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California Wine: Out of Sight

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It's easy to imagine that the ritual of wine tasting is more theater than necessity. We often exaggeratedly swirl and stare, sometimes hold the glass up to the light, make jokes about legs or inkiness, sniff a bit, and then, at last, slurp, for we call it wine tasting, after all, and taste is about getting it into your mouth. Henry "Hoby" Wedler would beg to disagree. He leads a program called Tasting in the Dark at the Coppola Winery in Geyserville, where groups sample blindfolded. "Without the distraction of vision, your other senses do become more enhanced," he says, "you focus on them more."

Wedler should know, since he's been blind since birth. That hasn't kept him from much -- he's a Ph.D. student studying computational organic chemistry at UC Davis and in 2012 was honored at the White House as a Champion of Change for leading the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) for people with disabilities. He studies olive oil and wine flavor molecules and can tell you how we taste and smell what we taste and smell, tossing about processes like gas chromatography and terms like terpene with ease. He says, "My goal would be to take my knowledge in chemistry and use it in the wine industry."

That's certainly what he does in the Tasting in the Dark events. People don't just dive into tasting, but get plenty of prelude, starting with Wedler's insistence "wine is art like a good screenplay or painting, an expression of the winemaker's skill and art." Since it's art, it's also very subjective, for he claims, "You have to drink the wines for you. There's no shame in saying, 'I don't like this wine.' I like to promote the humility of wines and pull away the air of arrogance often surrounding wine tasting."

He next leads the group through some aroma samples to warm up their olfactory perception. "Lemon has a great deal of complexity itself," he points out, "Hundreds of chemicals are in it. So if you think a sauvignon blanc smells like lemon, it's really a series of smells." He also lets the tasting go beyond mere descriptors, saying, "Smells link very deep into the center of the brain. It can take you back to places you've been before, so I ask people to discuss that too."

People do finally get to taste, and quickly find that without sight it isn't always easy to even tell if a wine is white or red. (There's a great Calvin Trillin essay about this conundrum, and an apocryphal test to prove it supposedly held at UC Davis, of all places, in The New Yorker.) Wedler has little problem, however, for he says, "I can do it by sense of smell. The smell of red -- I can tell there are more chemicals in the wine. There's a lot in red wine that is trapped in the longer contact with the skin and seeds. White wines are more mellow, more like fruit juice -- not that I'm in any way trying to insult white wines."

Insulting wine would seem to be the furthest thing from Wedler's desire. He finishes our phone interview stressing, "Wine is such a representation of the natural world around us. There are three things I love about wine. First, it starts conversations; it's a way to bring a group together. Second, it's a stress reliever at the end of the day -- you don't drink it to get drunk -- it's another course in the scheme of a meal. Third, you can take grapes and mix them with yeast and make one of the most divine and complex beverages I know. Wine is total poetry."

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