A story of Cuban cigars and a good nose

Current job title, winery & region: CP Lin, chief winemaker, Mountford Estate, New Zealand.

By Katherine Lindh

CP Lin became blind from carcinoma of the retina when he was two. His determination and intelligence has earned him the recognition he deserves today. Lin speaks five different languages; English, Mandarin, Taiwanese, French and German; has a degree in mathematics from the University of Canterbury and a degree in wine science from Lincoln University. Taiwanese-born CP Lin emmigrated to New Zealand with his family in the early 1980s when he was 13. His parents started a deer farm and began a business in import and export.
'While I had grown up tasting drinks such as cognac and whiskey, wine was not part of the Chinese drinking culture. I remember the first drink I had was a Johnny Walker and soda at my cousin's wedding when I was nine,' he said.
'I studied mathematics and electrical engineering at University of Canterbury in New Zealand, which was terribly boring. To alleviate this boredom, I joined a wine club and found that I had a real talent for wine tasting. I could remember precisely what wine I had tasted, and could recall time and time again what I tasted. From then on, I became hooked on wine.
'After I finished university, I went travelling for a year, and when I returned to New Zealand, I wrote a list of all the things I wanted to do, and at the top of the list was wine. I realised I could turn a hobby into a profession. Instead of doing my engineering, I went and studied a wine science course at Lincoln University. 'My first position in the wine industry was in the export of New Zealand wines to Asian countries.' CP Lin's foray into winemaking had an audacious start, as he recalls: 'I was invited to lunch with some university friends at Mountford Estate. I wasn't that keen on going but was convinced in the end by my friends. During lunch, we tried some wines with the owner of the estate, Michael Eaton. Michael asked me what I thought of the wines we tried, and I said I thought they were crap!
'Later, we went for a tour of the vineyard, and I told Michael there were a few things that I thought needed changing in the vineyard, such as more de-budding to limit yield and therefore wine concentration (as the bud number was high) and also to remove some water shoots (de-suckering) as I could tell they needed to be done by feeling the vines.
'He half listened to me. At the same time, I could smell the smoke of a Cuban cigar. I asked, 'Who is smoking a Monte Christo Cuban cigar?' This was the very cigar Michael was smoking. He said 'I guess you know something about flavour and tastings.' We sat and talked, and he offered me a position as winemaker at the winery. I guess I was in the right place at the right time. I have been at Mountford Estate for 12 years.'
In addition to his position with Mountford Estate, Lin works as a contractor with three consultancies. One in the Hunter Valley, one at Coonabarabran and one in Oregun in the US.
As readers will imagine, being a blind winemaker has its challenges. The biggest of these, Lin says, is persuading other people that he can do it.
'I have to try to show others that not only can I do things well, but I can do things better than most. When I first started as a winemaker, I insisted on doing most of the jobs in the winery to prove myself. I would clean tanks and wash barrels and compare with others that I had done a better job than they had. I no longer have to prove myself,
so I no longer perform these duties.
'I usually carry a map in my head of what a place looks like. The winery where I worked in Oregon is a gravity-fed winery on three levels. When I first went to this winery, the manager thought this would be a problem for me. However, once I knew my bearings, it only took me a day to get used to the location.
'I have an extremely good sense of the map area and I can hear echoes on walls and desks. Mountford Estate is a lot smaller than the winery in Oregon, and much easier to get around. However, I still have to be mindful of things that have not been put back in the right place, or left lying out. But, we are very strict about this at Mountford Estate, not only as an OHS&W issue, but also as a hygienic issue and good basic work ethics.
'I also have a winemaking assistant, who can usually help me with measurements and the like. However, if I do have electronic scales with level indicators that talk, I can do it; but it's still easier for the assistant to do these jobs. For administration tasks, I also have a Toshiba computer which tells me what I type on the keyboard and reads aloud emails and documents. We don't have any Braille in the winery, apart from on a bottle of Chapoutier wine from the Rhone Valley.
'A lot of the time, making wine is intuitive. I am lucky that tasting is actually a genetic gift in my family. This combined with a good nose, means that I can pick a good quality wine. When you lose one sense, more often than not, the other senses are heightened. In the case of wine, my palette has become much attuned. However, this is also a troublesome gift because what I like is often not the same as what the customer likes. I have to make wines to please others; otherwise you won't sell the wine. Blindness neither helps nor hinders being a great winemaker. You don't need to see a wine to find out whether it's cloudy or clear. Temperature is also not an issue. I can tell the temperature of a wine is too high by its taste.'
CP Lin said Mountford Estate is in the early stages of new ownership and he hopes the new owners will follow similar footsteps as those of the Eatons.
'The philosophy at Mountford Estate at the moment is all about quality. I hope to continue this philosophy with my traditional winemaking techniques, and if the winery continues this, I will stick around. I would also like to carry on with contract work in places around the world. There are still a lot places I haven't been to, so I am eager to visit as many areas and regions as I can,' he said.

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