From a cleaner to a sommelier, Bongani Ngwenya shares his journey and love for wine.
It was a big step from the dusty streets of Newcastle to tasting wines in the Cape. I was doing presentations for international clientele, selling a product I’d never heard of where I grew up.
I was born in Newcastle in KwaZulu-Natal. It’s a small town with few employment opportunities. We were seven children raised by my mom who worked as a domestic worker. Financially, things were tough.
After I finished school I left Newcastle to look for work. A friend who’d got a job at Spier Wine Farm called me and suggested that I join him. He said there were better opportunities in the Cape than in Newcastle. So a month later I got on a train and headed for Stellenbosch. It was the longest train ride I’d ever taken in my life: I had to travel from Newcastle to Johannesburg and from Johannesburg to Cape Town. That was 1996.
When I arrived in Stellenbosch I’d never seen such lush green vineyards or oak-shaded streets with so many restaurants before.
My friend introduced me to this guy who was the stable manager at the Spier Equestrian Centre. For six months, I groomed and fed horses, cleaned the stables and managed pony rides for children.
Then I thought that rather than cleaning stables, I would clean the Wine Centre. It was probably a bit more hygienic! That’s where my wine-career journey started.
I had to mop the floor, clean the toilets and wash the glasses. But I would listen to the talks and I became curious. People talked of wine being ‘dry’. And I asked myself, How can it be dry when it’s a liquid? And people said it was ‘fruity’, and I wondered where that came from. I started asking questions, reading wine magazines and tasting wine. At first I drank wines that were semi-sweet, which I really enjoyed.
My boss at the Wine Centre, Jabulani Ntshangase, called me aside and said that the only way to succeed in life is to be the best at whatever you do: ‘You’re the cleaner – be the best cleaner that this company has ever had.’ So I took that advice. My working day was from 9am to 5pm. But I would come in at 7am and finish most of my cleaning duties so that by 9am, when I was supposed to start, I’d done almost all my work. Then I used the time to ask questions and get more information about what went on in the Wine Centre.
The management at Spier could see I was hungry for knowledge and it was then that I got my first big chance, when they offered me the opportunity to go to the Cape Wine Academy and do a one-week introductory course on South African wines.
After the course I became a trainee wine merchant. I still had cleaning duties but helped with stocktaking and wine sales in the shop. Then I began to present wine tastings at the centre. It was a big step from the dusty streets of Newcastle. I was doing presentations for international clientele, selling a product I’d never heard of where I grew up.
I never stopped studying. In 2006 I did a two-year wine-management programme at Stellenbosch University Business School. I learned about wine marketing and business management. The course was tough. I’d never been exposed to the business world before. It was all new to me, and the other students were mostly Afrikaans-speaking. But while I was there I was given an incredible opportunity to go to the USA to learn about wines of the world and to promote South African wine. It was there that I heard the word ‘sommelier’ for the first time. I didn’t know what a sommelier was but I knew I’d found what I wanted to do.
That was in 1997 and there were no courses in South Africa where you could train to be a sommelier. But I got my first job at Bosman’s Restaurant at the Grande Roche Hotel in the Paarl winelands and they trained me on the job. I started as a junior and moved up to be assistant sommelier. I learned about decanting, how to serve wines and when to use different glassware. I loved it!
Over the next few years I worked at different restaurants and hotel groups, learning and gaining experience as an assistant food and beverage manager, and then as a sommelier.
In 2016 I started at The Codfather in Sandton, where I still am today. My job is varied and exciting. Among other things, I have to source the wine for the restaurant. I don’t just order wines I like – I have to be able to sell them, so I need to know what the latest trends are and what wines are selling. From this I create a wine list.
The menu changes seasonally – the food we serve in winter is different to our summer menu – so when the chef is creating new dishes, I participate, taste and suggest wines to go with the new dish. I also do staff training because it’s important that our waiters know and understand the wines that they’re serving.
When it comes to pairing, I always try to find out what customers enjoy, then I can suggest something to them.
I’m a part-time facilitator for the sommelier academy of the Gauteng Department of Tourism Internship Programme. It seeks to bring young people from previously disadvantaged backgrounds into the wine world. I teach the winemaking component to young people studying to be sommeliers. Most students who come on the course are unemployed at the time of signing up but have expressed an interest in the industry. Students are placed in restaurants or hotels where they do their practicals. Many students are starting out on the same journey as I did. Wine wasn’t something they were exposed to when they grew up. It’s a new world for them, just as it was for me 22 years ago when I first started cleaning the floors at Spier.
RECIPE: CAJUN SEARED SALMON
WITH PICKLED ONION AND TERIYAKI SAUCE
4 x 120g pieces of salmon
salt and pepper to taste
20g Cajun spice
50ml olive oil
125ml teriyaki sauce
2 bay leaves
1 red onion
1. To make the pickle, put the vinegar, mirin and bay leaves into a pot and bring to the boil. Let it simmer for 5 minutes, then remove from the heat. Thinly slice the red onion and add to the liquid. Refrigerate for at least a day so that the onion becomes soft.
2. Warm up a frying pan or griller. Add 30g butter and 30ml olive oil. Place two pieces of salmon, skin-side down, and fry for 2 or 3 minutes to get the skin crispy. Turn the salmon over and cook for 1 minute on the other side. Then cook for 1 minute further on each side. Pour the olive oil/butter mixture over the fish while cooking to give the fish flavour. Remove the fish from the pan, season with salt and pepper and Cajun spice, and keep warm. Add the rest of the butter and olive oil to the pan, and repeat with the other two pieces of salmon.
3. To serve, spread some onion pickle on each plate and place the salmon on top. Serve the teriyaki sauce in a bowl on the side.
‘Pinot Noir is the ideal wine with salmon. The light red fruits and earthy, savoury nature of a Pinot are a perfect match for the rich and savoury meat of the salmon. Salmon is an oily fish, and Pinot has a medium acidity, which cuts through and balances the dish’s oiliness.’ — Bongani Ngwenya, sommelier
- The Colour of Wine: Tasting Change, by Harriet Perlman, John Platter et al., photographs by Mark Lewis, R450, Orders: Booksite Afrika, email: firstname.lastname@example.org