“If being blind made me a better winemaker, then there would be more chefs and winemakers who are blind. Where are they hiding? I have a good palate because I was born with it. I have a good sense of smell. Don’t assume it’s because I am blind,” declared blind winemaker CP Lin. Yes, a blind winemaker. You might be thinking about the challenges he faces to make wine without seeing or maybe that he has a better palate than most because he is compensating for his lack of sight. But CP is a highly accomplished and talented individual, with or without the ability to see.
CP was always a curious child, and this has continued into adulthood. “I taste all sorts of things. Other blind people don’t do the same as I do. If they can’t see it, they won’t try,” he says. While walking through the vineyard to taste if the grapes were ready for harvest this year, he grabs a bunch of grapes and puts the entire bunch in his mouth (grapes, seeds, and stems) and chews. Tasting the stems, as well as tasting the soil, enables CP to understand where the grapes are in their development and where they are going. He is able to learn something about the grapes that one cannot see — and seeing winemakers also embrace this technique of tasting the soil and grape stems.
Born in Taiwan, CP lost his sight at about two years of age as a result of carcinoma of the retina. He had two operations and vaguely remembers the last thing he saw: the surgeon and instruments. Because he was born with sight, he has spatial awareness and can visualize space and perspective, which help him navigate through the vineyard and winery. In 1984, at the age of thirteen, his family moved to Christchurch, New Zealand for business. CP studied electrical engineering at University for one year before changing to mathematics. He also studied French, German, Law, and Linguistics, and is fluent in five languages.
While at University, he grew tired of his studies and began joining social clubs, such as martial arts and fencing. Although CP remembers first trying wine (and disliking it) at a cousin’s wedding when he was eight years old, he thought it would be fun to drink wine in order to meet people. He joined the University Wine Club.
Upon graduation, he was not sure what he wanted to do and was bored with mathematics. “Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you like to do it,” he explained. An avid traveler, CP sat and wrote the pros and cons of what he liked while on a trip. As he liked wine, he decided to study it and received his post graduate diploma in Wine Science at Lincoln University in Christchurch. He then began a business exporting wine to Asia from 1996-97 but when the 1997 economy crisis hit Asia, his business was shut down.
After three months of unemployment, CP was invited to lunch by a friend at a new winery in Waipara, New Zealand (forty minutes north of Christchurch, the capital of New Zealand’s South Island) called Mountford Estate. Begrudgingly, CP agreed to the day trip but brought his own wine! As he recalls the exact menu (asparagus and parmesan cheese, and poached salmon) like it was yesterday, he tells how he was asked if he wanted to try the Mountford wine. “I said that I didn’t like the 1996 wines, in fact, I specifically said that I thought they were crap, and the owner Michael Eaton overheard me and ignored me the rest of the day. We didn’t get off to a good start,” CP remembers. After lunch during a walk in the vineyard, he smelled a Cuban cigar and loudly asked who was smoking and announced “it’s nutty; it must be a Monte Cristo #5 from Cuba.” Owner Michael was so impressed that he finally began to talk to CP and explained how he needed a winemaker, asking CP if he wanted the job. “Michael cemented a belief in me,” CP reminisced.
1998 was CP’s first vintage at Mountford, and the wine received 90 points from Wine Spectator. Because of this, the price of the wine jumped from $20-$50 in one year. “I carried 2×4’s and did things without help. I could do anything and did everything. I didn’t have help until I finally hired an assistant winemaker four years later.” Over the years, Michael and his wife Buffy became like family to CP and today the current owners, Kees Zeestraten and Kathryn Ryan, who purchased the property 2007, count CP as part of their family as well.
CP has worked thirty harvests over the years, even working up to four in one year. “I remember everything….each vintage and what the season was like.” He has been the winemaker at Mountford for fifteen harvests because he believes that “to become a good winemaker, one must stay in one place for a while to learn.” CP has also worked in Europe, the US, and Australia, and tastes between five and ten thousand wines per year. He has a photographic memory and an extraordinary ability to recall wines from all over the world. “I drink absolutely everything under the sun, as long as it’s good. Tasting so much wine makes me better at what I am doing. I am more passionate and more opinionated.”
Today Mountford Estate is on the right track producing Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Gris, and five different Pinot Noirs, including two single vineyard wines (named Rise and Gradient). Planted in 1991, Mountford Estate is the 3rd oldest winery in Waipara. The vineyards grow on an area of land known as “The Golden Mile” due to the soil make-up of clay and marl with limestone, combined with the long, hot autumns and sunlight. As a result of this combination of soil and weather, Mountford Estate is considered one of the top ten producers in New Zealand and CP has a goal of making it number one. “I could never let it go. Drinking, eating, making wine, it is part of what I am and what I want.”
Being blind has never stopped CP from being a great winemaker and he said that there are only three things he wished he could do if he could see: “I wish I could look at all the beautiful girls, sleep under the stars, and have the freedom to travel alone. But, on the other hand, one good thing about being blind is that I can drink as much as I want. I never have to drive and can walk into walls without apologizing.”