Westen innovator: Sonoma native shares wine passion
Blind chemistry expert guides wine lovers 'in the dark'
By JULIA HOLLISTER
For the Capital Press
GEYSERVILLE, Calif. -- A small, somewhat apprehensive group recently met at Francis Ford Coppola Winery for a wine-tasting experience unlike any other.
Wine Tasting in the Dark is hosted by Henry "Hoby" Wedler and is the only such tasting in the nation, according to general manager Corey Beck.
"Place your left hand on the right shoulder of the person in front of you," the guide said. "Then put on your blindfold."
The group walked gingerly down a long hall and smelled the cork floor beneath their feet. The guides led the group through a doorway and to individual seats in the tasting room. The group was told to keep hands away from the unseen glassware.
"Welcome, my name is Hoby Wedler and wine and chemistry are my passion," he said. "I grew up in Sonoma County and have been blind since birth."
Wedler continued, explaining his background in both fields.
"I'm working on my Ph.D. in computational organic chemistry at University of California-Davis with an emphasis on the study of formation and flavor analysis of a wine flavor molecule, the wine lactone," he said. "After I'm done, I would love to pursue a career in the wine industry and contribute my hopefully innovative way of analyzing flavor and aroma profiles of wines nonvisually."
Wedler took an introductory viticulture and enology class where he discovered just how exciting wine could be.
"After graduating, I wasn't sure I wanted to go to grad school, and for a blind person to study chemistry is especially difficult because it's very visual," he said. "But then I realized, 'I can do this.' So, I had the idea of collaborating with my professor on a project about how this flavor molecule is formed in the grape using computational chemical methods and quantum mechanics."
To the best of his knowledge, he said similar studies have been done in Northern Europe but not in the United States.
Wedler wants to determine whether the wine lactone molecule is present in California wine and olive oil. He plans to put together sensory panels to determine if the human nose and mouth can detect the molecule.
The research will involve the fruit, some flavor compounds and how they carry over from the grape to the wine. The project could determine whether the molecule and new grape clones can be cultivated in California. The research will continue for the next two to three years.
He has been hosting "Tasting in the Dark" at Francis Ford Coppola Winery since last year. The events are scheduled a couple of times a month.
"This is a way to do ag chemistry nonvisually," he said. "A blind person can demonstrate how to use other senses when tasting wine. When you are not distracted by vision you can be amazed by the simplicity of a simple grape and how beautifully complex it can be when turned into wine."
Director of Winemaking Beck had heady praise for Wedler.
"Francis Ford Coppola Winery has been extremely fortunate to work with someone as talented as Henry Wedler to help develop Tasting in the Dark," Beck said. "Not only has Henry been an inspiration to our guests and the employees of the winery but he has one of the best palates I've ever been around when it comes to wine tasting."
Henry 'Hoby' Wedler
Hometown: Petaluma, Calif.
Occupation: Host of Francisco Ford Coppola Winery's Tasting in the Dark and graduate student at University of California-Davis
Education: University of California-Davis graduate and Ph.D. candidate in computations and organic chemistry.
Quote: "I've always been so fond of Sonoma County, where I grew up, because of the prevalent family-run, humble agriculture, which is so abundant. I will always cherish walking in wine country on a crisp autumn morning with a touch of fog in the air. The smell is a combination of ripe fruit, alfalfa, oak, barnyard and a multitude of other unique and wonderful aroma molecules."
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