WINE ROCK STARS
A Tale of Three Somms
Not one of these top sommeliers grew up knowing there was any such thing as a career in wine, let alone that this was in their future.
Winston Matthews, Zwai Gumede and Job Jovo are sommeliers. Rare vintages in their profession seems an apt description given that separately, independently and by way of contrasting – if comparably remarkable – career fermentations, all three have found themselves at, yes I will stick my neck out and say: the three top establishments in greater Durban offering fine dining in refined settings with superior wine and spirit pairings.
Job Jovo is the sommelier at the Oyster Box, Zwai Gumede at Chef’s Table and Winston Matthews at 9th Avenue Waterside. Linked more closely to Corona’s restaurant industry lockdown carnage than to the country’s wine industry prohibition devastation, Gumede may be yet another Covid-19 casualty.
But, hey: Meet these guys. Hear their stories. His story. He has stepped out of his comfort zone too often to be corked by this curveball.
The rock stars of the wine world, sommeliers are sometimes called. So is there something these three guys have in common besides a shared passion for wine, gritty determination and unique expertise in this glamorous line of work?
Answer: Not one of them, before he was in his 20s, had so much as opened a wine bottle let alone swirled, identified aromas, assessed taste structure, and advised on the pairing of drink with food served up by chefs who are also at the top of their game. Not one grew up knowing there was any such thing as a career in wine, let alone that this was in their future.
As their journeys unfolded, all three refined their manifestly fine palates, focussing on opportunities and never obstacles. Don’t know about you, but to me there is something magical in all this. Empowering. Affirming. Inspiring.
“It’s crazy what I’m doing if you look at my background,” says Winston Matthews. Seven senior pastors in his immediate family. Alcohol of any sort a total no-no.
“When I finished high school there was no question but that I apply to go to Canada to do a pastor course with the Salvation Army. My family didn’t have the money so I came to South Africa to work in construction to fund the plan.”
In Cape Town friends from church took him to a Salvation Army shelter. “Then a guy got me a job in a restaurant as a runner.” He got introduced to clubs. And cider. And sweet wine.
The Canada plan lost its grip.
Then the friendly, forthright guy with the compact barrel-build and the muted belly-laugh, from Chitungwiza near Harare, had a couple of life-altering experiences.
Having risen from runner to waiter, he started noticing the restaurant’s wine culture. People ordering – not the cheap sweet wines “that could give you a kick, make you tipsy” – but something different.
“I was curious.” He started reading labels.
Then he did the unforgivable. “The illicit sip,” he calls it.
“A customer left some wine in a bottle on the table and I decided to try it.”
It was his first taste of “proper wine” and he remembers it clearly. The wine was a Meerlust Rubicon. “The bosses had strong words with me. We laugh when we see each other at wine shows and I remind them how that glass brought me this far with wine.”
The next defining memory involves a birthday.
By now he was working at Maria’s Greek Cafe in Cape Town. His boss at the time, Cleon Romano, had noted how his young GM had started picking up on wine flavours and aromas, using Shona terms that reflected their English counterparts.
After a specially hectic shift on what happened to be Matthews’ 24th birthday, Romano took him to the Mount Nelson for dinner. Pearl Oliver, sommelier there at the time, must have been impressed by the youthful enthusiasm, the intensity of the questions, something she saw. As a birthday gift she signed him up for his first course at the Cape Wine Academy, which he followed with others. Both there and at the International Wine Education Centre (WSET).
“Wine definitely tastes better when you understand it,” Matthews says.
She also introduced him to winemakers who invited him to wine activities. He got to work harvests. Then in 2018, by which time he was both GM and sommelier at Maria’s, he decided to move to Durban.
I met Matthews the first-time at the BAT Centre. He had just moved from Cape Town and was hosting a wine tasting. A freelance gig. A collaboration with a chef. When the anticipated crowd failed to materialise, he was unperturbed. He poured the wines, shared stories. Made the evening work.
Our paths subsequently crossed at other private functions.
Then he called to say he had been appointed sommelier at 9th Avenue Waterside.
“I liked the idea of Durban,” he says. “The potential challenge. In Cape Town you can’t walk round a corner without meeting a somm. Here I can go a full week,” he laughs.
When he moved, he was elected to be the Black Cellar Club’s (Blacc) KZN representative. He describes the organisation as “a communication platform that, when it started, was for SA sommeliers, but it has grown in diversity and scope and now people from all over the world belong”.
Blacc kept its members focused during lockdown – what Matthews calls “the longest holiday I ever had in my life” – with revision classes, virtual tastings and lessons. Prominent wine people in the industry gave Zoom presentations. There was ongoing support and activity.
The 9th Avenue team, meanwhile, were in communication throughout lockdown, “brainstorming on how we would do things when we opened up. I felt so lucky, so blessed, to work for people who put their staff first”.
On the home front, lockdown was spent with his wife and nine-year-old daughter.
“I don’t drive. I prefer to collect wine. So I was able to open a bottle every second day. If you’re a somm you have to develop your food palate too and I did a lot of cooking. My daughter calls me a master chef.”
He also, he shares with one of his distinctive muffled belly-laughs, did a lot of online exercising. “Lost some of my stomach!”
Back at the bistro, he’s responsible for all the beverages. “From water to the most expensive wine or whisky.”
His day involves talking with the chef 24 hours ahead of any shift. They discuss specials so he can plan wine pairings. He gets in two hours before any shift to brief the waitstaff. There are the cocktails, the spirits, the focus on making sure anyone, from regular folk to “the people who come in who you see on TV” have a good time. A lunch or an evening that flows.
He appreciates and gets humbled by questions. “My father would say no question is the wrong question and I feel that about the menu and about the wine.”
And people are coming back. “We are now much busier than before. Really busy.”
And thank heaven for that. You can follow him on Instagram.
“At family gatherings, I can’t tell people I’m a sommelier. I may as well be speaking French. Even if I explain, it makes no sense. Someone paid to drink wine and tell people about wine?”
Zwai Gumede’s journey to wine began after he’d studied retail management at Durban University of Technology; after he got recruited by Pep stores, where he became a store manager; after he’d switched careers, studied fashion design and was working at a private fashion house in Durban, mainly on the business side. “Wine companies sponsored fashion shows and what initially interested me was the culture that came with wine. How wine drinkers engaged with what was in their glasses. Beer drinkers, on the other hand, just drank and discussed soccer.”
There was a Woolies near where he worked. For lunch one day he picked up some brown bread, spicy chicken and a bottle of red wine. “Which wine, I don’t know. But I took it back to work and had a glass and it was heavenly.” It became a weekly treat. “I started reading the wine labels and saw the wines came from Cape.”
Curious, he did a Google search for wine-related business in Cape Town and sent off 10 or 15 emails. “I said simply, I am in Durban, I know nothing about wine, but I love it and I would love to work in the industry. An office job would be fine.”
One person responded. A Judy Brower who told him if he found himself in Cape Town, she’d like to meet him. So he drove with a friend who was moving there, they tracked down the offices in Somerset West. And a one-hour meeting turned to two.
The company was wine.co.za, an online media firm focused on the wine industry.
They didn’t have a job for him right then. “But a couple months later, I got an email. Pack your bags, you’re coming to Cape Town. Are you ready?”
He wasted no time.
“That must have been 2012. I found a place to stay in Strand. Worked in the office, in front of a computer. But I was lucky. We were dealing with a lot of winery information. And we would go to wineries to do profiles on winemakers, producers and owners so I got to meet them.” And every Wednesday there was a staff lunch where they’d open a couple of bottles of wine so the immersion continued.
“Then one day Judy and the team said, ‘You know what Zwai, you’d make a very good sommelier’. I said, ‘But I’m not from Somalia, I’m from South Africa’. She explained what a sommelier does. I was amazed to hear you could have a job where you were paid to drink wine.”
The same Judy then did “something I will never forget and something I totally credit her with for where I am today”. She did a barter with the Cape Wine Academy. They could use the firm’s offices if they enrolled Gumede in his first-level professional course. After that course, he did a second – merit passes ruled – and his focus became his somm training.
Then he spotted a job for a sommelier in the classifieds section of the company website. He didn’t know where he was applying; was just curious to see if they’d respond.
A message came back from luxury Singita in Mpumalanga. “They would fly me up for an interview and I would be there for three days.”
He had never seen so many wines in one room as in their massive cellar. And he was required to do some work on the floor to see what it entailed. “I thought: I can do this. I want to be here. I want to work in this environment and be part of this.”
Back in Cape Town there was a second interview, this time with the head of the Singita wine programme. “I was asked to bring a wine to recommend.”
Gumede took the best he had and one that is still a favourite. A Stellenbosch Vineyards Credo Chenin Blanc. “I did my role play. Anyone who knows François Rautenbach, he’s not the easiest person to impress,” Gumede laughs. “A very intimidating man.”
A couple of days later, he got the email.
“Pack your bags!” He was going to Mpumalanga.
It was party time at wine.co.za. “This guy from Durban who had arrived knowing nothing about wine, now a sommelier, spreading his wings and venturing out. The farewell was a celebration to my journey.”
He acknowledges: “I wouldn’t be speaking to you here today if it wasn’t for Judy Brower. She was like a mother to me. Everything! She checks up on me. We keep in touch.”
At Singita, Gumede was responsible for “the best wine offering anywhere in the whole of Africa, really”.
“It was one of the best experiences of my life. Being surrounded by nature. Waking to a lion’s roar in the morning. Not getting to work on time because there’s an elephant outside your door. Conducting wine tasting in the bush at sunset. Travel to Cape Town not just to the tasting room but to meet the winemakers, to engage in harvests.” He studied while there too. Notched up another qualification.
I’ve followed zwai_drinkswine on Instagram since my first encounter with Gumede at the Chef’s Table. Thanks to him I was taken back to a dinner at Chef Thomas Keller’s French Laundry with erstwhile Durban restaurant critic Anne Stevens, when Keller was winning “world best restaurant” accolades. I was living in California, and Anne would come for visits and culinary journeys.
We were both feeling a little intimidated in the hallowed halls. Until the unpretentious somm arrived at the table. Likewise Gumede, unassuming, warm and worldly wise, soon had us writing down wine names to try. And drinking something delicious that wasn’t going to break the bank.
After a little over two years at Singita, wanting to be closer to his daughter, now in matric at Pinetown Girls’, he was keen to get back to Durban. He told a friend who was joining the Chef’s Table team. “She told them about me. I met them when I was in Durban. A couple of months later they contacted me.”
They already had a great cellar. He developed their wine programme. Got a lot of interest from customers and support from Cape wineries looking for a stylish Durban venue. He worked with the executive chef to do wine pairings for the tasting menu.
He had one seven-month absence when a former Singita colleague who’d moved to the Saxon Hotel in Sandhurst, emailed him to say they needed a sommelier and urged him to apply. He knew he didn’t like Joburg. But curiosity got the better of him.
“I thought, wow, this is a different world from Singita and from the Chef’s Table. One of the leading wine programs in the country. They offered me a job. I knew the experience would be invaluable even if I wasn’t there long.”
After seven months, missing Durban, he returned to his still-vacant sommelier position at Chef’s Table “happily – and with a lot more experience”.
Lockdown, though, created strain. Not him saying that. Just reading between the lines. He had taken paternity leave (his son arrived February 27). Then Covid-19 came. And lockdown. The extended period. Spent getting by on UIF. His partner’s job also gone, it too being in hospitality.
His former job at Chef’s Table is still in the air, given restaurant recovery uncertainty. They reopened just last Friday. With a new head chef. Mathew Armbruster, former executive sous chef at Chef’s Table and more recently head chef at Hartford House, replaces Kayla Ann Osborn, who had just committed to a move to the executive head chef position at Delaire Graff Restaurant in Stellenbosch at the start of Covid. Whew.
“These times haven’t been all that easy, I suppose,” Gumede concedes. “But if you’ve been there before, where you didn’t have much, it’s easier to make adjustments. For me the biggest lesson has been to appreciate that what’s important is not about having a lot. It’s the little things. Your family, the people around you are what matter. And I’ve been able to spend a lot of time with my son. And cooking. And exploring new avenues. Online wine marketing, for instance.”
The job, when he’s doing it at the Chef’s Table, is very broad. “It’s all-encompassing. Involves working closely with the kitchen. The wine has to make sense with the food. The wine list has to make sense with the establishment.
“It’s about a person finding a bottle they can both afford and will enjoy. Some people know, but cannot explain, what they are looking for. Our job is to speak to them in such a way they won’t feel uncomfortable and enjoy the experience.”
Then there’s staff development. The waiters need to be able to make recommendations. And he is sometimes a floor manager. Will pour cocktails at the bar. Give advice on whisky and brandy, which he loves, and gin. Discuss the menu in-depth and speak to guests about their food. “It’s not just about the wine.”
“Come what may,” he says, “at some point I have to do the Master of Wine. If I don’t, I won’t be where I want to be. That is the plan, soon as things improve.”
Talking Master of Wine, Job Jovo was in Austria in 2018 doing his exams over ten days with the Court of Masters Sommeliers, the institute recognized for teaching the highest standards of sommeliering. It was a natural progression, given he’d done all the relevant courses offered by both the Cape Wine Academy and WSET, the Wine and Spirit Education Trust.
Jovo was appointed sommelier at The Oyster Box “at the dawn of Covid”. Upon signing the contract “everything shut down”.
“During the Covid shutdown, my wife would often say, ‘Job, we are part of the solution’ because most of the time, we spent indoors. We would go out only to buy essentials.” The larger-than-life people-person with huge curiosity and academic tendencies chortles when he tells me this. You can hear he was champing at the bit, being new to Durban, to start with his number one wine priority: “To understand my local consumers to give them – even exceed – the best possible.”
Also to develop the wine programmes he has in mind, possible now that the hotel has reopened with a bang (enthusiastic returnees), not a whimper.
Jovo came to South Africa from Masvingo, formerly Fort Victoria, with a four-year economics degree from Midlands State University, Gweru. “Because of Zim’s economic meltdown, like many of my fellow countrymen, you would come across the border hoping to get a job in the line of your studies. And like many a graduate, knowing I’d done ‘ABCD’, I thought at some point I would crack the code for what I studied and get a job in economics or finance.”
But destiny had other – more interesting – plans. He had gone directly to Riebeek Kasteel where a cousin was living. By all accounts, in Riebeek Kasteel there is not much other than vineyards, winemakers and restaurants. “As my cousin there was paying the bills, I thought let me try waitering.”
Which is how he found himself pouring G&Ts and pulling corks for Swartland Revolution wine festival winemakers. Passionate people he would initially laugh at when they talked about “smelling leather” in what was in their glass.
Iconic Swartland winemakers like Chris Mullineux, Eben Sadie and Adi Badenhorst, he says, who invited him to their wine farms when they saw his curiosity. Encouraged him. Taught him.
And so his wine journey began.
Always informed by his father’s vision and words: “He worked for a sugar plantation. With the little money he was earning, he wanted to make sure my siblings and I got the best education he could afford. His dream was for us to get the highest level of learning possible.”
So the pragmatic and the academic have marked the progression of this man who might tell you – as he told me – that relationships are key to a somm’s success. Relationships with guests – “understanding and engaging with them, which I love to do” – and relationships with winemakers.
Jovo’s move to the Oyster Box, from Cape Town’s waterfront Victoria & Alfred Hotel, was “one of career progression – to an award-winning five-star establishment with an award-winning wine selection. I felt I would be able to do a very good wine program.”
He’s happy to report that besides having had time to adjust while reading motivational autobiographies, cooking “a lot – it’s a passion” Italian dishes being a favourite, and opening a good bottle of wine every couple of days, “the people I’ve joined have made me feel I’m part of a family that looks after one another during hard times and good times”.
To perhaps understand a little about his palate, I asked Jovo to share some of his personal favourite wine choices.
“For whites I like good chardonnays, the more restrained style with not too much alcohol. The Kaaimansgat by Bouchard Finlayson is one of my favourites. It’s good value. Won’t break your bank. You can buy it in liquor stores. It’s not so complex, but it shows a lot of fruit and restrained use of oak and lots of minerality.”
For reds he will usually go for shiraz, “softer style, more old-school, softer tannin, more white peppers, more savoury than bruised fruit. You get those in the Swartland area. One of my favourites would be the Schist Syrah by Mullineux & Leeu. And from Stellenbosh I especially like the Hartenberg Gravel Hill Shiraz”. Follow the Oyster Box on Instagram. DM/TGIFood
Wanda Hennig is a food and travel writer based in Durban. She has worked on newspapers and magazines in South Africa and the San Francisco Bay Area and freelanced extensively. She is author of Cravings: A Zen-inspired memoir…. Reach her via her website wandahennig.com.