(Australia, 96 min.)
Dir. Robert Coe, Warwick Ross
Cool Runnings makes a fine blend with Sideways for the non-fiction vintage Blind Ambition. This medium-bodied doc about four men who form Zimbabwe’s first wine-tasting team has a neat attack and a clean finish. While the film draws many predictable beats of underdog story tales, there’s much to savour. Blind Ambition holds the world of wine-tasting up to the light, swishes it around, and spits it back out. Blind Ambition examines a beloved pastime that is traditionally enjoyed by a privileged few. It follows teammates Joseph Dhafana, Marlvin Gwese, Tinashe Nyamudoka, and Pardon Taguz as the raise funds and prepare for the “Olympics” of wine tasting. The film unpacks the hidden tasting notes that reside within every bottle and the grapes of each vineyard.
Blind Ambition enters the lives of the rising wine connoisseurs amid their practice and preparations. They’ve started new lives in South Africa after escaping the economic collapse of Zimbabwe under the rule of former President Robert Mugabe. Their story, they admit, is an unlikely one. However, they want to spark renewed hope that motivates people worldwide to appreciate the complexity of the continent’s flavours. As they prepare for the 2017 wine-tasting competition, they’re the only Black players in a mostly white field. At stake is not only the new passion and profession on which they’ve hinged their dreams, but the right to a seat at the table.
Meet the Sommeliers
Joseph, the team captain, shares how he and his wife fled and left their two-year-old son behind with his mother. Starting a new life with wine isn’t what he planned, but Blind Ambition shows the relatively quick success he found in South Africa. The doc observes as Joseph gives back to fellow Zimbabweans. He drives to posts where migrants wait with hopes of landing temporary gigs. Joseph hires hands from back home and shares with them his story of creating an opportunity.
Pardon, for example, comes to the team after Joseph demonstrated the life of wine. He tells how a visit to Joseph’s restaurant put a glass a Chenin Blanc in his hand. He says he found it unpleasantly sour at first, but one glass become two and two became a bottle. Marlvin humorously tells how he abstained from alcohol for religious reasons in Zimbabwe. However, he shares that even Jesus turned water into wine, so there’s something holy to the sense of community wine creates. Similarly, Tinashe tells how relocating to South Africa forced him to start afresh. Now a sommelier in South Africa’s top-ranked kitchen, he shares his expert noise and palette with international foodies.
The Tasting Challenge
The upcoming competition requires the sommeliers to identify twelve wines. The teammates must use their relatively young palettes to determine the grape variety, region, vineyard, and year of the vintage. That’s no easy feat, so they’ve enlisted trainer J.V. and his expert palette to help their hone their tongues and noses. Sip after sip, swish after swish, they learn tricks to help them identify the bottle—even by bringing LED lights to the competition in case the judges stick them in a dingy corner.
Tinashe makes a very good point early in the film that highlights the challenge that the Zimbabwe team faces. He says that labels often note “wine of origin.” Never having been to the places from which the grapes are harvested, the tasting notes are foreign to the team. They instead consider “wine of origin” akin to originating in their imagination. They conjure destinations and let the wine take them there.
Winos especially should enjoy the come-from-behind story that Robert Coe and Warwick Ross, who previously tackled the wine world in Red Obsession, create by observing these training exercises. The teammates clearly love wine and the sensations that each sip evokes. Moreover, Blind Ambition finds in the Zimbabwe tasting team a history of the colonial undertones of high-priced pleasures. The players, for one, often don’t recognize tasting notes when fruits that give their essence to the soil are not indigenous to Africa. They don’t know what gooseberries or blueberries taste like, lest they find them at the grocery store. Instead, they find equivalents, like tree bark or wet donkey. Aspiring sommeliers have all been there, as I’ve certainly likened tasting notes to salty hot dogs, wet socks, and even regret—the only word that could accurately capture the taste of a local cider near my cottage.
Truth in Wine
When the team finally arrives in Europe for the competition, new drama comes in the form of their coach, Dennis. He proudly admits to being irritating and verbose, yet his personality clashes with the team and, especially, J.V. Blind Ambition observes the fallout that occurs when a coach doesn’t trust his players, and when players need to realign their sights, noses, and intuition on the prize. The film is an easy-going underdog story that surprises with its complexity. One could easily pour a spittoon of wine metaphors to describe Blind Ambition, but it’s best to take a cue from the teammates. Savour it yourself, especially with a glass of vino.
Blind Ambition opens in Toronto at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on Oct. 7.