We virtually caught up with Bongani Ngwenya, sommelier and front of house manager at the Codfather, Johannesburg, to talk lockdown, starting from the bottom, and black somms in South Africa
Lockdown and social distancing restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic mean that most hospitality professionals across the globe are now spending their time at home.
To understand how they're coping with the challenge we've launched a brand new series of interviews. For the sixth in this series, we virtually travelled to South Africa and caught up with Bongani Ngwenya, sommelier and front of house manager at the Codfather, Johannesburg.
How is South Africa coping with covid-19?
The lockdown started here on the  March and has now been extended until the end of April so it’s been nearly a month.
It looks like it’s manageable because [the number of] new cases is decreasing. We started the lockdown before things got really bad, when we only had a few cases.
All the restaurants and hotels have been shut down so now I’m at home, but I’m still employed. I left it the day before the lockdown.
What’s your background and how did you get into wine?
I was born in KwaZulu-Natal. It's a province that doesn’t produce any wine and my family had nothing to do with wine either.
After school I was looking for opportunities and ended up in the Western Cape; there I got an opportunity at Spier Wine Farm as a cleaner in their wine centre. People were talking about ‘dry wines’, and ‘fruit flavours’ and I became curious. How can this thing be ‘dry’ when it’s liquid? How do they get these ‘fruits’ into the wine? So I began reading magazines and tasting some wine.
While working there I did my first wine course and was re-employed as a trainee wine merchant. I was still doing my cleaning duties but in my spare time I would look at the bottles and ask questions. Then at some point I started giving tastings for our guests too.
Was there a turning point in your career?
One day I did a tasting for two guys who I later discovered had a importing company in the States with South African wine on the portfolio.
They gave me an opportunity for an internship so I went there for a year, based in Minneapolis but travelling around wherever they distributed their wines. I came across sommeliers and I really liked what they were doing with wine pairings.
When I went back to South Africa, only one hotel at the time (five-starred Grand Roche Hotel) had sommeliers. I began working there as a commis somm. I learned a lot about service, wine and pairings.
After, I worked for a small boutique winery, which was a good opportunity to get into the cellar and the vineyards and acquire more knowledge. Then I moved into [other hotels] until I went to the University of Stellenbosch and got a degree in Wine Business Management.
Did you find wine to be a welcoming industry for the South African black community?
Wine in South Africa is predominantly in the hospitality industry, and in hospitality you’ll find a lot of black people. But getting into the wine industry specifically is challenging. You still find today that some black somms are used as the ‘face’ of the restaurant, just for tourists, but they don’t really have much say on the wine list and the F&B manager will still make all the calls and decisions. Black people have not really been given power to make decisions, that’s the challenge.
It’s slowly changing, mostly in independent restaurants, but there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done in [larger hotel groups].
But when I started in the industry it wasn’t easy... guests couldn’t believe that someone of colour could know anything about wine
Personally, I’ve been very lucky. The restaurant I’m currently with – I’ve been with them for four years – is one of the top seafood restaurants in the country and is independent. The owner puts a lot of trust in me so I’ve been given 100% opportunity.
But when I started in the industry it wasn’t easy. I was in Stellenbosch, which is an Afrikaans-speaking community, black and I didn’t speak the language. Some of the guests couldn’t believe that someone of colour could know anything about wine. But as I grew professionally it got much better.
What do you do now at Codfather now?
I source the wines, manage the wine list, our stock, train staff on product knowledge, and do food and wine pairings for our guests.
On the list we have about 75 wines: 90% are South African, but I have few international ones, from classic regions such as Champagne, Chablis, Barolo and Burgundy, plus few other from Italy, Australia and New Zealand.
Then we also have a cellar list, with limited-stock wines that we get through auctions or private cellars. And that’s actually much bigger, about 200 different labels.
What do you think it’s going to happen in South Africa once the lockdown is lifted?
Not sure what’s gonna happen but what I see is that there’s going to be an increase in online sales because people aren’t going to have much disposable income to [buy wine in restaurants].
Also, even after the lockdown people will be afraid of going to restaurants and other public areas, so I have a feeling that there’s going to be a drop in on-trade sales of wine. [This will lead to] a lot of changes in terms of marketing strategies from wineries and agencies.