Hoby Wedler, the host of the unusual wine tasting who has been blind since birth, says blindfolds help sighted participants concentrate on the wine, accentuating the sensory experience of its flavors and aromas. "You're really focusing just on the wine and not on the visual cues," Wedler says.
Lynne Rossetto Kasper: How did you get into wine?
Hoby Wedler: I was actually born and raised in Petaluma, Calif., which is in the heart of Sonoma County, which is a big wine region of the world. I've always had a love for hyperlocality. The thought that something around me, like a delicious grape from Sonoma County, was being sold all over the world, even when I was 9, 10, 11 years old, it was fascinating.
LRK: It was in your back yard?
HW: It was in my back yard.
People have always told me, "You're blind, you should focus on things that are non-visual, so maybe try to develop a palate." These were fantasies that people talked about when I was 8 or 9 years old. The fact that here I am right now is kind of ironic.
LRK: You're going for your Ph.D. in chemistry. I know you've done a great deal of work in it. Is that a direct tie-in to wine?
HW: Sure. In wine, there are two ingredients: yeast and grapes. The chemicals in wine are what make wine smell and look the way it does. If it weren't for chemistry, we wouldn't understand a lot of those properties of wine.
LRK: You run wine tastings at the Francis Ford Coppola Winery. They are literally blind wine tastings. How do you do this?
HW: Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Geyserville, which is just a few miles north of me in Petaluma, the heart of Sonoma County, called in 2011 and asked if I wanted to host a blind wine tasting. I said, "I'm a self-taught wine enthusiast, I love wine, I love talking about different abilities people have when they are temporarily blinded, let's go with it."
Basically what we do is we put a blindfold on people in our reception area, then we walk them up a long flight of stairs and down a 300-foot walkway into a room where we host the tasting. (I won't give it away in case people come do it, which we would love.)
Then we sit down, and this is my favorite part. I get to sit down with people and have everyone introduce themselves when they're all listening to each other. The introduction under blindfold gives people the illusion that they're just talking to a group of people who are just sitting there listening to everything they have to say. We can do it with any size group of people because if someone is talking to a group of 40 people, they feel like it's just them and me, which makes it fun for all of us.
People introduce themselves, then we talk about wine aroma and wine flavor. We smell six different aroma samples where I dissolve aroma compounds in a base wine. We get an experience of what these things are. What does lemon smell like when all these people say, "Oh, I smell the lemon in there." What are we smelling? What are we smelling when we talk about oak, vanilla or hazelnut? We deal with this.
Hoby Wedler leads Tasting in the Dark (Photo: Francis Ford Coppola Winery)
We warm up our palates, then we sit around and we smell wine, really give it the time of day, and think about it for about 5 minutes per wine before we taste the wines. We taste anywhere from four to six wines and discuss them, talk about the flavors. We don't reveal what color or what varietal we think they are until the very end.
It gives people a great opportunity to relax into their senses, focus their attention not on the visual distractions they receive but on the wine in the glass and on the spoken word of their friends around them, and really enjoy what wine truly has to offer, which is quite magnificent.
LRK: How do people react?
HW: People come away saying, "Wow, I didn't think I would want to be under blindfold for more than 5 minutes, but I realized the time went by extremely quickly."
People come away saying, "I want to appreciate wine academically. I never knew how to do that before." That's such a joy for me because that's how I love to drink wine, thinking about it, studying it, writing my tasting notes after everything I try, really delving into it.
LRK: But couldn't you do the same thing without the blindfold?
HW: The blindfold focuses your attention away from what it looks like around you, the distracting faces, things like that. You're really focusing just on the wine and not on the visual cues. Because vision is such a first-response sense -- it's a sense that we use all the time to pick things up -- it often can be a bit of a crutch. When we don't have that sense, we can just focus all our attention on the task at hand.
One thing that I love about this tasting and about just talking with people in general: People so often focus on things they don't have. I could do that all the time -- I'm a blind person, I had to get a ride to the studio this morning. But that stuff is no big deal.
The most important thing is to spend our time not focusing on what we don't have, but focusing on what we do have. Maybe we don't know how to cook everything under the sun, but those things we know how to cook and those wines we know how to serve people around us are such a great resemblance of the wonders that we do have.
I think wine in particular is a tremendous way to forget about the disabilities we have, the fact that our knee hurts -- whatever is going on around us -- the fact that we had a bad day at work, and just stop and think about wherever you are. There's beauty in some respect in anyone's life, in any part. Wine allows us to really slow down and really get into the wine, into what it's resembling and where the grapes were grown. We can forget about all those things around us that might be hindering us and focus on the positive.