On the surface, the career trajectory of Upper East Sider Alexandra Elman is pretty run of the mill. After working for others in her industry for 17 years, she is about to start out on her own next month.
But for Elman, there’s more than meets the eye.
Elman, a wine trader and importer who has trotted around the globe seeking out the world’s best wines, is blind.
Blinded years ago by diabetes, Elman, 41, uses her heightened sense of smell and taste to decipher what kind of soil the grapes were grown in, what was grown nearby, and whether the wine were treated with chemicals or aged in oak barrels.
She’s put her senses to work for her latest venture, Alex Elman Wines, trying to find natural, organic wines that can make a splash in a crowded market. Her label, which features an illustration of Elman in a vineyard with Hanley, her Labrador guide dog and companion, along with the variety of the wine spelled out in simulated Braille, will debut next week.
Her mother was a chef, and her stepfather worked in the wine industry, so Elman grew up around wine and food. “It’s a very weird thing to say, but maybe going blind was almost a gift. It made me concentrate a lot more,” she said.
Elman was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes in 1977. “You didn’t even test your blood in those days,” she said. She had been working in the wine industry for years and had already traveled all over the world by age 27, when her eyesight began to fail. It took about a year for her to go blind, and when she did, it was devastating.
That’s when her stepfather Basil Winston, a well-known wine-industry figure with his own company, Kinnicutt Traders, started retraining her already sensitive palate.
“As a kid, I was the one who would taste my mother’s cooking and tell her what was missing,” Elman said.
When she lost her sight, Winston would “take a glass of wine and put it in front of me, and say, ‘OK, what is this?'” she said. He taught her to zero in on the elements of the wine, starting with the soil used to grow the grapes: Was it slate? Clay? Volcanic ash? Could she taste what she was smelling?
“It was an exercise meant to distract me from what I was going through,” she said. “Now I can taste the wine and go back to the vineyard.”
She and partner Mike Mitaro are hoping to get Alex Elman Wines in restaurants and on store shelves in the northeast by Memorial Day.
“These wines are the best examples of what they are and where they come from. They are wines that are honestly made,” she said.
Elman goes for wines that are organically produced, and has picked four with which to launch her company: a Chardonnay and a cabernet sauvignon, both from France; and a red, a Malbec, and a white called a Torrentes, both originating in Argentina.
The wines go for $12 to $15 a bottle, and Elman wanted them to be good enough for people to bring to a party, and affordable enough for every day.
“I’m not someone who is out there telling you what to drink,” she said. “What we’re trying to do with Alex Elman Wines is to take a lot of the guesswork out, because when you walk into a store there are so many wines.
“I would really like this to be people’s go-to wine,” she said.