From Chicken Soup for the Entrepreneur's Soul

The Nose Knows

We can’t become what we need to be by remaining what we are.

Oprah Winfrey

I like to say, “I’m alive and kicking!” Not many people are inclined to say something like that. I was living in New York City and working on my master’s degree in food studies at New York University, studying the social, cultural and historical aspect of food. My goal was to become an academic and study the history of the restaurant and the humanistic element of dining.

Then, at age twenty-five, just two days before September 11,2001, I lapsed into a coma. While I was taking a three-and-a-half-week nap, the rest of the world was in shambles. I awoke to find myself blind and paralyzed, but I had survived bacterial meningitis.

Sometimes, life’s goals change quickly. After awaking from my coma, I found myself back at infancy, learning such basic tasks as bathing, dressing and feeding. Eating was the worst; I had to rely on a feeding tube for four months, and when I was wheeled around the hospital in my wheelchair, my nose would catch the aroma of what others were eating. My sense of smell became so acute that I would call out what people were eating as I passed by. When I finally got to actually eat something, the hospital staff fed me pureed spinach! I spit it out! Being in that hospital was bad enough, but they also wanted to kill me with their food!

I really love food and discovered my fascination with it from baking with my safta (“grandmother” in Hebrew). Thanks to my safta, cooking turned into my creative outlet. I have an identical twin brother named Ron, and when we were younger, we shared household chores. One of us would clean, and the other one would cook. We always ate much better when I cooked.

I began my professional exploration of restaurants in high school; I joined an after-school program that provided training in many different vocational disciplines. Originally, I had planned to attend culinary school after high school, but backed out at the last minute. Instead, I went to San Francisco State University where I graduated with a degree in hospitality management. My first management position was at the Millennium Restaurant. It was here, while hosting a wine dinner with Bonny Doon Vineyards, that I first got the wine bug.

As my career progressed so too did my fascination with wine. I studied at the University of California at Davis in the sensory evaluation of wine. I also completed my first course toward becoming a master sommelier. The Court of Master Sommeliers is an organization dedicated to educating the world’s wine professionals.

After my illness, I found that job opportunities in my chosen field were almost nonexistent for someone who was blind. Frustrated, I reflected on the positive side of my blindness and literally followed my nose, right into the wine bar business.

In 2004, I risked everything I had and became an entrepreneur, opening the Symposium Wine Bar, located in Irvine, California. At Symposium, we focus on taking the snobbery out of the wine experience. Located in a hip, modern industrial space designed for sensory enjoyment, we offer wine flights—three tastes of wine—which I call Threesomes.

What’s different at my bar is that guests learn by experiencing the different elements that wine offers. They learn to use their sense of taste and, of course, smell! Besides wine, Symposium serves food—mostly cheese and chocolate—which stimulate our guests’ taste buds, palettes and other senses, helping them to become better versed in the history, pleasures and subtleties of wine tasting. And I giggle to myself sometimes when I share tasting techniques with guests, because when wine critics talk about wine, they always emphasize doing blind tastings. I truly do blind tastings!

Owning a successful new business is hard work. In fact, sometimes I’m not sure which is harder, being an entrepreneur or overcoming my paralysis. I continue physical therapy to this day. Some people go to the gym to look good; I go so I can walk. I have gone from a wheelchair to a walker, to a quad cane to a single point cane, and now to only a guiding cane, yet I still have balance issues from the brain surgery.

I must thank my parents for their love and support during my long recovery; my mom is a medical doctor, and if it wasn’t for her, I probably wouldn’t be here. And my father was my coach—he always pushed me just a little more, especially when I was thinking about risking everything on a new specialty business without an established customer base. He believed in me, and I am honored to have him as my business partner, in charge of the finances. I don’t want anyone to rob me blind!

Don Katz

EPILOGUE: According to Katz, Symposium Wine Bar takes its name from the ancient Greco-Roman parties of abundant wine, conversation and entertainment, a maxim that holds true for his establishment. The bar offers American, French and Australian wines.

Business is booming, and Katz plans on opening Symposium Wine Bars throughout the world and then traveling abroad, choosing wines for his restaurants. His business has been featured in many publications and business venues, including

To learn more about Symposium Wine Bar, please visit

Dahlynn McKowen

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