Figure Out What's Next

The Accidental Winemaker

career change entrepreneurship sharon boorstin Apr 07, 2009
wine cellar

by Sharon Boorstin

photo via pixabay 

The abandoned lima bean farm that was meant to be a retirement retreat grew into a new career for vintner Deborah Hall

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 into 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.”

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.”

These days Hall is focusing on direct Internet and phone sales. “For a facility that produces a limited amount of wine—we released 1,800 bottles of Pinot Noir and 246 splits of Ancient Vine Angelica last year—it’s the only way to make a living,” she says. Hall is also looking forward to seeing her kids for the upcoming bottling season; Niko is now a graduate student at the University of California, and Maggie attends New York University. “They used to complain about picking grapes at four a.m. or spending hours corking bottles,” Hall says. “Now they’re proud to be part of a family operation.” As if on cue, she points to a letter she just received from Wine Enthusiast: Gypsy Canyon’s 2005 Pinot Noir and Ancient Vine Angelica have both earned a coveted 92 rating. And she’s just getting started. This year, Hall wants to plant another three acres of Pinot on a hillside that overlooks her now-thriving Mission vineyard.

Running the Numbers

  • 18:  Work hours per day during the harvest
  • $20,000: Cost per acre to plant grapes
  • $20,000: Price for a small used tractor
  • $3,500: Amount earned per ton of grapes
  • $75: Retail price for a bottle of Gypsy Canyon Pinot Noir
  • 75%: Profit for Deborah Hall on a bottle of wine sold in a store
  • 5: Number of pairs of Chanel sunglasses Hall has lost riding her tractor

Learn more about Hall’s Gypsy Canyon wines.

Republished with permission from More magazine. © Copyright 2009 Meredith Corp.


The Inside-Out Career Design Podcast

Join Us as We Search for Answers to the Age-Old Questions of 
"What Should I Do With My Life?" and "What's Next for Me?"

Check Out Our Episodes