Wine

UC Davis student senses his place in the wine world

Hoby Wedler plans a career in the wine industry, and possibly in beer and olive oil.
Hoby Wedler plans a career in the wine industry, and possibly in beer and olive oil. jvillegas@sacbee.com

Just an hour after Hoby Wedler was born, a doctor stood at his mother’s bedside and told her, “There is something wrong with his eyes.”

“I was devastated,” said Terry Wedler, recalling the exchange. “But something clicked in me right away and I said, ‘This is what I need to do.’”

Lying in the hospital and still processing the news about her second son, the veteran schoolteacher began mapping out a plan to earn a master’s degree in education and work with blind and visually impaired students. In doing so, she would find a way to help her new baby thrive in the very visual world.

The newborn had a mysterious disorder called Microphthalmia – his left eye did not fully develop. His right eye was very large and was removed shortly after birth. That was followed by the removal of the tiny left eye. His eyeballs are now acrylic. Bolstered by his parents’ resolve and and an unyielding desire to work hard and live well, Hoby Wedler never seemed to let his disability hold him back.

As he went about living the life of a hyper-curious and ambitious blind person, Wedler, whether he knew it or not, had been training to become a star in the world of sensory science, particularly in the world of wine – possibly as a critic, consultant, educator, or all of the above. At 27, the Ph.D. student in computational organic chemistry at UC Davis has become an increasingly prominent attraction at Francis Ford Coppola Winery, where he leads the monthly “Tasting in the Dark” series in which participants are blindfolded and learn to appreciate and assess wine much like Wedler does.

“He’s bringing a new dimension to our field and getting people to look at wine in a different way. It’s breaking down barriers,” said Corey Beck, president and director of winemaking at the Geyserville winery. “Here’s somebody who’s blind, and he’s better at describing the wine than 99.9 percent of the winemakers out there.”

Practically since the time he could crawl, Wedler has been smelling things – food, foliage, books and breezes – and creating an ever-growing catalog in his brain. When he hiked in the woods as a child, for instance, he marveled at the flowers, the pine trees, all the micro-aromas and blends of smells along the way. He knows what parts of Truckee smell like, including a specific wild plant with all the aromatic appeal of “a 99-cent flip-flop.” He knows what certain intersections in Davis smell like and sound like. As a child in Petaluma, he once told his parents that one item of mail was not from the mailman but from a neighbor down the street, “And that turned out to be true,” Terry Wedler said.

His parents would ask him what he was tasting and see if he could identify the specific herbs and seasonings. At first, it was simply to help him navigate his world without sight. But they soon detected a talent and a drive to dig deeper. By age 9 or 10, they said, he began asking for pots and pans for Christmas gifts, and his dad, now retired as a manager at PG&E, would “hire” him to make soups and stews he could take to work for lunch.

“Early on, he took responsibility for his own life and doing what needed to be done,” said his dad, Reed Wedler.

“He was born a really inquisitive little person,” added Terry Wedler. “He could speak really well and would converse with people when he was little. We smelled things all the time. He just explored the world that way, and it kept expanding.”

Little by little, young Hoby was building a skill set that combined basic survival skills for a blind child with a passion to smell and taste.

“I pay a lot of attention to detail,” said Hoby Wedler. “I’ve always loved relying on my sense of smell to tell me where I am. I don’t think it’s better than anyone else’s, but I focus on smell and hearing to get around, so in that sense, they are enhanced because I rely on them more.”

Taste and scent savant

These days, to have a cup of espresso with Wedler is to witness one man’s sensory perception operate on an entirely different plane.

The coffee aroma is very floral and nutty with a little bit of minerality. There is an earthiness and a little bit of mushroom character. On the palate, it has a nice coating – I want to say earth with a floral note to it. You get it in your mouth and breathe through and it gives that floral, almost grassy and weedy and hay kind of farm aroma. The only problem with this coffee is it’s a little bit harsh with the bitterness.

The city of Davis, he says, smells like alfalfa. And if you’re not sure what that smells like, Wedler says it’s much like a combination of “hot, cheap plastic and fresh-cut grass.”

Recently, when he tasted a flight of red wines at Tucos, a popular restaurant and wine bar in Davis, he spoke as if he were reciting a poem.

It’s a little bit chilled, which I don’t mind. When I swirl this initially, I get an aroma of prune and plum, and actually a kind of paint thinner, which is very pleasant here and reminds me of new acrylic paint – a little bit of pine and an overwhelming berry aroma mixed with amaretto, which is caused by a chemical called benzaldehyde.

One sip of another red, and he was practically giddy.

Ahh! That’s classic pinot noir. It’s amazing because it has that almost smoky meat, tobacco and cherry cola. It’s a classic Santa Barbara pinot noir on the nose.

The paella he ate for dinner?

I taste a very nice piece of lightly sautéed zucchini with a little bit of crunch, and in the middle, as you move into the rice plate, you get a really amazing smoky Spanish pimentón – that smoked paprika – mixed with gorgeous saffron. The rice is actually a little bit crunchy and that seafood flavor permeates. It’s as if they used a bouillabaisse as the broth and a beautiful soffritto. It’s exquisite.

While it may be tempting to think Wedler is showing off as he riffs about everything he tastes, his sensory skills are starting to be widely respected, if not revered, in the wine world.

“He’s by far the best wine taster I’ve been around, and I’ve been around the best in the business,” said Beck, who helped enlist the precocious Wedler to launch “Tasting in the Dark” in 2011.

‘It’s just so complex’

When Wedler came of age and began to appreciate food and wine in a serious way, he was likely well ahead of other young wine tasters in that he already had this vast, customized catalog to both understand and celebrate what his senses were telling him.

First, he learned about wine – he tasted, he smelled, he filed it all away and cross-referenced it with his mental catalog. He was practically mesmerized by the beauty and mystery of what he encountered in the glass.

“It is just so complex,” he said. “Wine is a blend of grapes and yeast. Grapes have a lot more going on than we might think. When we add yeast and they start eating sugar and produce alcohol, it dissolves things and brings out flavors that we had no idea were there and were not accessible to our taste buds unless they were opened up by something organic like alcohol. You can take a simple grape that tastes sweet and maybe tannic from the seeds, and turn it into something so brilliant and with so much character as a wine. When you smell a glass of wine, there is so much going on.”

When he took a viticulture and oenology class at UC Davis, he quickly realized he had a passion for wine. It wasn’t long before he began to dazzle more than family and friends. He has been on several formal and informal tasting panels, where he stands out both for his tasting skills and his verbal acumen. Recently, Sierra Nevada Brewing enlisted Wedler to perform “Tasting in the Dark” for beer, and the first event quickly sold out.

Now, on the verge of earning his chemistry doctorate, Wedler plans to have a career in the wine industry (and possibly beer and olive oil) and use his advanced degrees in his spare time.

Wedler typically has 110-hour work weeks. He operates a nonprofit, Accessible Science, which conducts three-day chemistry camps for blind and visually impaired high school students. In 2012, he was one of 14 people recognized in a ceremony at the White House as Champions of Change for their work with inspiring people with disabilities in the STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and math.

Yet, he has a humility that resonates.

“I don’t let on that I have bad days – ever,” he said. “I’m a non-complainer because no one has to deal with my day. I have to work two or three times more hours than a sighted person. It means very little sleep, but if I said, ‘Woe is me; I need my sleep,’ I wouldn’t get anywhere.”

Beyond his determination to succeed, Wedler’s ability to taste wine and his skill at talking about it help him engage beginners and wine aficionados alike. With his young palate still identifying benchmarks and calibrating the many complexities of wine, Wedler has already impressed academics, winemakers and serious wine tasters.

Having memorized his routes in Davis as he did in his hometown, Wedler now is creating his own route to success in the Napa Valley. He knows what he wants and, it just so happens, he has been developing the appropriate skill set since childhood.

“Life is a competition. I am by no means winning, but I am competing, for lack of a better word, with sighted people who have more efficiency – blindness is merely a lack of efficiency. If you want to compete, you just have to put in the time and not give up. You have to push yourself as hard as you can, expect nothing and hope for everything.”

With that, he raised the final glass in his flight of red wines, lowered his nose and inhaled.

The tannins are light, and the temperature is perfect. On the front, it’s got pomegranate and a blueberry essence. It mellows back to baked apple and pine. It’s a little bit floral, but in a dark way – with sandalwood – and it finishes off with cassis. It’s very Old World-esque, but from the New World because it’s obviously higher in alcohol.

Call The Bee’s Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @Blarob.

TASTING IN THE DARK

What: Two-hour sessions during which participants are blindfolded and then led through a series of sensory exercises before tasting wine.

Where: Francis Ford Coppola Winery, 300 Via Archimedes, Geyserville

Cost: $75; tastings are limited to 12 people

Information: www.francisfordcoppolawinery.com (707) 857-1400.

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