Against the odds, former township kid Luvo Ntezo put in hard slog, learnt new skills and was eventually rewarded with a couple of lucky breaks. Kim Maxwell follows the career path of this hotel wine sommelier.
‘All I ever wanted in life was for someone to give me an opportunity to study,’ says Luvo Ntezo, 30. ‘Unfortunately my dad couldn’t do it. We parted ways and I left home when I was quite young. I knew that what my dad thought of me was entirely different to who I was.’
Ntezo grew up in a small town near Grahamstown. At age 20, he was employed as a pool porter at Steenberg Hotel in Tokai. ‘At the time, I just needed a job,’ says Ntezo. ‘I didn’t have any interest in or knowledge of wine. My family had never been big wine drinkers.’
But after six months, Ntezo had a chance encounter that changed his career. ‘I remember waiting on an English family,’ says Ntezo. ‘Most of our poolside guests just ordered a glass of wine from the bar, but this particular family ordered a bottle. I had never opened a bottle of wine before, and after trying repeatedly, I had to ask the family for help.’ The next day Ntezo went to Steenberg’s then-winemaker John Loubser, and asked to learn more about wine.
‘When John took me under his wing, it was such a thrilling thing. I thought to myself: they pick these grapes, and they make this wine I can’t even pronounce. If a guy can say a polished name like “Cabernet Sauvignon’” why can’t I?’ Ntezo was soon hooked on wine. ‘John helped me understand that there are grapes called Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay and Merlot. He introduced me to the tanks and barrels used to make them into wines, and to the amazing flavours we learn to pick up when we taste them,’ says Ntezo.
‘Working at Steenberg, I was given a complimentary meal every day, and had an opportunity to grow and learn. It was almost like a school to me,’ says Ntezo. Although most of his salary funded his transport to work, Ntezo valued the learning opportunity.
‘I was a township guy and my English wasn’t polished. My mother was a victim of a terrible crime and died in front of me, at a very young age. It changed me: I decided not to have self-pity or anger about what happened. I had to learn to move on,’ says Ntezo. ‘My advice to young people is always: find something you love. And then find somebody who will help you understand what you love. But be prepared to work hard.’
In 2003, Ntezo accepted a bar job as a glass washer at Cape Town’s Twelve Apostles Hotel. ‘Living in Khayelitsha, the hotel transport was free, so I saved more money. I was able to buy my first Platter wine guide,’ he recalls. ‘But I was quite shy and new. I was quite a rough-looking guy, and the hotel staff seemed so polished and posh-looking, even out of their work uniforms.’
In his previous job at Steenberg, Ntezo had often sipped wine with winery staff after work. To test his knowledge, they had called his bluff with faulty or tricky wines. A few months into the Twelve Apostles job, a similar situation came about. ‘I was polishing glasses during a staff wine training seminar, when the winemaker offered me a taste,’ says Ntezo. ‘The staff were all admiring the wine with positive comments. But when he asked me what I thought, I said the bottle was corked.’ Ntezo’s assessment was spot on; the wine was indeed faulty, spoiled by ‘off’ flavours of cork taint.
Word quickly spread to the general manager, and Ntezo was offered a promotion to trainee wine sommelier. The hotel also offered a salary increase. But Ntezo instead requested the same salary, plus sponsorship of wine courses. An agreement was reached, and Ntezo continued his unglamorous glass-polishing job, swotting up on wine in between.
Key moments during that period included travel to Europe for further training. ‘For the first time in my life, I went to an airport, and I flew from Cape Town to London Heathrow. I was about 22. I also caught my first British train in Waterloo – alone – and went to Dorset.’ Ntezo was mentored for a month at the Red Carnation Summer Lodge in Dorset by the UK’s ‘sommelier of the year’ Eric Zwiebel. He also spent two weeks training at another London hotel.
Ntezo was promoted to wine sommelier at Twelve Apostles hotel in 2006. In 2008, he participated in the ‘young sommelier‘ national Chaîne des Rôtisseurs wine competition in SA – and took first place. In the same year, he competed in the international leg of the competition in Vienna, where he ranked fourth globally.
In 2011 Ntezo was appointed Head Sommelier at the One&Only Cape Town, where he currently works. Ntezo says it’s ‘not just a job, but a lifestyle’. Yet being a restaurant sommelier involves long, unsociable hours – it’s standard to work a seven-day week, with daily shifts from midday until midnight. And it’s not uncommon to be called in to work on your day off. ‘The salary isn’t great when you start. But with determination, you’ll eventually be rewarded for your commitment, with opportunities to explore the world,’ says Ntezo. ‘Your salary will increase, your network will grow massively, and you’ll meet interesting people. You’ll be invited to join elite clubs, and best of all, taste rare and old wines you could never afford.’
Humility is important in a sommelier. ‘Some people who know a lot about wine have an air of arrogance, and people new to wine are often intimidated by that,’ says Ntezo. ‘You’ve got to be sharp and humble. Sit in a class doing wine tastings, understanding different wine regions and drinking trends, and let somebody else feed your brain. It changes you, and helps develop your confidence in this skill.’
What about life outside the job? Ntezo’s two children are three and four respectively. They live with his ex-girlfriend in Scottburgh, KwaZulu-Natal. ‘I like to think of myself as a family man. I’m hugely involved with my kids. I talk to them every day on Skype, and visit them regularly,’ he says. ‘In Scottburgh I love taking them to the snake park – we all love reptiles – and they’ve handled snakes. We also go out for ice creams and play putt-putt.’
Ntezo plans to introduce his children to wine appreciation at the age of ten. ‘My life is about alcohol, and their mother appreciates wine too,’ he explains. ‘I’ve seen people abuse alcohol in my background. So it’s very important to make my kids appreciate it while I’m nearby. And to understand the alcoholic content of wine responsibly, so they don’t abuse it.’
Providing the community with positive wine associations is also important to Ntezo. He often gives talks at township schools about his job. ‘In townships there are people who drink a lot and abuse alcohol. Township kids perceive some of those guys as role models. So I go along to their schools and give talks,’ says Ntezo. ‘Those kids hear that Luvo grew up just as they did and had limited resources too. They hear that he didn’t consider himself underprivileged. That a ‘looking down on yourself’ mentality is not helpful.’
Ntezo has also organised school trips to the Winelands of Stellenbosch. ‘It changes these kids’ ideas and opens their eyes when they see winery staff treating me with respect,’ he says. ‘I tell those kids: if you do something and you love it and you’re dedicated to it, these are the rewards. People respect you regardless of your skin, but you also need the passion for it.’
❱ If you’re in Matric, go to the library and get hold of a wine book. Start reading with an open mind. Ask your school to contact hotels in your area to see what opportunities exist.
❱ Hotels such as the One&Only Cape Town can often secure funding if township kids are keen to learn – they sponsor various development projects.
❱ Volunteer to shadow a sommelier on the floor, and observe what he or she does. You might decide the job’s not right for you or the hours are too long.
❱ Look and act the part. Sommeliers wear suits and ties. I believe that if you’re late for school, you’ll be the same at work. If you’re unkempt at school, you will be unkempt at work.
❱ A head sommelier is the head of a team involved with wine. That team becomes the face of the restaurant (or multiple restaurants, in a hotel). A head sommelier nurtures a team of sommeliers with wine tastings and refresher classes. We work with a lifestyle beverage that is hugely expensive, so we also train personalities – it’s an opportunity to change for the better, which helps people in their jobs. A very neat, crisp, well-groomed human being is a very confident person inside.
❱ A good sommelier needs to be hospitable from within. Be a good listener. You’ll deal with challenging guests and will need to understand their needs. If you pretend you’re happy doing that but you’re not, it will be visible to others. Have patience in dealing with people, and a sense of urgency in doing your job.
❱ A good sommelier is like a sponge, absorbing knowledge. A sommelier needs a good ‘nose’ (ability to identify aromas) for tasting wine – but those skills can be trained. A bit of muscle to carry boxes of wine up and down stairs is also handy.
Some of my favourite things:
❱ I like very simple food. I’ve spent a lot of time in Durban, so I like Indian curries. I enjoy Cape Malay food too. I also love braais and beer and friends; I’m a meat man. I like to braai myself, but when it comes to the kitchen, I have to admit that I’m a bit of a cowboy.
❱ My favourite wine is Chardonnay – the bolder the better. And any good Pinot Noir works for me too.
❱ I’ve travelled to London, and also to Austria, Canada and the Middle East, where I participated in sommelier competitions. I’ve seen a bit of the USA and Canada during a Wines of South Africa road show, where we talked about South African wines and food at various events.
❱ I’m a big fan of Meatloaf. I also like listening to the Parlotones, Black Sabbath, Coldplay and Kings of Leon. For soothing purposes I’d probably listen to Vangelis.
❱ When I have free time, I put down my Renault Megane rooftop, and I drive to Kalk Bay for fish and chips.