The Accidental Winemaker

How one midlife woman reinvented herself as a vineyard owner and winemaker.

By Sharon Boorstin
Photograph: Photo: Shay Peretz

Hall laughs as she runs down the list of problems that cost her another $50,000 the following year. "When you establish a vineyard on a farm, you have to deal with gophers, which love to nibble on roots," she says. Hall replanted 10 percent of her vines and hired someone to go on daily gopher patrol. Then there were the deer. Determined to grow organically, she sprinkled handfuls of human hair around the vines — she had heard animals hated the smell. "It worked only for a few days," she says. "Then I read that lion dung keeps deer away, but the zoo wouldn’t give me any because of health regulations." The solution: 18,000 feet of nylon netting that Hall and her kids spent days spreading across 156 rows of vines.

While that Pinot crop matured, Hall got busy producing Zinfandel grapes, selling her harvest to a local winemaker for about $5,000. But just as she was preparing to sell her third harvest, another wrinkle emerged. "My professor looked at the Zinfandel vines and said they looked like Mission grapes," she says. When DNA testing confirmed the teacher’s suspicions, Hall called her winemaker, who then rejected the shipment. "He said he couldn’t do business with me anymore," she says. "The grapes were virtually worthless."

Ever resourceful, Hall went to the archives of the Santa Barbara Mission and researched Mission grapes, learning they’d once been used to make an expensive dessert wine called Angelica. Relying on an 1891 recipe, she took a small bushel of grapes to a co-op winery in Santa Maria and made her own Angelica. "I didn’t see any other choice," she says. "I had to step out of my comfort zone and deal with my fear of failure and my obsession with perfection. It was a matter of preserving history and my family’s future."

In the former barn that now serves as Hall’s office, she points to a photograph taken at the co-op of that first 30-gallon barrel of Ancient Vine Angelica, dwarfed by stacks of 59-gallon barrels from other vineyards. "And my barrel was only half full," she says. "But you’ve got to start somewhere." Hall also sold her first crop of Pinot Noir that year for about $6,000. In the spring of 2003, she took an even bigger leap, joining a growing number of women winemakers in Santa Barbara County by bottling her own Gypsy Canyon Pinot Noir.

A Fine Winemaker

Although Hall hires hourly help throughout the year, she insists upon overseeing every task at the winery, including weed control. "I’m out there every morning," she says. "I like to get my hands dirty." She’s the one who adds the yeast to the grape juice, stirring the must as it ferments and the sugar turns into alcohol. And it’s Hall who designed the embossed labels for her first Pinot Noir release.

The selling and marketing of her wine, however, proved to be more of a challenge. "I’ve always had a fear of public speaking," she says, "which is why I spent twice as much time working on the packaging than I needed to because the next step meant having to sell the product and market myself." A friend encouraged Hall to confront her anxiety by pitching a respected Santa Barbara buyer she already knew socially. "I practically cried when he placed an order," she says.

Hall then headed south toward Los Angeles, stopping at the exclusive Duke of Bourbon, a store known for its California boutique wines. "Deborah has a real gift for winemaking. Her 2005 Pinot Noir flew off the shelf, and her Angelica is like a fine Cognac that can be enjoyed for hours," says proprietor David Breitstein, who now carries her $75 Pinot Noir and $120 splits of Ancient Vine Angelica. "It was intimidating to meet with buyers in the beginning," Hall says. "But I had certain advantages over the men in particular, such as the fact that women generally have more taste buds."

If you ask Hall about her favorite experience, she’ll tell you about the time a critic came to Gypsy Canyon for a private tasting. "Angel was under the table, and just when the man stuck his nose into the glass, Angel passed gas," she says. "You should have seen the look on his face."

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