph, Tinashe, Marlvin and Pardon.
Before fleeing Zimbabwe and entering South Africa, they had never tasted wine, let alone understood the intricacies of wine tasting and international wine competitions. To top it off, when they first tasted wine, they didn’t like it.
They were the wine equivalent of a fish riding a bicycle. Forming Team Zimbabwe to enter the World Wine Tasting Championship increased the level of difficulty to a fish riding a tricycle while juggling.
Consider your own experiences around wine tasting. Can you identify a wine by country of origin, the wine region, producer, grape variety, and vintage year or are you comfortable with just getting the wine colour correct? There’s no judgement about your choices but put it into perspective around what Joseph, Tinashe, Marlvin and Pardon achieved.
Wine tasting, especially during the World Wine Tasting Competition, where world class Wine Masters and top sommeliers judge 12 wines and test their taste buds in a blind tasting, is an intense, competitive and incredibly demanding task. And blind tasting has nothing to do with “getting blind” by drinking too much wine. This is serious. Blind tasting involves identifying 12 wines in carafes without any identifying characteristics by their country of origin, region, grape variety, wine maker, and vintage year. Wine teams from many nations look for clarity, varietal character, integration, expressiveness, and complexity.
Wine judging is different from drinking wine. Wines can be selected from any country across the globe. Examples would be a 2009 Chateau Capitoul Maelma, Syrah, from France, La Clape; 2017 Te Mata, Sauvignon Blanc, from New Zealand, Hawke’s Bay; 2013 Acustic, Grenache, from Spain, Auditori Montsant and a 2017 Alheit Vineyards, Chenin Blanc, from South Africa, Coastal Region.
It’s a slightly different prospect from choosing a red wine to go with your pizza on a Friday night.
If it isn’t enough to decipher the logjam of information in order to identify a wine correctly, Joseph, Tinashe, Marlvin and Pardon must contend with the wine experts who act as their wine judging mentors and coaches. Their final choice for a wine coach is Denis, who provides an additional challenge for the team alongside tasting as many wines as possible before the competition. Denis is both hilarious and annoying.
Joseph, Tinashe, Marlvin, Pardon...and Denis
Blind Ambition is not a smooth blend of Joseph, Tinashe, Marlvin and Pardon’s stories as victims of Mugabe’s regime and their steep learning curve around wines and establishing themselves as wine experts in their new lives in South Africa. The movie details their story around forming a team to represent Zimbabwe in the World Wine Tasting Championship and getting support from Denis, a wine expert who has lost his wine mojo and is much a hindrance as a mentor to the team. The movie interjects a heavy, emotionally loaded segment of the movie that details their plight and struggles as refugees fleeing Mugabe‘s Zimbabwe. The sudden shift jars like a wine that has a tainted flavour. It’s as if we get the initial high from drinking a fine wine and them suffering the downside when imbibing one glass too many. Blind Ambition could have been blended better for a smoother viewing experience. Their plight wouldn't be diminished but would integrate their experiences in a balanced viewing for the audience.
Before you get worried that Blind Ambition is a movie only for dedicated wine aficionados, I'll share one of my favourite stories when beginning my own exploration of wine many years ago. It involves a wine tasting at a winery in the Barossa Valley wine district in South Australia. As a novice to wine, I tasted a particular wine then offered my thoughts to the wine maker behind the counter. I said the wine had a bready nose that reminded me of brioche. The wine maker looked at me with a stunned reaction. “ Well, we certainly didn’t put any bread in the wine”. I shrunk, turned and quietly exited the wine tasting room.
A short time later I was reading a wine magazine that described a red wine as having hints of sweaty, leathery saddle and wet straw. I immediately remarked, “Well, I bet the winemaker didn’t put a sweaty saddle or wet straw in the wine”. From that time on, I realised that the taste of wine is personal and perceptions of a wine can vary from person to person. Joseph, Tinashe, Marlvin and Pardon even come across a wine that has a nose of steaming donkey. I bet the winemaker didn’t put a steaming donkey in the wine.
Whether your understanding of wine is to swirl, sniff, slurp, swish, and taste or your approach to wine is red for winter and white for summer, Blind Ambition will provide a wine journey tinged with human emotions and the story of four men’s belief that they could set goals and strive to achieve those goals. Do they make it and conquer the Everest of wine competitions against insurmountable obstacles? The Wine Championship does have a winner, runners-up and a last place team. The Zimbabweans work to achieve their goal but you will have to watch the movie to discover how they were rated.
Joseph, Tinashe, Marlvin and Pardon are a delightful group of young men with an indomitable spirit and unrelenting passion for wine and the desire to learn every intricate detail of what they are sniffing and tasting. If these men were a wine they would be a blend of inspiration, humanness, honesty, friendship, and determination.
*Botrytis cinerea is not a character in the latest Star Wars movie. It's a grey mould disease on grapes the can produce the most luscious sweet wines or "stickies".
Official Trailer Blind Ambition
Country of Origin: Australia
Language: English & Shona with English subtitles
(Shona is a Bantu language of the Shona people of Zimbabwe)
Distributor: Madman Films
Style: Documentary Production Support: Screen Australia
Filmmakers: Warwick Ross & Rob Coe
Current Release in selected cinemas (2022)
Photographic stills, poster & official trailer © Madman Films
FILM EXTRAS: WINE, SNOW & POOCHES
Cool Runnings (1994)
Four Jamaican bobsleighers dream of competing in the Winter Olympics, despite never having seen snow. With the help of a disgraced former champion desperate to redeem himself, the Jamaicans set out to become worthy of Olympic selection, and go all out for glory. Another movie about men who are determined to achieve seemingly impossible tasks.
Struggling writer and wine enthusiast Miles (Paul Giamatti) takes his engaged friend, Jack (Thomas Haden Church), on a trip to wine country for a last single-guy bonding experience. While Miles wants to relax and enjoy the wine, Jack is in search of a fling before his wedding. Soon Jack is sleeping with Stephanie (Sandra Oh), while her friend Maya (Virginia Madsen) connects with Miles. When Miles lets slip that Jack is getting married, both women are furious, sending the trip into disarray.
Red Obsession (2013)
For centuries, Bordeaux has assumed a mythical status in the world of fine wine. Chinese demand for France's finest wines has caused the price of Bordeaux to skyrocket, forcing traditional buyers out. Warwick Ross, the director of Red Obsession, also directed of Blind Ambition.
You won't believe the product that one Chinese wine enthusiast billionaire sold to amass his fortune.
Best in Show (2001)
Best in Show is not a film about wine but it is a comedic mockumentary about championship dog shows, obsessive dog owners and the specific judging criteria around choosing a dog champion.
The tension is palpable and the heady scent of competition is in the air as hundreds of eager contestants from across America prepare to take part in what is undoubtedly one of the greatest events of their lives -- the Mayflower Dog Show.