Raised in New York City by a chef mother, an oenophile father (he planted himself a four-acre vineyard in Massachusetts), and a wine importer stepfather, Alex Elman sampled her first Bordeaux when she was 4. "It tasted a little sour," she recalls.
With a practiced palate, Elman was trading rare and fine wines by age 25—until complications from juvenile diabetes began to ravage her eyesight. Despite six surgeries in a single year, she lost her vision in both eyes. "During the recovery process, my stepfather would distract me by having me smell wines," says Elman, now 45. "He'd quiz me on the type of grape, where it was grown, the vintage. I discovered I could distinguish a bright wine from a dark wine, a 1990 Bordeaux from a 1992 Bordeaux."
Elman stopped mourning and started honing her olfactory talent, eventually establishing her own wine import business in 2002. Her specialty became organic, terroir-driven wines (harvested without chemicals or pesticides to reflect the climate and soil), which she "trekked the Andes in Argentina and weaved through rolling hills in Tuscany" to find. In 2010 she launched her own label, Alex Elman Wines, for which she handpicks Cabernets, Malbecs, Chardonnays, and more from family-owned vineyards in Italy and Argentina. (Shop her selection at AEWines.com.)
Jokingly calling herself the Blind Wine Chick, Elman travels the country for two to three weeks each month with General, her guide dog, promoting the brand and hosting tastings. She no longer considers her blindness a handicap. "Most people naturally close their eyes when tasting wine so they can better discern the flavors," Elman says. "Without my vision to distract me, it's all about my nose."
Next: Elman's three rules to sip by