I recently met a remarkable woman named Alexandra Elman. She’s the founder and owner of Marble Hill Cellars, a wine importing company based on the Upper East Side of New York; specializing in wines that are organic or at least sustainably-made. She represents producers from Spain, Argentina and France but also Brazil as Alex is half-Brazilian. She's one of the few importers of Brazilian wines – a bit of trailblazer for the wines of that country- and she also just happens to be blind.
“I lost my sight about fifteen years ago as a result of juvenile diabetes,” Alex, a short, bubbly woman, told me matter-of-factly – the same way she noted that she’d had several operations on both eyes and two organ transplants as well while we sat chatting in a coffee shop on east 57th Street in Manhattan. Alex, who is about to turn 41, has been in the wine business for many years- she worked for Sherry Lehman and traded fine wine under the name Basil Winston before founding her import company and selling her own wines.
As one who sold wine to restaurants and retailers in New York many years earlier, I was almost embarrassed to tell Alex I’d done much the same thing with much less success- and a lot fewer handicaps. It wasn’t easy and it certainly wasn’t glamorous- traveling by subway with a bag full of samples that perhaps only one account might actually buy. Alex, by contrast, doesn't seem the least bit fazed by the frequent rejection and the arduous travel- deftly navigating the New York subway system with her dog, Hanley, a yellow lab, by her side.
If it’s someone she’s never met, she doesn’t tell them much about herself. For example, “I never tell people I’m blind when I make an appointment for a tasting,” Alex says, “First they’re shocked and then they get over it. Although sometimes I’ll say, ‘C’mon Roger, you gotta buy some wines from the blind girl.’ We all start joking about it.” Alex laughs. But she’s very clear on one point: “My wines have to sell on their own merits.”
And they do – she mentions Pure Food and Wine restaurant, Jean Luc’s retail shop in the Village as two of her top clients. There’s one wine buyer at a certain prominent wine shop, however, that she’s yet to win over. “He’ll never see me,” she says. In fact, one time he even pretended not to be in his store when Alex stopped by. “But Hanley went right up and sat in front of him,” she laughs at the memory. (Guide dogs are apparently as good at detecting liars as they are lampposts and potholes.) Alex and I make plan to meet again soon- and perhaps to taste some of her Brazilian wines- or maybe even some wines from Russia- another place Alex has recently traveled – looking for wines of “soul and passion” – wines, in other words, like Alex herself.