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His Sights Set on Fine Wine
Loss of Vision No Excuse for Proprietor of Hunt Cellars

Marla J. Pugh
The Tribune

For David Hunt, losing his sight has not meant losing his passion for life. That passion is evident when walking into his new winery, Hunt Cellars in Paso Robles.

Most likely, Hunt can be spotted there at his white baby grand piano, playing and crooning like Elton John. Or he may be standing at the wine-tasting bar, laughing with his guests or talking about the perfect blend of oak and fruit that make up his varietals.

But wherever he is, the most noticeable thing about Hunt is not that he is blind, but that he is having a great time.

Having fun and creating good memories is one of the reasons he opened the winery in Paso Robles this October, he said.

“For me, life is about following my passions and those are music, wine, great food and parties with friends and family,” he said. “The winery helps me do all of those things at once.”

Hunt, who currently lives in Chatsworth and comes to the winery on weekends, is no stranger to business or success. He is a real estate developer, musician and inventor. Perhaps he is best known for developing the use of voice mail in the early ’80s, which he began using as a tool for the blind. He also pioneered “Smart House” systems for the blind, where computers use voice and movement sensors to respond to a homeowners needs, such as turning on lights and electronic equipment. The idea caught on in the affluent sector as well, and he began installing such systems in upscale homes that he built.

He has also developed voice-based security systems for homes, and a voice-based system used in real estate sales that allows people to call and access information about any property 24-hours a day. David Hunt has been at the forefront of cutting-edge technology for the past 20 years. He now is joining the wine industry on the west side of Paso Robles. Special to The Tribune by Coy Catledge

But in more recent years he has been thinking about making a lifestyle change.

Hunt has retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative disease that affects the photo receptors attached to the central nervous system. It is also a hereditary disease. His father was a carrier, although he could read until he was 60. Hunt’s brothers also have it, although his three sisters don’t.

It has been a slow journey into blindness for Hunt. Although he skied up until a year ago, and played tennis until 1989, he was completely robbed of his sight recently. In a way, he explains, that has been a catalyst in his decision to make wine, which has been an interest of his for about 15 years.

Hunt believes that his other senses, such as taste, have been significantly heightened as a result of his disability. Since taste is at the core of wine-making, he feels this has added to his ability to create wine and detect the subtle nuances that separate a good wine from a great one.

He has tried to focus his senses on the final, lingering taste of his wine, he said. While the middle taste of a wine acts as the wine’s heart, he said the finish should leave people wanting more.

“Wine should not be numbing,” he said. “It shouldn’t leave you feeling anesthetized. I believe it is an art form to work on the finish and make it pleasing. I think a lot of people forget about the importance of that finish as they concentrate on other aspects of the wine.”

Hunt Cellars is located in a remodeled house perched on a 3.2-acre site off Highway 46 on Oakdale Road. Hunt plans to plant 1,200 to 1,400 vines around the property, and also has a nearby 550-acre site called Destiny Vineyards, named after his 3-year-old daughter. He hopes eventually to build a home there, and move his family to the vineyard.

Hunt said he searched up and down the West Coast for the perfect site for his winery and vineyards. He chose Paso Robles, he said, because he feels all the surrounding wineries have good wine. He also said that the wineries here are more gracious.

“They know they are trying to make something special here of international appeal,” he said. “And so they are working together and supporting each other to do that.”

Although Hunt is growing his own grapes, his idea is not to force a certain vineyard down a bottle.

“I want to make the most memorable wines I can,” he said. “If my grapes can do that, that’s great. But if they aren’t good enough to do that, I will find the grapes that are.”

His current inventory is limited to 2,000 cases of Cabernet ’96 Reserve, Sauvignon Blanc ’97, Sangiovese ’97, Syrah ’97 and Zinfandel ’98.

Eventually he would like to sell 5,000 cases from the winery. But he has no plans to distribute his wines.

“First of all, when you distribute you give up so much of the profits,” he said. “Secondly, you are not telling the story of the wine that way. There is no experience involved in buying the wine. When they come here, they can hear the story behind the wine, and have a wonderful experience as well. You don’t get that at a store.”

He jokes that at his winery, “wine geeks” will also not be allowed.

“I don’t want people to come in here and be surrounded by wine snobs who (talk) down their noses at people,” he said. He added that in business, he has learned that if you have a good product and are nice to people, you can dictate your future.

Hunt said he has chosen not to dwell on his disability or let it limit his dreams. But he also does not pretend his blindness has been easy to deal with.

“Sight is the most precious of our senses, because God made a beautiful world, and I hate seeing that taken away from me,” he said. The most painful aspect of his blindness is not being able to see his three children’s faces, he said.

In business, the most difficult part of his blindness has been a matter of trust. Some people have seen his disability as an opening for a con, or an opportunity to eke out an extra dollar.

There have been people who have told him they have performed a task who haven’t, he said. Those are the times that it is hard to keep his passion and drive. But he continues on.

“I tell other people with disabilities who ask me for advice that this is not a level playing field,” he said. “Most people won’t cut you any slack. That’s when you just have to be a better warrior. It’s sad, but true. You just keep fighting the battle to win.”

He adds that you also have to mentally re-engineer yourself to keep out the negatives. Most people, he said, are really two people — the person they are now, and the person they want to be. The only thing separating the two are the limitations they set on themselves.

“Success is something you choose,” said Hunt.

“One thing I learned was that the greatest power we have is the power to choose. You’ve either got to live with the choices you make, or modify them. Dreams don’t have to last forever. If you wanted to be a football star but injure your knees, you can choose to follow a new dream. I’m following a new dream.”

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Date last modified November 21, 1999