Blind woman tastes success in the wine business

Alex Elman
Alex Elman and her dog Hanley walk through a vineyard.

(CBS News) Alex Elman runs a big business - something hard to imagine after she lost her sight in her twenties. But Elman says that losing her sight helped her focus on finding success.

Even in places like Florida, California, and New York - the top three wine consuming states in the country - the wine market is crowded. But that didn't stop Elman from launching her own label, turning a perceived disadvantage into one of the greatest advantages on the playing field.

Elman's father planted a hillside vineyard in western Massachusetts in 1981. It's where Elman fled during the darkest period of her life. When she was 27 years old, she went blind due to complications from juvenile diabetes 17 years ago. She recalled, "I hid in my home. I hid in the place, to me, that was the safest place in the world."

In coming back to her roots, she found a new way forward.

Elman is the founder of Alex Elman Wines, a growing portfolio of organic wines from all around the world: Chianti from Italy, Torrontes from Argentina. Every time she acquires a new varietal, she changes the color of her dress.

Elman doesn't work alone. Her assistant, a guide dog named Hanley, is something of a wine snob, and quite a beggar. Hanley travels to all of the wineries that Elman does, from South America to Europe.

At first, Elman resisted the idea of a seeing-eye dog. Now it's hard to imagine her life, or her business, without him. She said, "When someone tells me something is organic and I don't really believe it because I taste something funny on it, I'll put it in front of his face and if he likes the wine, he'll actually go in and sniff it. If it's not right, he'll turn his head away. ... He gets in the dirt with me. He scratches around. He makes sure that we see earthworms and butterflies. That's how we know that the soil is actually organic, that there are no chemicals."

It was at a blind wine tasting years before Elman lost her sight that she first realized her ability to discern the province of a wine using only her sense of smell and taste.

Elman explained, "If the wines are not manipulated and made correctly, I'm pretty good. I can usually get the country, I can often get the vineyard and I can often get the price point."

After seven and a half years of service, Hanley is ready for retirement. He'll spend his golden years in Elman's childhood vineyard.

Elman told CBS News she believes the loss of her vision was a gift. She said, "It allowed me to pay attention to what I thought was important and also to be able to teach people that the broken hang nail is not a big deal, you know what I mean? Don't sweat the small stuff. Don't sweat the big stuff either because you can deal with it, also most importantly and more than anything else is to adapt to a situation, go with the flow, and you'll be all right. Because you can't change it anyway right? It just is."

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