UNSURE of what to study after he'd completed school near his hometown of Harare, Gregory Mutambe chose to bide his time in a temporary job, which is how he found himself 70km east of the city working as a cellar hand at Mukuyu Winery in Mashonaland, Zimbabwe.
"At first, it was just a job," Mutambe says. "As a cellar hand, I assisted with menial operations in the winery. But when I got the opportunity to taste what we were producing, it started to make sense to me and my interest in wine grew. I wanted to learn more and the work became more than just something to fill the time and generate an income."
Thus began Mutambe's wine journey, which brought him about 2500km south to the 12 Apostles Hotel between Camps Bay and Hout Bay, where he is head sommelier.
Mukuyu is one of the largest of a handful of Zimbabwean wineries, which, according to The Zimbabwean newspaper, produce about 5-million litres of wine a year. An assortment of varietals, predominantly old classics Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Colombard, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinotage and Pinot Noir, and the more rare cultivars such as Muscat Ottonel, are planted across 100ha on the estate.
Coincidentally, Mukuyu Winery is also where Paarl-based KWV wine maker and fellow Zimbabwean Tariro Masayiti first tasted and learnt about wine. Unlike Mutambe, Masayiti was working in the laboratory at Mukuyu when New Zealander Brent King, who was vintner at the cellar at the time, befriended him and introduced him to wine. Masayiti eventually studied viticulture at Stellenbosch University. He made white wine at Nederbu rg before joining KWV late last year.
But Masayiti and King had both moved on before Mutambe began working at Mukuyu. By that time, Zimbabwean Samuel Pfidzayi, who trained with Achim von Arnim of Haute Cabrière in Franschhoek and at the Roseworthy Wine Institute in Australia, was wine maker at Mukuyu. It was he who encouraged Mutambe to develop his skills in the winery.
After Mutambe - who, by that time, had been promoted to manager of cellar activities - visited the Cape with some of the winery's international guests, he realised that if he really wanted to pursue a career in the industry, he'd need to study further. And to do that, he'd have to leave Zimbabwe.
"After working at Mukuyu, which is the largest winery in Zimbabwe, then getting some exposure to the South African wine industry, I saw I'd need to leave Zimbabwe to learn more. By then I knew I wanted a career in wine but would need some tertiary education if I was to get anywhere."
Determined to get some formal wine education, Mutambe arrived in Johannesburg in 2006 and signed up for the diploma wine course offered by the Cape Wine Academy.
"To be honest, I found most of the diploma course pretty simple because of my experience at Mukuyu. Learning came easy. Even so, I couldn't imagine myself working on a wine farm again. Although I knew I loved wine, I felt I'd experienced as much of life in the cellar as I wanted. So I decided to study more and also enrolled for the Cape Sommelier Programme (also offered by the Cape Wine Academy), which is when I discovered my true speciality. As much as I enjoy working with wine, I also like interacting with people and discussing wine with others. The sommelier programme made me realise exactly what I wanted to do."
While studying, Mutambe worked as a sommelier at Signature Restaurant in Sandton, which, he says, gave him chance to practise, hone his skills and build his confidence.
In 2009, having graduated from the Cape Wine Academy, he moved to Cape Town and took up a position as sommelier at the Vineyard Hotel. Late last year, he became head sommelier at the 12 Apostles Hotel.
But Mutambe's wine education continues. He recently attended the Wine Judging Academy, a collaboration between Michael Fridjhon, Wine Magazine and the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business, and also completed a wine-evaluation course at Stellenbosch University.
He was a member of the panel that selected this year's wines for South African Airways and helped choose wines for this year's Nederbu rg Auction. Mutambe also evaluates wines for Dominic Ntsele's (of Classic FM) Wine Classic magazine.
"I work at the hotel five days a week but make time for judging and evaluating wines, which I really enjoy. Being closer to the winelands means I've learnt a great deal since living in the Cape. Wine is so complex and I believe, while you don't have to know it all, you do have to keep on learning, which is why I plan to sign up for the Cape Wine Masters and Sommelier Masters programmes shortly. After all, I came to South Africa to get an education in wine and that's what I'm set on doing." Mutambe leads a team of three assistant sommeliers, who work primarily in the Azure Restaurant at the 12 Apostles Hotel. Their goal, he says, is to provide guests with "novel wine experiences" using a wine list that extends to 43 pages as their primary tool.
"International guests are curious about South African wines; they want to try something new. But I believe, unless they're told about the wines, the experience can be boring. We make a point of making wine interesting for our guests by educating them about the wines and telling the stories that make our wines unique. That's why it's important to have enough sommeliers on hand. Wine selection and drinking shouldn't be rushed. My mantra is that being a good sommelier is not about selling expensive wine, it's about selling the experience. I constantly remind the team that the important thing is to give guests an experience they can't get elsewhere."
His job also involves working with chef Henrico Grobbelaar to ensure the wine on offer matches the cuisine.
Then there's the 12 Apostles cellar: "That's my baby," he beams. "It's such a pleasure to be in the Cape and have easy access to wine farms. It means I don't have to buy a lot of one wine. We can offer great variety and be flexible with our wine list. Wine preferences change. For example, we've seen a move back to wooded Chardonnays recently and Semillon is growing in popularity. Who knows how long the trend will last but we're able to provide a great variety of wines, try new ones on the wine list and shuffle as necessary. It's exciting to be able to do that."
Mutambe says he can't imagine doing anything other than working with wine. While he has no desire to actually make wine himself, he dreams of one day having his own brand and marketing it: "Yes, I'd love to go back to Zimbabwe one day, market wine and teach fellow Zimbabweans how to enjoy it."