After obtaining a Food & Beverage diploma, specializing in service management, at hotel school Mercy Mwai began working as a waitron at the V&A’s Ocean Basket. Perfectly positioned to grasp the opportunity, she joined the One & Only when it opened its doors in Cape Town in 2009 and was thrown into the deep end: having to learn over 500 wines! Before working at acclaimed restaurant NOBU, the sum total of her wine knowledge was the difference between red and white. However, wine steward Tinashe Nyamudoka took her under his wing and after winning Showcook’s Cape Legends Inter Hotel Challenge in its first year, he motivated Mercy (who had no certifications other than the knowledge she had gleaned from him) to enter. And she won the title of “Most Upcoming Wine Steward”.
Her enthusiasm fuelled by this accolade, her love of wine grew. As a NOBU waitron, she thrived on the extensive training especially the monthly excursions to wine estates (Hamilton Russell, Graham Beck and Waterford stole her heart) which cemented her relationship with the fermented grape. Mercy grew up in Kenya, where coffee is to the nation what wine is to the Cape. Coming from a coffee farm, she felt instantly at home in the vineyards, the inherent similarities in processes (tending, harvest, juicing) nurtured this sense of familiarity.
When it comes to her favourite wine, Mercy laughs and remarks wittily: “If you want to be a sommelier, you can’t have a favourite, your palate needs to be open to all wines” but admits her personal palate leans towards wooden Chenins, especially Kleine Zelza’s. It was love at first sip and she has never ‘gotten over it’. She’s also a huge fan of The Drift’s ‘There Are Still Mysteries’ and often recommends this to her guests because “everyone who tastes it, loves it!”
She successfully completed WSET Level 1, a professional recap of what she had already learnt from working with wine on a daily basis and is now busy with Level 2 via the Cape Wine Academy having won a bursary during Showcook. Mercy is really looking forward to the technical challenge that Level 3 promises. But her dreams stretch way beyond notching up courses: she wants to open her own wine bar in Kenya.
On a trip home in 2012, she noticed how Kenyans were developing a taste for wine. There’s even a couple of wine farms in Kenya: the Rift Valley Winery which produces Leleswa wines: “I hear they have an amazing Sauvignon Blanc so I can’t wait to visit them in August and learn more” says Mercy – and Yatta Winery which produces a red and a white box wine. Beer and Cider have long been the drink of choice so wine ranges and knowledge is limited – in hotels and restaurants bottles are often even stored incorrectly. Her plan is to create a vintage cellar feel with a romantically rustic atmosphere where she can introduce patrons to a variety of South African and International wines. Training is vital and she intends to learn from NOBU’s example to ensure her staff are empowered with requisite expertise to help match guests with a wine they’ll love.
Mercy reminds us: “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.” She has just been promoted to wine steward at NOBU and even her 18 month old daughter her passion – dipping her fingers into mom’s wine glass whenever she can & gleefully sucks her fingers.
We’re proud this innovative woman is another of The Drift Farm’s Women in Wine candidates as she’s well on her way to making her mark on the wine industry. Watch out coffee, here comes Mercy!