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Wine

David Hunt and the Secrets of Blind Winemaking

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Fri, Jun 28, 2013 at 10:12 AM
click to enlarge winemaker David Hunt
  • winemaker David Hunt

David Hunt, winemaker and bon vivant, is having some friends over for dinner and a nice chardonnay. And cabernet sauvignon, and sangiovese, and merlot. Hunt, unfortunately, can't see the rapt expressions on his guests' face as they drink the wine. He is blind.

People who don't know Hunt that well often ask: Are his other senses more acute? He is not fazed when the question is asked tonight. "People say I have a heightened sense. It's just a crutch," he says. "Goofy me."

Hunt has dark hair and looks to be in his early 60s but won't say specifically. He is vain about his age. He is not vain about his sense of smell or taste, however. He once told a rival winemaker his wine tasted like it was made in a concrete vat. (It was.) The rival demanded to know how he knew. "I don't know," Hunt said. "It is goofy."

In a winemaking class Hunt took at UC Davis, students were asked to identify 100 different notes, among them earthy mushroom, tar, pencil lead, caramel and butterscotch. Hunt got them all. Other winemakers accuse him of cheating, his wife says.

Wine is taste and smell, sure. But to Hunt there is also an audible component. He can fill a glass and hear how much liquid he poured: "The pitch changes as it gets to the top." He can tell the texture of a wine by sound. Reds and whites don't sound different. But the heavy glop-glop-glop of a full-bodied red is worlds apart from the crisp trickle of a light red.

Hunt's most developed sense, however, is memory. Like most serious oenophiles, he memorizes flavor profiles. But to Hunt, unlike his seeing counterparts, memory is a matter of survival. He has to remember where he puts everything.

Hunt wasn't always blind. He has retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative disorder that causes gradual loss of vision. Hunt, who grew up poor in North Carolina, played tennis and drove a car well into his 20s. At 21, with $35 in his pocket, he drove out to Los Angeles. He met a girl, got married and got into the home-security business.

He was around 30 when he finally lost the ability to read. His dad, who worked in lumber and also had retinitis, taught young David to work hard and "use your brain, not your brow." So Hunt invented a few alarm devices, secured a few patents and made some money. In the 1980s, he pioneered voicemail — it was a way to leave auditory messages for his employees — and made some more money.

The secret of success, he says now, isn't the ability to recognize an opportunity but having the audacity to seize it. "People with handicaps don't have to do the 'poor me.' They just gotta go out and do it," he says. "Everybody is two people. The person they are and the person they want to become. Most people never pursue that second one because negativity sets in. They live on the margins. They focus on why they can't do it. But all you need is one reason why you can do it: because you love it."

He likes to say he got into winemaking by practicing drinking for 25 years. He first noticed "the mystique" of wine when he was 22 and still poor. Driving around Hana, Hawaii, one evening, he pulled over at a little general store. Every restaurant in town was closed and the owner kindly invited him to dinner. "They were googooing-gagaing over this bottle of French wine for three hours," he recalls. "What is it about wine? These were intelligent people."

Eventually, Hunt came to believe that making wine, with "people pounding on your doors to buy it," is a beautiful way of life. He became enraptured by the pastoral ambiance of it. Plus, wine makes people happy. The thought of supplying that happiness appealed to him on a deep level.

The idea fermented for the next few decades, and finally, Hunt bought 550 acres in Paso Robles — space for not just a vineyard but a tasting room and processing facility, too.

Wine has turned out to be more work than he'd ever imagined. "A lot of people say they're good at business, but the wine business is a different animal because there's a lot of marketing. And each bottle is unique. Five winemakers can make grapes from the same block of the same vineyard taste different. Which is just bizarre," he says. "It is highly competitive."

When he opened Hunt Cellars in Paso Robles, his was winery No. 37 in the area. In his 16 years there, that total has grown to 250. "Every morning you wake up and there's a new winery or vineyard. Every farmer who couldn't sell his fruit is now a winemaker." As a welcome gift, a competitor brought over a six-pack of beer and a book entitled The Wrath of Grapes. Hunt never did finish it. He's more a learn-on-the-job kind of guy. " 'What if? What if?' Research can make you negative. It's all about passion and heart."

As he speaks, a glass slips out of his hand and shatters. "Oh man. Cheese and crackers!" he says, as a maid whisks the shards away.

Dinner talk turns to the electrical fire that consumed Hunt's mansion three years ago. He lost many valuable wines that night — $6,000 bottles of Petrus and such.

Guests are swirling their glasses now, fluming up the aromatics, trying to detect the hints of cherry, strawberry and vanilla. "It's juicy, succulent. Do you agree?" Hunt says, as if daring you to disagree.

"Very much so," one guest obliges.

Hunt is no shrinking violet. "People often don't realize he's blind," says Hunt's wife, Debbie. She has an anecdote about the tasting room: Employees are always moving the furniture around. Walking to his office, Hunt bumps into a chair here, a table there. Watching him, customers whisper to her, "He's had a lot to drink."

"Oh, don't worry about him," she tells them. "He's always like that."

Hunt counters: "The worst is, you reach for a doorknob and you grab a girl's boob."

There is a wine cellar in Hunt's new mansion, and the party staggers down there now for chardonnay, then back up to the music room for a cabernet port. It is 10 years old, tapped straight from the barrel. "That's not bad," Hunt says. "Takes like chocolate-covered Christmas cherries." It is ready to be bottled, he decides. He will sell each bottle for $100 a pop. His ports are the highest-scoring in California, according to Food & Beverage World and Wine Enthusiast.

Perhaps even more than making award-winning wine, Hunt loves telling stories about it. He has any number of tales about how he names his wines. "Naked Passion" merlot port is the one he pours now. He calls it that because one young man who tasted it said it made him want to get naked and jump in a hot tub with his girlfriend. "Excuse my French," Hunt says, but it's a real "panty peeler."

"You hear all these gracious statements, and that's what makes it worthwhile," he adds.

Still, he has picked an exceedingly difficult business. "Every day, stuff breaks and it's not inexpensive. It's a very expensive sport. You know the old saying? How do you make a small fortune in the wine business? Start with a big fortune." Hunt laughs and drains the last of his merlot. "I could drop $10 million tomorrow and find a way to make it bigger and nicer the next day."

Does he ever think of giving up on it? "Every day," he says.


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