David Hunt’s story is both fascinating and inspirational. Despite his loss of sight nearly 30 years ago, his story is a reaffirmation of the renaissance man concept of the 16th century. Game show contestant, musician, lyricist, successful entrepreneur, husband, father, vigneron, winemaker and recording artist are among the many titles he has on his curriculum vitae…so far.
I recently spoke at length with him and gained tremendous insight into the life and character of this passionate man. David is gracious, confident, focused and openly expresses his traditional values of hard work and personal responsibility. To add layers to this knowledge and insight, I also had the pleasure of listening to his recently released inaugural CD and tasting two of his most ‘memorable wines’.
Born in North Carolina over 6 decades ago as one of seven children, David began working at six in his father’s lumber business. After completing college in 1970 he was invited to be one of the three hidden bachelors on the television game show “The Dating Game” which was filmed in California (he never said if he was selected). Always a lover of popular music and a keyboardist, David remained an active musician in California with a show band while simultaneously building a very successful enterprise in home and business security systems. The home security and residential building boom of the 70’s offered the opportunity for David to contract with developers to install up to 500 home security units at a time in mega developments in southern California. As the enterprise grew he was bought out thereby accumulating some wealth for other new opportunities including real estate development.
Life was good for David and Debbie but then he began losing his eyesight in the early 1980s. A progressive degenerative retinal disease was, not too slowly, robbing him of his sight. He has not been able to drive since the early 80’s and has not been able to read a book since 1989. Not one to feel sorry for himself and with two sons (Chris and Derek) already on board, David and Debbie continued to move forward with their dream of some day owning a vineyard and making wine. In the mid 90’s they began in earnest to search for a property to purchase. Scouring the west coast of the United States, they finally settled on an old barley farm near Paso Robles in San Luis Obispo County.
David located the property in 1996, 10 years after his blindness had progressed to the point where he could only to see shadows. The soil was calcareous/chalky and unquestionably perfect for ultra-premium grape growing. The property had been dry farmed so finding adequate water on the property to support vineyards was a serious risk and could have caused the entire deal to collapse. Without the participation of Debbie who was pregnant and virtually bed-ridden with their 3rd child, he made a contingent offer. David found water and they subsequently closed the deal and named the future vineyard ‘Destiny’ after their daughter who was born that same year.
Early on, David took courses at UC Davis to learn the technical basics of vineyard management, grape growing and wine making. Knowing the basics, he still needed to adapt for his blindness if he was going to be successful as a vigneron and winemaker. When I asked him how he is able to farm and make wine without seeing the vineyards, grapes or juice, he told me he believes that his other senses have indeed heightened and help him compensate. He said he smells the ripeness and, of course tastes and feels the grapes to decide when to harvest. He also asks his assistant to describe the color of the leaves to help him determine the stage of ripeness. With that depth of insight he does all the blending, employs all of his enhanced senses and his educated palate to produce memorable wines. (He laughingly told me that when he asks Debbie the color of the wine during the wine making she says ‘red’.)
I asked David how being blind was a gift? I wasn’t surprised that he saw the positive angle of my question. He said, “I do enjoy the ability (italics added) to be an inspiration to people, sighted and sightless, who recognize what I have accomplished and how I live my life”. He did say that his biggest challenge is dealing with his trust issues. He expressed his discomfort with wondering who was actually doing what they say they are doing. “How do you verify that people do what they say?” I asked him if he felt like a Jedi warrior (Star Wars reference) in that he had to use ‘the Force’ to achieve what he has and to trust in others. His response was classic, “Its not a level playing field for anyone so you just need to be a better warrior!” When asked what he misses about being sighted, the answer came quick. “I miss the freedom that comes with sight. Driving a car, skiing and playing basketball with my children.”
His 550 acres range in elevation from 1550 ft to 2200 ft above sea level and contains at least 4 distinct terroir. Hunt specializes in mountain fruit for its intensity and because of his vineyard elevations. He produces Cabernet Sauvignon (~45%) and lesser amounts of Syrah, Merlot, Zinfandel, Sangiovese, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Petite Sirah and Cabernet Franc in declining order. He also purchases Chardonnay and Pinot Noir to complete his portfolio. He believes passionately that ‘memorable wine’ begins in the vineyard.
Consistent with his personal values of self reliance, David encouraged his sons (Christopher now 28 and Derek 25) to start their own business when they were 11 and 14 respectively. That work ethic must be passed through the Hunt DNA as they have teamed up to form their own business and are successful in their own right. David hopes and believes that some day they will return to run the winery with their sister.
David’s goal is to produce ‘memorable wines’. And he does, between 6-13,000 cases annually depending upon vintage and mother nature. He ages his wines in barrel longer than most wineries in Paso Robles, or for that matter in California.. The wines dictate the specific time vintage to vintage and varietal to varietal. It usually takes 4-5 years from vine to market for his reds. He focuses on mountain fruit because of the intensity of flavors the environmental stress produces. Perhaps he is stressed with the same outcome – intensity and character. His winemaking style seeks balance: tannin, acid, alcohol, sweetness and oak all in harmony. He has most certainly achieved that with. his wines.
I have had the pleasure of tasting the 2006 ‘Thriller’ (note the music reference). This is a memorable blend of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah, Merlot, Zinfandel and Cabernet Franc all from Destiny Vineyard. It is full bodied, well balanced, approachable and great with food. The flavors of tobacco, leather and licorice are complemented by the earthy aromas and cola notes.
I have also enjoyed the 2007 ‘CabOvation’, a Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve from Paso Robles, Destiny Vineyard Mt. Christo Block which was awarded 96 points and tied for Best Cabernet Sauvignon in the World Food and Beverage California Bordeaux Tour 2012. This medium bodied Cabernet has intense tannins with dark cherry and coffee notes. It is multi-layered and can remain in the cellar for many years. You may have noted the interesting naming convention David uses. In addition to Thriller and CabOvation, he bottles a Chardonnay “Moonlight Sonata”, Sangiovese “Rhapsody”, a Merlot “Unforgettable” and a Tawny Port “Oldie but Goodie” (received 93 points from the Wine Spectator) among others.
His passion for wine and music melds together and he has, at the urging of his children, released a CD with very personal songs about his loves. His wife, children, the vineyards and life! He wrote all the lyrics and composed the music. David has an uncanny vocal resemblance to Sir Elton John, despite his insistence that he is NOT trying to sound like the British knight. Matched with his rock keyboard skills, the Elton John resemblance becomes even more remarkable. He claims Elton John and Billy Joel as his key influencers and his music does not belie that claim. The CD, released last year, is called “Rhapsody in Red” (named after a red blend he makes). He co-produced this rock influenced CD with contemporary jazz guitarist Nils. Cuts with titles like, “Hilltop Serenade”, “You Are My Princess”, “Destiny” (after his daughter) and “Bon Vivant” are deeply reflective of David’s loves and life. Its also very warm and captures his essences. The CD is available in the Hunt Cellars tasting room as well as other online outlets like Amazon and Discogs.
When I asked what his next challenge was, David responded unhesitatingly, “Put Hunt Cellars on the Map”. The milestones to do that may include a new facility and tasting room near Temecula, California. South east of Los Angeles and north of San Diego, Temecula offers high traffic with 10 million people within 1.25 hrs compared with the idyllic and pastoral Paso Robles with less than 300K in the entire San Luis Obispo County. The ability to make and sell higher volumes is very apparent.
Hunt Cellars tasting room is located just off Highway 46 in Paso Robles, California about 3 miles west of Highway 101 (at Oakdale Road). (See map & directions.) This is along the scenic coastal route to Cambria, Hearst Castle, numerous wineries and other beach communities on the California Pacific coast.