PASO ROBLES — David Hunt asks his winemaking assistant to fetch three glasses: one filled with cabernet sauvignon, another with cabernet franc and a final glass that is empty. Hunt has no idea exactly how much wine fills the two glasses. Even their densely purple color remains a mystery to him. Though the light in his winery's lab glows bright and fluorescent, the celebrated Central Coast winemaker sees only darkness.
Slowly, with a bit of wine spilling as he pours, Hunt splashes a few ounces of cabernet franc into the empty glass. Then he stops suddenly and places a finger precisely at the fill level.
"I'm listening where the sound is in the glass," Hunt said on this recent summer day. "When I'm filling the glass I can listen to the pitch change. Wine has volume, wine has weight. The more dense the wine, the different the sound I pick up."
Hunt relies on his hearing because he lost his eyesight more than an decade ago. He is a rare blind winemaker who clues into his other senses to create wines for his Hunt Cellars, an award-winning Paso Robles winery. Instead of using meticulous calculations and laboratory beakers, Hunt blends by feel, taste and smell to express the best flavors of his vineyards. Some of those blends are created in a single glass, with the ratio later used to fill thousands of bottles. Sean Morris acts as Hunt's assistant, ensuring the production goes smoothly, and a handful of consultants oversee the vineyard operations.
Even without eyesight, with his other senses Hunt can paint a vivid picture of wine in his mind.
"There's a certain pressure you get in the glass," said Hunt, adding in some cabernet sauvignon and swirling his freshly constructed blend. "I pick it up. I'd say it's probably 58% cab franc, and 42% cabernet. That's my audible guess."
Sean Morris, Hunt's assistant, nods in agreement. But these are no parlor games. Hunt has demonstrated how he arrived at the perfect blend for Encore, a Bordeaux-style wine from Hunt Cellars that sells for $110 per bottle. He takes a long sip as a finale.
"Ah, that's pretty good," said Hunt, with a satisfied sigh.
Hunt, 64, finds plenty to savor. Forbes magazine recently profiled Hunt and dubbed him "The Diddy of Winemakers," a la the hip-hop mogul Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, for meshing his wine brand with musical enterprises. The multi-instrumentalist Hunt released a CD in fall 2012, "Rhapsody in Red," in which the bulk of the songs reference a specific wine from Hunt Cellars.
Though he lives in Los Angeles, Hunt oversees a sprawling 550-acre Paso Robles property that includes his winery, plus lush vineyards of cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir and other varietals. Alex Trebek of "Jeopardy!" fame is a former neighbor. A public tasting room for Hunt Cellars, complete with Colonial-style architecture and picnic space, can be found nearby on Highway 46's popular wine trail.
Hunt's not just slapping his name and unique backstory on a bottle of wine. He is especially hands-on with the blending process and zeroing in with the proper flavors he is looking for. He is fussy when it comes to flavor, to the point of dumping entire lots of wine if they don't show properly. And that pickiness has paid off, to the tune of a 90-point rating for his syrah in Wine Enthusiast magazine plus a gold medal and best in class for his barbera at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.
Despite his blindness and some recent lower back issues, Hunt canvasses his vineyards during the growing season. While other winemakers generally use a hydrometer to test for the sugar level in grapes, Hunt depends more on his intuition and the current state of the vines.
"I say, ' 'What color are the leaves?'" Hunt said. "If they're brilliant green, it's not ready. I want them to start getting some hints of brown. What color are the stems? What color are the seeds? All of these factors go into the vine giving you everything it can."
The hand he's been dealt
Hunt was able to see clearly for the first 40 years of his life. But slowly his eyesight began to wash away, like a film fading to black. His field of vision started to shrink, and Hunt had to stop driving in the 1980s. His beloved tennis was given up soon after.
"It was like looking down a straw," Hunt said. "You have tunnel vision — and then you lose it all."
Hunt always knew his eyesight might not last forever. Retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease where photoreceptor rods and cones in the retina wither and cause blindness, runs in his family. Hunt's father was stricken by this eye disease; so were his two brothers. Hunt's four sisters were spared from the disease. Hunt's two sons and a daughter, Destiny, also have maintained their vision. Hunt has never fully seen his daughter's face, just shades and shapes when she was born in 1996.
Hunt was completely blind by the late 1990s, just a few years after his first vintage was bottled. Hunt didn't want a pity party. Grapes would still be grown. A world of wine awaited, eyesight or not.
Hunt's love for wine stretches back to the early 1970s, when a bottle of Bordeaux hooked him during a Hawaiian vacation. He is a native of North Carolina who, as a young musician, headed west in 1970 with hopes of landing a record deal in Los Angeles. He instead spent the bulk of his career developing technology for home security systems and voice mail, while also dabbling in music and real estate development. He ended up making a fortune.
But the grapes, those myriad flavors and deep expressions, soon became a primary calling.
"I couldn't understand why people — intelligent people — would spend hours talking about a bottle of wine," Hunt said about the initial attraction.
"But my palate's always been refined. It's all about taste and balance, right?"
Hunt honed his winemaking chops by enrolling in winemaking classes at the University of California at Davis, and poring over books. He bottled his first wine in 1996, just as his vision was in its final phases, and moved to the current Paso Robles property in 1999.
With its steel tanks, racks of barrels and grapecrushing equipment, Hunt's winery isn't the easiest place to navigate, with or without eyesight. The incessant hum from fans also creates white noise that hinders Hunt's hearing, a sense that some blind people tune into to help figure out their surroundings.
As the sun sinks closer to the horizon, and the harvest inches closer, he is grateful that his vision of winemaking has turned out well.
"People look to me for encouragement," Hunt said. "I think that's what I was meant to do. I guess the good Lord gave me some gifts. I don't know how I know, but I know."