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05.10.2009

The Blind Wine Taster

nytimes_blind_taster.jpgShow's the size of the rock I've been living under, but I just found out about the series of photo essays and audio recordings that the New York Times has been doing called "One in 8 Million." These slide shows focus on individual New Yorkers and tell a little of their story with some gorgeous photographs and a recording of their own words.

Interestingly, the most recent slideshow was about a woman named Alexandra Elman who lost her sight due to diabetes in 1995, but has kept up her career as a wine consultant nonetheless. For the past 14 years she has continued to taste wines and consult on wine lists for restaurants, hotels, and retailers around the world.

You should check out the photo essay, as it's quite lovely.

I was particularly fascinated to hear her talk about whether or not she thinks that she perceives wine differently now that she is blind. I've often fantasized (although you can't truly call it that, as I haven't necessarily wished it to be so) about being blind while tasting wine. Cultural lore suggests that often those who lose their site (or had none to begin with) compensate through an increase in sensitivity of the other senses, especially hearing and smell. I have no idea whether there exists serious scientific basis for this supposition, but the idea of amplifying the pleasure that I get from the sensory experience of wine in this way is quite fascinating to contemplate.

Ms. Elman's story is also inspiring for the mere fact that she, like so many people who lose one or more of their capacities in life, continues to lead a life undaunted by that fact.

I'm raising a glass to her in admiration and respect.


Comments (5)

Ian Griffith wrote:
05.11.09 at 10:59 AM

Some research was done a few years ago about the difference in people's taste perception that identified a group of super-tasters who had a heightened experience of taste. I was particularly struck by Jancis Robinson's reaction to this research and her hope that she was NOT a super-taster so that her perception of wine would be the same as her readers.

I wonder if the blind wine taster's enhanced facilty is of the super-taster type, or whether her talent comes from having fewer distractions and being more attentive to the focus of her attention.

Dylan wrote:
05.11.09 at 11:04 AM

Well, if you consider the thoughts behind meditation it may be possible to achieve a similar state. The idea being to shut down focus on other areas and maintain focus on what matters for the task at hand. I wouldn't be surprised if Shaolin Monks could be trained as the next wave of super-tasters for wine. Alexandra's story is touching and reflective of life in general. We do not live to an end, we live until we end. She seems to have taken her moments in stride because she knows she must in order to keep moving forward.

05.12.09 at 10:29 AM

Cool stuff. If you ever want to delve a little deeper, some of the coolest wine research of the last 10 years, IMHO, was a paper titled "The Color of Odor" by Morrot, Brouchet and Dubourdieu (Brain and Language, 79, 2001, pg. 309). This experiment had 54 subjects sample and describe two glasses of wine. In the first tasting one glass of wine was white and one was red. In the second tasting both glasses of wine were white but one glass had been dyed to look red. The descriptors for the first white wine were all traditional white wine descriptors such as pear, apricot, peach, honey and flowers. Interestingly, when the second white wine was dyed red the descriptors changed from the traditional white wine descriptors to traditional red descriptors such as blackcurrants, redcurrants, raspberries and cherries. They also do a fascinating breakdown of the connection of wine color and Parker descriptors. Not surprisingly, the nuances of taste are far more complicated than we give them credit for. Cool geek stuff.

Jane wrote:
05.18.09 at 6:13 AM

I recently traveled with a winemaker whose hearing has been compromised since childhood. He had a remarkably accute sense of smell. He was, in general, far more aware of aromas than most individuals, including many winemakers I have spent time with over the years.

Axel wrote:
05.28.09 at 11:49 AM

I just finished a book that deals with some similar stuff by Oliver Sacks - Musicophilia.. Of course, it's not as likely that your taste/smell power would increase in the absence of sight as much as hearing, but you never know! Some discussions in the book on how if a part of the brain is not getting used (as in, no sight excitation), other parts of the brain may co-opt them.

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