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Page last updated at 11:59 GMT, Wednesday, 10 September 2008 12:59 UK

The wine apprentice

Thandisizwe Meyi
Thandisizwe Meyi is in training to be a sommelier

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News

Last summer, the Magazine reported on a plan to find someone in South Africa without any experience of wine who would be trained in London as a sommelier - a professional wine expert. Here is the winning apprentice.

As career changes go it's a pretty radical shift in direction. Thandisizwe Meyi, from a township in South Africa's Eastern Cape, had been planning to become a boxer. He even had a nickname "Tyson".

But instead he is entering a very different kind of arena. Tyson, as he is still known, is going to be a sommelier - a wine expert, who will be trained in London to advise on wine in upmarket international restaurants..

French term for a steward or waiter in charge of wine
Once responsible for the cellaring and serving of wines for royalty
Tradition spread to restaurants
Expected to have extensive knowledge of wines and their suitability with various dishes
Source: Barron's New Food Lover's Companion

Tyson's change of plan, from punch-bags to bouquets, is set to make him South Africa's first black sommelier - and it comes as a result of winning a wine-tasting competition.

This vineyard version of the Apprentice was a search for someone with the raw ability to become part of a rarefied group of wine experts, making a living from their highly-educated palates.

The winner had never even tasted wine until he got a job as a shelf-stacker in a shop on a wine estate.

Taste test

Tyson, now aged 27, says that where he grew up people drank beer and brandy, the wine that was grown all around them was drunk by someone else, it was another culture associated with the white and the wealthy.

But Tyson turned out to have a good nose for a good wine - a natural ability - even though he says the first time he tried a sip of the red stuff he didn't like it, "it was too dry and sharp".

Tyson in the blind testing competition held in South Africa had the wine-tasting X-factor. He was the only one of 12 contestants to pick out the qualities of a 2005 Domaine Jeannot Pouilly-Fumé and 2003 Domaine Alain Chabanon Les Merles Allouettes.


"He had the most natural ability of anyone we interviewed," says Kate Thal, one of the judges, who has worked as a sommelier for the Conran restaurant chain.

She believes it's as much about nature as nurture and that Tyson showed a particularly good sense of smell and taste.

Rather than being intimidated by how wines should smell, he says it's all about making comparisons with what is familiar.

"It's like when wine is corked - it smells like wet cardboard. If you want to know what something should smell like, you have to refer to something you know," says Tyson.

As a result of winning he is now spending a year in London being trained by Kate Thal at her Green and Blue wine chain, in a training scheme backed by the Western Cape government and the Spier wine estate. The intention is to help develop more home-grown wine experts for South Africa's tourist industry.

Wine angst

But let's go back a second. Why do we look at "2005 Domaine Jeannot Pouilly-Fumé and 2003 Domaine Alain Chabanon 'Les Merles Allouettes'" and feel like we've turned over a page in an exam and found we've revised all the wrong questions.

Kate Thal
Asking people what they like is a total waste of time, they don't know what they like...
Kate Thal

Why can a wine list feel like a test rather than a pleasure?

"Once you know about wine, you're not afraid, you know what you're paying for.. It's important to know where the wine has come from, about the climate, how it's been made, the quality and the quantity," says Tyson.

It's already beginning to sound tough.

When you're in a shop looking at the wine on the shelf, the most terrifying question of all is 'What are you looking for?'

Kate Thal sees it from the other side of the counter, watching people scanning the shelves and trying to choose. Part of selling wine is knowing what to ask.

"Asking people what they like is a total waste of time, they don't know what they like or they don't have the language to describe what they want.

"It's best to ask basic questions: Do you want something crisp, something soft, something fruity, something spicy or savoury? Because those are questions that anyone can answer. And of course, how much do you want to spend?"

Wine buff alert

She also has to cope with wine buff customers who want to show off, which she says is particularly male trait.

Return air ticket
Master classes with top wine makers from around the world
13-week 'School of Wine' course
At least two trips to Europe's wine regions

"For a lot of men wine is very ego-driven. 'I drive this car, I wear this watch, I drink this wine.' They have to show that they know what they're talking about. It's completely ridiculous.

"It becomes like being a stamp collector, collecting experiences, collecting bottles that they've drunk. It's about showing how sophisticated they are."

When Tyson finishes his training and returns to South Africa he wants to help expand the popularity of wine - to be enjoyed by the many rather than the few. He is conscious that he will also be a role model for other young black people.

His experiences while he is learning are going to be recorded as a YouTube video diary.

Wine writer Jancis Robinson says that Tyson's apprenticeship is a reflection of the importance of making wine more accessible to South Africa's black population.

"It is on their labour that the whole South African wine industry is founded. It is therefore especially desirable that they should claim an economic stake in it," she says.

In terms of whether anyone can develop an educated palate, she says "there is a tiny proportion of people who will never taste well, because of some physical shortcoming and a slightly larger one with a natural gift for it, often unused or underused. The rest of the population can learn how to taste pretty well if they are interested enough".

Tyson could have been a contender in the boxing ring, but now he says he is going to be someone in wine. He describes how he sees this chance.

"Here is a ladder, all you have to do is climb to the top."

Below is a selection of your comments.

There is nothing ridiculous or snobby about having a detailed, in-depth knowledge and understanding about wine. Nor is there any shame in collecting bottles or labels: these represent memories of great evenings, first dinner dates with new girlfriends, last dinners with lost relatives and so on. Of course, one should not show-off - that would be extremely irritating - but it is equally irritating to visit a wine shop or supermarket where the wine specialist is completely clueless.
Matt, Cambridge

I do not wish to diminish what he could achieve but he will not be the first black sommelier. What about others such as Luvo Ntezo, who is working at the Twelve Apostles hotel?
John Norman, Cape Town

Good for him, pity he will not also spend a full season, from pruning in February to harvest in October, in various vineyards. That's where good wine comes from. Kate Thal's comments should be expanded on.
John Garner, Sinalunga, Siena, Italy

I am a black South African and it is nice to know we are starting to be more involved in the hospitality industry.
Chantal Beukes, London

Personally, I think that wine is a waste of perfectly good grape juice, and am much more interested in quality beers, but I'm not sure that there's much of a market for a beer sommelier.
Rich, UK/France

Bravo! Learning these skills takes many years, and we cheer for Tyson as he learns from the Masters of Wine... A sommelier is responsible for so much more than just wines, to include liqueurs, cordials, digestifs, cuisine, cigars, and five-star service.
Louis, Las Vegas, USA

We were on holiday in South Africa this summer, and visited several vineyards. South African wine is truly stunning - their Chenin Blancs and Sauvignon Blancs are the best. Would like to see more Pinot Noirs, perhaps Tyson can push for more of this grape to be grown?
Kath, Bournemouth, UK

Like Tyson, I also felt the wine industry to be quite elitist. However, with someone like him now involved, I believe many South African blacks will now feel as I do having read his story: Wine is for everyone to learn about and to enjoy.
Quincy Marshall, Trinidad, West Indies

Kate Thal is everything I dislike about certain wine buffs. Pretentious and looking down on others' abilities, experience or knowledge. Her sexist remarks are a trait that I fear runs through the wine industry at the top end.
Ian F, Grantham, England

Fantastic, we should start to ask for 'BEE' wines, produced by new Black Economic Empowerment business. Many estates have given land to black business to develop a black-owned wine industry. PLEASE will vintners in the UK stock BEE wines; they are fresh, truly New World and a great treat to know that you are directly helping a truly fair trade business.
Julian Carter, Wakefield, UK

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