The Accidental Winemaker

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

By Sharon Boorstin
Photograph: Photo: Shay Peretz

Stumbling Upon a Vineyard

Deborah Hall was sweltering in her new Armani suit and two-inch Manolos as she watched a buyer at New York City’s Morrell & Company, one of the city’s top wine retailers, taste Hall’s 2004 Pinot Noir. "I was trying to stay calm, but I was a nervous wreck," Hall says. "She was sniffing and swirling and sipping and taking notes without saying a word." Hall assumed her chances of breaking in to the big time were slim, especially for a Pinot Noir from her modest, 6-year-old Gypsy Canyon Winery & Vineyards in Santa Barbara County. "After about 20 minutes, though, she said my Pinot was smooth and elegant, and after another long pause, she placed an order," says Hall, 50. "The second I stepped into the elevator, I started jumping up and down. I had finally made it."

Today Gypsy Canyon wines are sold on both coasts and have received stellar point ratings from Wine Spectator — but just five years ago the vineyard owner was jobless, widowed, and saddled with a parcel of fallow land and dashed plans for a dream house. She had also never grown grapes before.

Hall, a former surgical assistant, and her husband, Bill, a plastic surgeon, then 59, had laid eyes on the cast-aside lima bean farm on a house-hunting trip to Santa Barbara in 1994. Bill was in remission from bone cancer and was looking to semi-retire and move his family to the countryside from Marina del Rey. "We’d planned to leave the city after Bill retired," Hall says. "But when cancer happens, your future becomes now."

They scoured the hills and valleys until they found a truly special spot. "I remember driving two miles up a bumpy dirt road to a falling-down barn and farmhouse," she says. "There was something magical about the place."

The couple bought the farm and rented a house a few miles away so their children — Maggie, then 9, and Niko, 13 — could go to school while they prepared to build a 6,000-square-foot house with a courtyard and a pool. "It was going to be on a hill overlooking the vineyards, with views from every window," Hall says.

As workmen cleared a hillside, the Halls made a discovery: Among weeds and sagebrush were remnants of an old vineyard. The vines hadn’t budded, so the type of grape was not immediately identifiable, and a local vineyard developer advised the couple to tear them out. "But the old vines were too beautiful to destroy," Hall says, "so I convinced Bill to keep them for a garden."

Then Bill got the news that his cancer had returned, and after a harrowing six weeks, Hall was left a widow. "I was terrified," she says. "I had two kids to put through college with no income. My surgical training certainly wasn’t going to help me on a farm." But Hall took a risk anyway: She and her children moved into the dilapidated farmhouse; she canceled plans for the new building and used the $750,000 she and her husband had earmarked for it to rehabilitate the old vineyard, which an area winemaker had identified as Zinfandel.

Rain, Rodents, and Lion Dung

"It takes five years to get good Pinot Noir fruit — five years of intensive labor," Hall says in her vineyard, as her 13-year-old mutt, Angel, nips at her heels. While the kids were in school, Hall took classes in enology at a local college and researched how to cultivate her old-vine Zinfandel grapes, which she learned could be sold for $1,500 per ton. In the meantime, she planted 14 acres of Pinot Noir, which flourished in the area, and hired a vineyard manager to oversee the crop.

The manager, however, wasn’t quite up to the task. Torrential downpours injured the ill-protected vines and hindered their growth. Hall spent a quarter-million dollars more than she had budgeted that first season, forcing her to sell part of the vineyard to an investor in order to buy new plants. "I learned the hard way," she says, "that you have to be enough of an expert to oversee your expert."

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