Blind winemaker makes his vision for award-winning vino a reality

Published: Wednesday, Sep. 11, 2013 - 12:00 am
Last Modified: Wednesday, Sep. 11, 2013 - 9:16 am

PASO ROBLES David Hunt asks his winemaking assistant to fetch three glasses: one filled with cabernet sauvignon, another with cabernet franc and a final glass that’s empty. Hunt has no idea exactly how much wine fills the two glasses. Even their densely purple color remains a mystery to him. Though the light in his winery’s lab glows bright and fluorescent, the celebrated Central Coast winemaker sees only darkness.

Slowly, with a bit of wine spilling as he pours, Hunt splashes a few ounces of cabernet franc into the empty glass. Then he stops suddenly and places a finger precisely at the fill level.

“I’m listening where the sound is in the glass,” Hunt said on this recent summer day. “When I’m filling the glass I can listen to the pitch change. Wine has volume, wine has weight. The more dense the wine, the different the sound I pick up.”

Hunt relies on his hearing because he lost his eyesight more than an decade ago. He’s a rare blind winemaker who clues into his other senses to create wines for his Hunt Cellars, an award-winning Paso Robles winery. Instead of using meticulous calculations and laboratory beakers, Hunt blends by feel, taste and smell to express the best flavors of his vineyards. Some of those blends are created in a single glass, with the ratio later used to fill thousands of bottles. Sean Morris acts as Hunt’s assistant, ensuring the production goes smoothly, and a handful of consultants oversee the vineyard operations.

Even without eyesight, Hunt with his other senses can paint a vivid picture of wine in his mind.

“There’s a certain pressure you get in the glass,” said Hunt, adding in some cabernet sauvignon and swirling his freshly constructed blend. “I pick it up. I’d say it’s probably 58 percent cab franc, and 42 percent cabernet. That’s my audible guess.”

Sean Morris, Hunt’s assistant, nods in agreement. But these are no parlor games. Hunt has demonstrated how he arrived at the perfect blend for Encore, a Bordeaux-style wine from Hunt Cellars that sells for $110 per bottle. He takes a long sip as a finale.

“Ah, that’s pretty good,” said Hunt, with a satisfied sigh.

Hunt, 64, finds plenty to savor. Forbes magazine recently profiled Hunt and dubbed him “The Diddy of Winemakers,” a la the hip-hop mogul Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, for meshing his wine brand with musical enterprises. The multi-instrumentalist Hunt released a CD in fall 2012, “Rhapsody in Red,” in which the bulk of the songs reference a specific wine from Hunt Cellars.

Though he lives in Los Angeles, Hunt oversees a sprawling 550-acre Paso Robles property that includes his winery plus lush vineyards of cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir and other varietals. Alex Trebek of “Jeopardy!” fame is a former neighbor. A public tasting room for Hunt Cellars, complete with Colonial-style architecture and picnic space, can be found nearby on Highway 46’s popular wine trail.

Hunt’s not just slapping his name and unique backstory on a bottle of wine. He’s especially hands-on with the blending process and zeroing in with the proper flavors he’s looking for. He’s fussy when it comes to flavor, to the point of dumping entire lots of wine if they don’t show properly. And that pickiness has paid off, to the tune of a 90-point rating for his syrah in Wine Enthusiast magazine plus a gold medal and best in class for his barbera at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.

Despite his blindness and some recent lower back issues, Hunt canvasses his vineyards during the growing season. While other winemakers generally use a hydrometer to test for the sugar level in grapes, Hunt depends more on his intuition and the current state of the vines.

“I say, ‘What color are the leaves?’” Hunt said. “If they’re brilliant green, it’s not ready. I want them to start getting some hints of brown. What color are the stems? What color are the seeds? All of these factors go into the vine giving you everything it can.”

The hand he’s been dealt

Hunt was able to see clearly for the first 40 years of his life. But slowly his eyesight began to wash away, like a film fading to black. His field of vision started to shrink, and Hunt had to stop driving in the 1980s. His beloved tennis was given up soon after.

“It was like looking down a straw,” said Hunt. “You have tunnel vision — and then you lose it all.”

Hunt always knew his eyesight might not last forever. Retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease where photoreceptor rods and cones in the retina wither and cause blindness, runs in his family. Hunt’s father was stricken by this eye disease; so were his two brothers. Hunt’s four sisters were spared from the disease. Hunt’s two sons and a daughter, Destiny, have also maintained their vision. Hunt has never fully seen his daughter’s face, just shades and shapes when she was born in 1996.

Hunt was completely blind by the late 1990s, just a few years after his first vintage was bottled. Hunt didn’t want a pity party. Grapes would still be grown. A world of wine awaited, eyesight or not.

“Life’s a battle, no matter what deck of cards you’ve been dealt,” Hunt said. “When I see that it’s not a level playing field, you just have to be a stronger warrior. Sympathy and crying on your sleeve only gets you so far, so why do it?”

Hunt’s love for wine stretches back to the early 1970s, when a bottle of Bordeaux hooked him during a Hawaiian vacation. He’s a native of North Carolina who, as a young musician, headed west in 1970 with hopes of landing a record deal in Los Angeles. He instead spent the bulk of his career developing technology for home security systems and voice mail, while also dabbling in music and real estate development. He ended up making a fortune. But the grapes, those myriad flavors and deep expressions, soon became a primary calling.

“I couldn’t understand why people — intelligent people — would spend hours talking about a bottle of wine,” Hunt said about the initial attraction. “But my palate’s always been refined. It’s all about taste and balance, right?”

Hunt honed his winemaking chops by enrolling in winemaking classes at the University of California, Davis, and poring over books. He bottled his first wine in 1996, just as his vision was in its final phases, and moved to the current Paso Robles property in 1999.

With its steel tanks, racks of barrels and grape crushing equipment, Hunt’s winery isn’t the easiest place to navigate, with or without eyesight. The incessant hum from fans also creates white noise that hinders Hunt’s hearing, a sense that some blind people tune into to help figure out their surroundings.

Hunt doesn’t use a cane. His wife of three decades, Debbie, locks arms with her husband to help guide him around the winery. When it’s time to travel, she takes the wheel of their Mercedes SUV.

“What I don’t like is the inconvenience to other people,” Hunt said. “I like total autonomy, which unfortunately I don’t have. I’d like to be able to go find that bathroom over there.”

“To go into the men’s room, that’s probably the hardest,” Debbie Hunt added. “What do you do? I can get him to the door, then you’re on your own.”

Though Hunt sometimes wears thick, dark sunglasses indoors, it’s not always apparent that he’s blind. Hunt’s eyes look clear once those glasses are removed, and he instinctively turns his head toward those who are speaking to him. He might bump into tables when walking unaccompanied, which led to some of tasting room customers thinking he had too much to drink. Hunt chuckles at the situation but is serious about overcoming his condition.

“I’m going to beat this disease one day,” Hunt said, though no cure at presents exists. “I’m going to be able to see one day. I really believe that.”

A studied palate

Previewing wine that will soon go into bottle, Hunt ponders a sample of his 2010 cabernet sauvignon that’s siphoned directly from the barrel. His mind fires up with flavor memories and colors.

Red Bing cherry. Currants. A little cherry cola. Purple running down the sides of the glass.

“It’s probably translucent, a pretty good color,” said Hunt while evaluating the wine. “It tastes like a dark red with hues of purple.”

Blind winemakers are fairly rare in an industry that requires heavy machinery and thoughtful color analysis. Other blind winemakers scattered around the world include CP Lin of New Zeland’s Mountford Estate Vineyard and Winery, and Alex Elman of New York.

Color, after all, is also an important indicator of how we perceive tastes. One French study in 2001 presented 54 enology students with two wines in clear glasses: one white wine, and that same wine dyed with a tasteless additive to make it look like a red wine. The students gave very different evaluations of wines which were essentially the same, using such flavor descriptors as “prune,” “cherry” and “raspberry” for the purported red wine.

Other scientists are studying whether blind people develop heightened senses of smell and sound in the absence of sight, though the evidence isn’t conclusive. One study from the University of Montreal found that blind people don’t smell more keenly than sighted individuals, but rather process and perceive smells differently. Functional image scans of blind test subjects showed they tapped into parts of the brain reserved for visual information more than sighted people.

Hunt credits his longtime emphasis on developing his cognitive skills for helping him in his post-sight endeavors.

“Everybody has sensors, but that doesn’t mean they turn them on,” Hunt said. “Everybody has palates but they don’t want to think about the details and the nuances. I’ve practiced mnemonics all my life, memorizing everything around me, not knowing I’d be blind. The sounds, the smells, just everything — it’s about tuning in.”

Hunt’s gifts of flavor recall impress those who work closely with him. Hunt’s been known to taste through 30 barrels, quickly log the favorites into his memory banks, and compare the other lots to these benchmarks. He can discern between wine blends that have minute differences.

“His palate is amazing,” Morris said. “I never knew how such a little amount of wine could greatly impact the overall production, the thousands of gallons you’re dealing with. You get down to five or 10 gallons (added to a blend) to just get it spot on. He has a great memory.”

Hilltop serenade

Hunt feels the afternoon breeze brushing against his hair and cheek. He’s standing on a hill at the highest point of the property, the perfect spot to feel the confluences of ocean air coming nearby from Cambria and Morro Bay. He hears a flock of birds, and his wife points out an eagle has also taken flight nearby.

Idyllic moments like this, when he’s surrounded by family and Paso Robles’ fertile wine country, inspire Hunt’s music such as “Hilltop Serenade,” the lead-off track from his “Rhapsody in Red” album. Hunt wrote all the songs, along with providing lead vocals and piano. “Red” is an ode to the loves in his life: Three songs are written about Debbie, another is about his daughter, Destiny, and, of course, there’s plenty about his love of wine. The album contains some orchestral touches a la Burt Bacharach with bits of blues and soft rock.

“It’s about the angels in the hilltops above the vineyards,” said Hunt about “Hilltop Serenade.” “The angels hover above the vineyards and drink the evaporation. They’re echoing through the vines, and you can hear the hilltop serenade.”

Hunt, who bottles between 8,000 to 12,000 cases of wine annually, wants to keep his business on the boutique side. His wines have previously been offered at such high-end steakhouses as Morton’s and Ruth’s Chris, but Hunt Cellars bottles aren’t yet available in the Sacramento area. Wide-scale distribution deals for small wineries can be tough to land, but he hopes to increase his presence soon in the area. Until then, Hunt offers his wines through the winery’s website, huntcellars.com.

Now, as the sun sinks closer to the horizon, and the harvest inches closer, he’s grateful that his vision of winemaking has turned out well.

“People look to me for encouragement,” Hunt said. “I think that’s what I was meant to do. I guess the good Lord gave me some gifts. I don’t know how I know, but I know.”


Call The Bee’s Chris Macias, (916) 321-1253. Follow him on Twitter @chris_macias

Read more articles by Chris Macias



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