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Popular blind wine tastingan inspiration

For Hoby Wedler, the ocean is not about the view. It’s the smell.

“It’s oysters and fresh fish and seaweed,” explained Wedler, a blind man who sees life - and wine - through colorful aromas.

Since 2011 he has been using that unique gift to lead “Tasting in the Dark” wine tastings at Francis Ford Coppola Winery. In addition to sampling the wine, it’s a chance for guests to meet a blind man with vision.

“After people experience Hoby’s wine tasting, they realize that he has offered them so much more,” said Corey Beck, winemaker at the Geyserville winery. Tasters often gain a new perspective on life after spending time with a man who has transformed a challenge into a strength.

Wedler, who has been blind since birth, said, “I realize there are only two ways to be. You can be negative and upset about life, or you can be positive and embrace whatever comes your way. Life is really what you make of it.”

Today Wedler embraces one of his most prized gifts, his palate. His rare command of aromas and flavors allow him to provide winery guests with a unique tasting experience.

“Hoby can pick out characteristics in wine that most winemakers can’t, let alone the consumer,” Beck said.

“This was something no one was doing. Francis Coppola came across the idea while traveling in Asia, (attending) a tasting of food in the dark. He challenged us to offer this experience to our guests, so we reached out to UC Davis. They said, ‘We have the perfect person.’”

Wedler, 27, was born in Petaluma, and within three hours of his birth, his parents were told he had microphthalmia, a rare eye abnormality.

Terry Wedler, an elementary school teacher, dealt with the challenge by becoming a teacher for the visually impaired.

“It gave me a sense of control over the situation,” she said. “It gave me hope.”

When her son was 2, Terry said she noticed how inquisitive he was. Guided by her classes at San Francisco State University, she helped him cultivate that curiosity.

“One of the things I was taught was that the best way to learn is through real life experiences,” she said.

“That’s when we began studying Petaluma.”

They went to the bank, the post office, the bakery, and her son talked to everyone.

“When Hoby was 5, he would talk to people at the grocery store about what the fruits and vegetables smelled like,” Terry said.

Became a goal

Later, independence became the goal. Hoby relied on a toy shopping cart, then replaced it with a small cane made out of pipe.

Once he was in high school, Terry enlisted another teacher for the visually impaired, Kathy O’Connor, to help her son accomplish a monumental milestone.

“When Hoby was a junior at Petaluma High School, he learned how to walk two miles home by himself,” Terry said.

“From then on, he knew he would be able to be independent.”

Hoby credits his father, Reed Wedler, with the optimism that has influenced his approach to life, saying, “He told me, ‘You were given something, a life, and you’ve got to take responsibility for yourself, love what you have and embrace it.’”

At UC Davis, Wedler studies with the help of Braille, sighted assistants, a 3-D printer and reading software on his computer that translates text into synthesized speech.

“Computers have revolutionized the abilities of blind people to be successful,” he explained.

“All of the resources we have today would have blown Helen Keller away.”

Organic chemistry

Although he is working on a Ph.D. in computational organic chemistry, he was excited to make time for this tasting adventure.

“We thought we would be doing these tastings once every quarter, but now it’s three times a month,” he said.

A recent tasting began with a “Blind Trust Walk,” during which a group of participants were blindfolded and led 200 yards to the winery’s laboratory. As they settled into their seats, Wedler talked about the magic of wine.

“The grape is so simple and humble, and yet it can be turned into something so brilliantly complex,” he said.

“During fermentation, pockets of flavor in the grape are released. It’s that magic that lets wine riff to us when it’s in the glass and tell us what it wants and is.”

Wedler warmed up the tasters’ palates by having them sniff a range of aromas. Then he followed with a tasting of five wines produced at the winery.

Cari Gilbert and her fiancé Jim Davies were excited to join in after experiencing a “Tasting in the Dark” at Opaque restaurant in San Francisco.

“It certainly heightened the senses,” Gilbert said.

Dana Youell of Roseville, who sat through an earlier Wedler tasting, said, “I was hesitant at first about the whole experiment, being out of my element with the blindfold on, but it turned out to be fabulous. I really began to experience wine in a way I never had before.”

Distraction of sight

Wedler encouraged the tasters to experience the wine without what he called the “distraction” of sight.

“When we remove your vision, you have an advantage,” he explained. “Your other senses are heightened, and you’re not distracted.”

Terry Wedler said she’s proud of her son for more reasons than she can count. She’s excited about his work at the winery and knows doors will open for him in Wine Country. But she’s also proud of the Napa chemistry camp for the visually impaired that he and his older brother Jesse founded about five years ago. During the day, campers do chemistry experiments, and at night around the camp fire, they talk about possibility.

“Hoby tells the campers they can do anything they want in life,” she said.

“He tells them blindness is not something that will ever stop them.”

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