You could call Deborah Hall the accidental winemaker. When she left Los Angeles, retiring to a former lima bean farm up a canyon in the Santa Rita Hills, she had no plans to grow grapes. In fact, she didn’t even know she was in wine country, much less the heart of what would soon emerge as the hot new cradle of Pinot Noir civilization. And even if Hall had foreseen a future in grapes, she could not have divined her eventual roles as rescuer of history and vintner of a singular, sensational, perpetually sold-out dessert wine that goes by the name of Angelica. A religious person might label Hall’s story a small miracle. A gambler would call it one-in-a-million. Hall, who is neither, says simply, “I’m just kind of following the journey as it’s presented.”
Like most journeys along unmarked routes to unexpected destinies, Hall’s has required a few leaps of faith. The first was getting past the initial appearance of the 130-acre Gypsy Canyon property. “It was a shambles – overgrown and rundown – but it called to me,” she remembers. “I felt like I’d stepped into a little dream.” It was a dream where deer, bobcats and hawks would be her neighbors and coyote yips and owl hoots would replace the sirens and helicopters of L.A.’s evening soundscape.
After moving in and discovering that folks were growing Pinot Noir in the area, she decided to plant some. Then, while walking the property with a vineyard consultant one day, she came upon some overgrown old vines. The consultant recommended tearing them out. Hall demurred. “I love history and gardening, and to be able to plant something and see it at that age—well, you can’t do it in your lifetime,” she says. “They hung on all those years with no care and little water. To someone else they were raggedy old vines, but to me they were beautiful. I couldn’t tear them out.”
Later, a winemaker identified the old vines as Zinfandel and said he’d buy any crop they produced. So Hall spent the next two years bringing the ancients back to life. Later still, during a field trip Hall hosted for a wine class she was taking at Hancock College, then-program director Merilark Pageant Johnson suggested the old vines were Mission grapes, not Zinfandel. DNA tests proved her right, costing Hall the sale of her “Zinfandel” but setting the direction for a new career.
Pulled by that thread of history, Hall soon discovered the archives of the Santa Barbara mission, home to the collected correspondences from all the California missions. Looking through notes about wines made from Mission grapes, she says, “One stood out – Angelica – so I decided to make some. She began with 15 gallons of rosé Mission grape juice and some guidance from Central Coast Wine Services.
The first bottles, released in 2006, pleased even Hall, who normally doesn’t care for dessert wines. Her recipe hasn’t changed much since then: Pick the grapes late, at 20- 24-percent brix, press them and ferment. Halfway through, when the sugar content drops to 14 percent, add high-proof pure grape spirit to stop the fermentation. “And that’s it,” says Hall. “We put it into neutral-oak barrels and let it age two to three years.”
When it came to the packaging, Hall again let history guide her. She learned that in the mission days, wine had been bottled in any available glass container; intriguing but impractical for a modern commercial product. Her ensuing search for a supplier of hand-blown bottles, popular in Europe in the old days, took so much time and effort that she won’t divulge even the continent where her endearingly idiosyncratic bottles originate.
After corking, Hall hand-dips each bottle into melted beeswax from her neighbor’s bees. A hand-lettered handmade-paper label embossed with Chumash artwork from a painting in one of the California missions completes the package.
The wine benefits from the same climate that makes the Santa Rita Hills so good for growing Pinot Noir. “It’s a cool region where the grapes hang onto their acidity, so they aren’t flabby,” Hall says. “In fact, the challenge is to get them ripe every year before the vines shut down.”Hall farms using few external inputs, to honor the essence of the land. “When you’re here day in and day out, you learn to respect it and to just be open to enjoying the environment as it is and not how you think it should be,” she says, “because whatever you do anyway, nature tries to take it back.”
It may be a while, however, before she lets nature take back her Mission vines. In fact, this year she is trying a new experiment by grafting some of her Pinot onto the old vines. Barbara Hall is an accidental winemaker no more.
To learn more about Gypsy Canyon Winery, visit their website at www.gypsycanyon.com
STORY BY JAMES BADHAM • PHOTOGRAPHY BY BOB DICKEY