Tasting wine blind, no really!

Jacques Lombard is the first blind person to successfully complete the Cape Wine Academy Diploma Course, and is currently studying to be a Cape Wine Master, a massive achievement and, as far as can be ascertained, a first in the world.

Lombard was not born blind, but only lost his sight at 26 due to diabetes: “That means I have a visual memory. I have seen white and red wine, I know the difference between ruby and garnet, I just can’t physically see it in front of me now.”

His interest in wine was piqued by Buitenverwachting winemaker Herman Kirschbaum, who formed a wine tasting group for blind people shortly after Lombard lost his sight. “Herman thought that blind people’s remaining senses would be sharper than sighted people, and he was right,” explains Lombard who was originally involved in sales and marketing in the audio visual industry. But as his wine knowledge grew, so he began to sell wine on the side. “People started asking me to source good wines for them, and a business grew from that.” Today his company Winebrands sources and delivers wine directly to around 2 000 customers countrywide.

Through interaction with customers, Lombard realised that wine consumers often bought wines based on the awards they won. “I wondered just who decided on these awards, and realised that most of the wine judges had studied through the Cape Wine Academy. So I thought if I could also complete all the courses, I too could be a judge. My work is my hobby and my passion. I love it, so naturally I want to learn all I can about it.”

Lombard completed the prelimary on-line course in 2017 and then went on the complete the Cerificate Wine Course the following year, followed by the Wines of the Worlds Course and the Diploma Wine Course where he came top in the class!

But it wasn’t easy: “One hour’s studying for a sighted person takes up to five hours for a person without eyes,” says Lombard who has had to pay someone to read the work to him and help him study. “The Cape Wine Academy asked me to come forward with suggestions to assist me as no blind person has gone further than the online course. Based on my suggestions, they accommodated me as much as possible.”

Lombard completed all of his exams at the Cape Wine Academy offices orally. “It took a whole day to complete one examination paper. My assistant read the questions for me and then I dictated the answers.”

For the practical examinations he had someone describe the colour of the wine and then he completed the nose and palate parts on his own, dictating the answers. “The key to wine tasting is to stick to the formula: Appearance, Smell, Taste. You can’t go wrong if you follow the recipe.” But then he does admit to being a perfectionist: “Being blind I had to develop skills to help overcome my loss of sight, so I have to be very organised and regimented, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to achieve all that I do.”

According to Jacques, he believes that his nose is his strength and is much better than his palate. “I smell things that other people can’t smell easily. I can immediately smell certain specific aromas or wine faults.” Jacques believes that his loss of sight has made his brain more astute in the other senses.

Lombard is an inspiring example of someone who has embraced life despite adversity. He has been married to Petro for 21 years and together they have a 16 year old son. He also loves cycling and competes in the Cape Argus every year on a tandem. “Many people think it’s a death sentence when you lose your sight. You shouldn’t use your disability as an excuse.”

He hopes that more blind people will follow his lead and get their Cape Wine Academy Diploma. “I will be more than willing to help them.”