Luvo Ntezo: 'I have achieved some things but... I would rather be better than the best'

Peter Bills
Tuesday 04 August 2009 11:46 BST

Shootings, robberies, assaults: damaging levels of long term unemployment. Young people without jobs and with little hope...

But South Africa in contemporary times is like so many countries. Those who have strayed, tend to attract the headlines. The young people quietly getting on, steadily working and achieving, earn little attention.

So how heart-warming it is to write the story of Luvo Ntezo, a young man with a stirring life ambition in a profession he can never have imagined entering. "I have achieved some things but... I would rather be better than the best" he tells me, a statement that hallmarks his determination and desire to achieve.

He sits at a table in Cape Town's luxury 12 Apostles hotel, directly overlooking the sea just past Camps Bay. He is immaculately dressed: slickly creased light trousers, beautifully pressed dark jacket, tie and red carnation, the group's emblem, in his lapel.

At just 26, Luvo Ntezo looks what he is: a professional from top to toe.

And the field in which this Mitchell's Plain educated young man has excelled? As a wine sommelier.

Born in Cape Town of parents from the Eastern Cape, he grew up in Green Point and attended Mandalay Primary School, near Mitchell's Plain. He is a young man with beautiful manners and a ready smile. Yet not far below the surface lurks an intensity born of the hard times he saw and endured. It is an intensity that reveals his lifelong driving force, his ambition to go forward and make something of his life.

He concedes, in his quiet yet determined voice, that things were very tough and difficult for him as a child. He still finds himself unable to discuss some events from that period, conceding that they remain a painful reminder of such hard times.

Yet conversely, his ambition and enthusiasm grew stronger for all the hardships he knew. "People can get places in the new South Africa but you need to have a positive attitude. I would say to people, don't blame negative things that happen in your life as a block to progress. If I can make it….if what I have seen and experienced as a child and yet am still able to go to school and study, not do crime or drugs regardless of how tough an area I grew up in, why can't others do the same ?

"To do it, you need a positive attitude and discipline. It is important to be ambitious. Sit down and identify unique points about yourself, where you can excel and work on them. Motivate yourself and always be positive. Tell yourself that you can do it."

In Luvo's case, he strayed into the unlikeliest of jobs. He'd always thought he might aim for the world of medicine and then again, on a different day, finance. But his path to the discovery of what he now knows will be a lifelong passion began when he was accepted as a beer man at Steenberg Estate. He was 19 and it was his first job. From there, he gradually found himself increasingly drawn into the world of wines, a field in which neither he nor any member of his family had the slightest experience or knowledge.

"I just fell in love with it" he says, charmingly, "I so much wanted to be involved. And now I know that there is nothing else I can do better in life than what I do now."

The time he spent with Steenberg's winemaker John Loubser and cellarman Herman Hanekom served him well.

In 2005, the 12 Apostles offered him a job, initially also as a beer man. But once he had accepted and settled and, aware that they needed a sommelier, they sent him to the Cape Wine Academy to do an introductory course to wines. He achieved a Diploma and, incredibly just four years later, is now the sommelier at one of the best hotels in the Cape.

But the hotel's investment in the young man's future went further than that. They sent him to Europe to spend time working with and shadowing Nicolas Clerc, who was the 2007 UK Sommelier of the Year. Trying to learn from a Frenchman, an enervating but enigmatic people, could have been the harshest introduction for Luvo but he smiles.

"I loved it. I learned about service and how to create a wine list. By then, I had discovered that I had a keen 'nose' for wine; the ability to tell a Cabernet from a Shiraz, etc. But I was lucky. The hotel was looking for a sommelier and normally it would be somebody experienced. I was young but had so much confidence in what I was doing. I wasn't scared to tell a winemaker what I thought of wines."

When he returned from the UK, he compiled a wine list for the 12 Apostles which won an award of excellence from Diners Club. That was in 2005 and he won it again in 2007. And the awards keep coming. In 2008, he was 'Sommelier of the Year' for the whole Red Carnation group and was then voted 'Employee of the Year' by the 12 Apostles.

Also in 2008, he won a regional award under the 'Chaine de Rotissiere' Young Sommelier competition that earned him the title 'South African Sommelier of the Year'. Furthermore, it qualified him for the World Championships in Vienna last October.

A complex competition ? You bet. Luvo explains "Your focus must not be on the wines of your own country. They expect a sommelier to know wines from different areas, different countries. So you do a blind tasting of wines from all over the world, perhaps 50 or more. It is very tough."

Luvo Ntezo continues to devote himself to the pursuance of knowledge about the entire wine industry. He's one of the few men on the planet who can justifiably say that he is taking home a bottle of wine after work to study at home. He will taste it, consider and analyse it. It is all an important part of extending his knowledge.

"There are so many different areas in terms of aspects of wines, things like the tannins, the fruit, longevity and bouquet of the wine. When I taste a wine, I evaluate it for colour, smell and taste. My job, my side of wine is entirely different to those people just drinking it for enjoyment."

Last year, he worked on a 10-week wine evaluation course at the University of Stellenbosch, to improve his knowledge of the industry, and another course at the Cape Wine Academy under the subject 'New wines of the world'. His thirst for ever greater knowledge is endless. As ever, he tastes and spits for, as he puts it, when you drink there will be so many things you won't pick up about a wine.

He goes to the vineyards every week, to sense the business, see the scenery and chat with the winemakers. "It is all part of my learning curve" he says.

In his dealings with diners in the 12 Apostles restaurant which overlooks the sea, Ntezo seeks to inform customers, to impart as much of his knowledge as possible without, figuratively speaking, pouring too much information down people's throats. He believes both visitors and locals are eager to learn more about wines but says it is a subject many still fear to talk about.

"It is a lot of responsibility of course but I love it, this job is my dream."

There is one definite link between Luvo Ntezo and the world of drink. He was born on St. Patrick's Day and admits he enjoys the occasional glass of Guinness ! But otherwise, he is as mystified as his family as to where this passion came from.

But a passion it most certainly is. He devours wines in terms of knowledge like drinkers a favourable glass of Pinot Noir. His favourite wines ? "I am very impressed with some of the wines emerging from the New World.

"It depends what varietal you are talking about but New Zealand would be my first option for Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc."

And the French ? "I love the cult around the French and their wines" he says. "They believe in their own product. For me, France would be the benchmark of good quality but in terms of good fruit and value for money, it would be the New World."

His No. 1 favourite, he suspects, would probably be South Africa's Bouchard Finlayson Pinot Noir because, as he puts it, they have a terroir that is perfect for those wines and a winemaker that understands Pinot Noir.

You have to keep pinching yourself to remember this charming man who is so knowledgeable about his business is still only 26. As he says himself "It's a surprise, a very big surprise that I am where I have got to. But I work very hard and take it very seriously. And there will always be something new for me to study.

"I think that is because, when I was growing up, we were never exposed to quality education. Now, what I am doing is a dream in its own right and I don't want to let that dream slip through my fingers. And I want to use that as an inspiration to people from a similar background to myself."

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