Food & Drinks

How all-women Kenyan team found spot in blind wine tasting contest - VIDEO

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The five female sommeliers competing in the World Blind Tasting Championship in Paris on October 7 and 8, 2022. PHOTO | NMG

Ten wine bottles covered with black cloth and numbered in red sit on a bar counter. In the room adjacent, five Kenyan sommeliers, all female, are sipping and sniffing wine as they train for the World Blind Wine Tasting Championship set to happen in France.

For the first time, Kenya will be represented in the October event, a wine Olympics of some sort, which has attracted 31 countries, most with a long history of grape-growing, with vineyards dating back as far as the 17th century and rich wine-drinking cultures.

The sommeliers, however, say with decades of wine expertise, they are ready to compete on a global stage. “Kenya is known for its athletes, it is time that we are also known for having wine experts,” says Victoria Mulu-Munywoki, the team leader and a celebrated sommelier who has transformed the wine culture locally.

All five sommeliers have studied wine and made it their career.

“The criteria for the selection of this team were people with knowledge of wine and who have a WSET Level 3 qualification. {A high-level qualification for people looking to work in the wine industry or wine enthusiasts},” she says, adding, “the ladies were ready and had the passion.”

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Beverly Mbaika (left) and Soraiya Ladak, Kenyan sommeliers, during a blind-tasting training in Nairobi. The two are part of a team of five set to compete in the World Blind Tasting Wine Championship in Paris, France, on October 8, 2022. PHOTO | BELLA OSAKO | NMG

Joy Adero Ochola joined Team Kenya because she likes a challenge.

“I’ve been a wine enthusiast for over 10 years now. I’m really excited to be going to France because this opportunity is not just about the five of us. Being invited to compete on such a huge global level shows that we are making an impact in spaces where traditionally we were not looked at as experts,” she says.

Joy discovered wine in 2011.

“It was purely out of curiosity because I used to see people in magazines and films talk about wine so deeply and passionately. I told myself, ‘It’s just a drink, what’s so important about it?’ When I decided to delve into it, I realised wine is complex. I immersed myself in learning about it. I’m currently a Level 2 WSET and I’ll be sitting for my Level 3 exams in a few weeks. So I guess this competition is also good practice for the exams,” she says.

Soraiya Ladak is one of the directors of The Wine Shop in Nairobi. Passion for wine runs in her family. They import and distribute it.

“Wine found me. I was doing something different. I was working for the UN, and a pregnancy later I had a very enhanced bouquet and palate which served me well in my wine discovery. I quit and I went fully into wine,” she says.

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Two bottles of wine, a Sparklehorse 2018 Brut, and a Champagne Duval-Leroy, Brut Réserve. PHOTO | NMG

Soraiya says wine as a career requires continuous education, and taking up learning opportunities like competitions.

“I'm very honoured to be part of this incredible team. Kenya has earned a seat at the international table because we have qualified sommeliers, people with real talent,” she adds.

Kenya’s food and beverages industry is growing, creating new careers and attracting alcoholic drink makers that had previously focused on Europe and Asia markets.

“We’ve been a beer-drinking nation but now wine is the hot ticket. Kenyans are very open to trying new things and wine is something that is focused at the dinner table,” Soraiya says.

The wine expert is optimistic that such a competition will work in Kenya’s favour as it has in South Africa. For years, South Africa and Zimbabwe have been the only teams representing Africa in the blind tasting challenges.

“South Africa is always on the map because of its vineyards and wine trade. And it supports its sommeliers, grooming them. I think Kenya is now at a place where it can do this,” she says.

Melissa Mwende, 27, is another participant. She talks of the opportunities they have had to forgo to perfect the art of wine tasting, every week.

“I had consultancies I had to forgo. I live in Nanyuki and I have a small baby but I’m here training. These are sacrifices that we had to make but it is worth it. Me being in this competition proves to young women seeking to join this career that it is possible,” she says.

She, however, cautions that the wine industry might seem glamorous but it takes a lot of hard work to stand out.

“Yes, there is glam. We spend a lot of time tasting wine, meeting interesting people and going to nice hotels, but during the day, you have to deal with logistics, clients,” she says, adding that a career in wine has finally come of age.

“You can have wine knowledge and be a food and beverages manager, a wine sommelier, start a wine shop, be a wine importer, or a wine content creator. Time is so ripe. Five years ago, you had to spend a lot of money to go out of the country to study wine. But now there is a school in Nairobi that offers wine courses,” Melissa says.

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Melissa Mwende, a sommelier smells the aroma of wine during a blind-tasting training by (back) Spencer Fondaumiere, a certified wine judge and sommelier living in South Africa, ahead of the World Blind Tasting Wine Championship in Paris, France, on October 8, 2022. PHOTO | BELLA OSAKO | NMG

Tips on having a good taster’s palate?

“Wine tasting is a memory game, the more you smell and taste, the better you become. I’m not just talking about wine, what do lilies smell like? What do violets smell like? The more you smell and bank the memory, the better you become, that's why we’re able to join a blind tasting competition like this,” she says.

Beverly Mbaika, who has been in the wine industry for nine years now, will also have a seat at the Team Kenya table, swirling and sniffing different wines to determine the grape, their country of origin, their region, the producer, and the vintage.

“This training entails sacrifice of time. We’ve had to endure early mornings,” says the WSET Level 3 expert, who also works at De Vries Africa, which imports and distributes premium wines in East Africa.

“We have faced many ups and downs to get here, including going to wine schools and finding you’re competing with people who have grown up with vineyards. But despite that the world should be ready for Team Kenya,” she says.

dmwango @ke.nationmedia.com