In Vino Veritastic

On Sept. 9, 2001, Don Katz fell into a spinal-meningitis-induced coma. Months later, he woke to find himself paralyzed and blind, his dream of running a restaurant gone, his years of culinary studies apparently wasted.

The uncomfortable parallel with the larger national culture is not lost on him.

The paralysis is gone, and though the blindness has remained, Katz has noticed it enhances his sense of taste and smell. His wine-tasting skills are not only intact, but better than before.

When you consider the sorts of jobs that combine detailed wine knowledge with the option of sitting in one place for hours, running a wine bar seems an obvious choice. And last year, Katz opened Symposium Wine Bar in Irvine. Katz can't see, but he can count: he reckons Symposium's popped the cork on more than 5,000 bottles in the year or so since he opened, as the small establishment quickly amassed a following. Part of it might be the bizarro factor—let's go where the blind guy serves wine! But Symposium ultimately succeeds because of execution: while most wine bars assume customers are versed in enology, Katz is concerned only with giving people something new, something they haven't tried before—honesty.

“You need to be able to talk about wine in a way people understand,” says Katz, but aside from fancy-shmancy lingo, he's all about relaxing his customers. Symposium Wine Bar is a tiny boutique liquor store, the walls containing an array of bottles ranging from wine to sake to beer (but mostly wine). Further inspection reveals a red-walled, boudoir-lit back room with seating for 40 and an utterly superb bar, serving every delicacy on display in the front room.

Katz greets visitors with humility, wit, charm and an affection for boutique foods that borders on geek love. Aside from wine, Symposium serves designer beer as well as meats, cheeses, chocolates, designer water and fruit juice. Then there's his ideas for new food items, including You Had Me At Portobello, Touch Me Tenderloin and No Limp Shrimp. He's yet to decide on his smoked salmon dish, in part because I failed to sell him on Smoke My Salmon.

But most of the business rests on Katz's 65 wines. I enjoy various vintages during my time there. The 2001 Nichols pinot noir tastes like great sex: full of flavor, soft on the edges, red and wet with a tongue-thrilling finish. The Banrock Station sparkling chardonnay turns out to be the cheapest of the fizzy stuff (to match my tastes), but those clever Aussies at Banrock make a point of proving that fine wines can be made for bargain prices. As I slurp down a 2002 Downing Family zinfandel, Katz tells me, “I think I tasted 80 zins at the Zinfandel Advocates and Producers [yes: “ZAP”] conference, and this was my pick.” It's a bit tart for me, tugging at the insides of my cheeks, but its aroma explodes through my sinuses like smelling salts.

All joking aside, running a bar isn't all one-liners and bottoms up. “Since opening this bar, the most significant thing I've learned is that wine is a business. It's a romantic business, but it's a business nonetheless,” says Katz, resplendent in a tie, blazer, earrings and shades at 11 p.m. He doesn't drink toward the end of the night because of balance issues inherent with recent blindness as well as a desire to responsibly present himself and run the bar. He tells me this as I nibble on a white chocolate ellipse stamped with the bar's logo, accompanied by a dark chocolate truffle and a milk chocolate caramel, plus a Brandy disk—spun sugar dipped in dark chocolate, a “fancy Heath bar,” Katz calls it.

The blindness thing is almost an afterthought, Katz says. Customers sometimes ask others, “Is that blind guy always here?” Or they mock him for his sunglasses, but once they get the idea, they try to be friendly. Then, sometimes, they overdo it: once, a former baseball pro knocked Katz out of his seat with a friendly shove. Well, I say apologetically, most people aren't used to dealing with blind people. “Me neither,” quips Katz.


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