Buy some land, and anything can happen. Your property could turn out to be what will become one of the most noted American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) in California for growing pinot noir. That happened for Deborah Hall and her now-deceased husband William after buying what became Gypsy Canyon in 1994, seven years before it was declared part of the Sta. Rita Hills AVA, Santa Barbara's pinot hot spot. They also discovered their property included an overgrown vineyard amidst the brush and dry-farmed lima beans -- vines from 1887.
"As we were clearing things out we found one vine, and then another," Hall relates, "eventually it was three acres with a thousand vines, as their method used much larger spacing [than we do today]. We didn't even know what varietal it was." Guesses were zinfandel, one of California's earliest grapes, but after DNA tests at UC Davis, the results were Mission grapes. "When we thought it was zin, we were excited," Hall admits, "as people like that. When it came back Mission grapes, we were kind of disappointed." No one wanted to buy the grapes. Hall didn't want to just leave them for the birds, so she says, "I figured that if the padres brought it, they would know what to do with it."
The good news is Hall has a nose for history. "I love it, especially old properties and gardens that really need restoration," she says. "This property was the end of the road, in foreclosure, a mess, but something about it was magical to me, so beautiful, so peaceful." She knew that the Santa Barbara Mission, as the Queen of the California Missions, held the system's main library, so she did some sleuthing work. "In the 1777 Agricultura General there's a chapter about growing wine grapes and making four different wines and a bunch of brandies. But the padres' favorite was Angelica -- fortified with their brandy -- and I figured if that was their favorite, it was what I should try."
While Hall originally hoped to grow pinot noir, she had originally planned to sell it, so turned to a winemaker at Central Coast Wine Services to help her work with the first batch of Angelica. After tasting it monthly in barrel, they released it after three years; now she ages it for five, saying, "I don't think the padres had the luxury to hang on to it so long."
The end product is a wonder, sticky sweet but not even close to cloying; forget about the barrel age, you can taste the decades from the vines. Imagine a drink made with butter slow-browned as a way to caramelize fig, add some roasted nut notes, and let that linger on your tongue for longer than you might think possible. Nibble at Ewephoria cheese with this and ponder why you've ever eaten sweets.
Angelica is far from the only heavenly wine from Gypsy Canyon, as Hall is particularly noted for her pinot and sustainable ways of winemaking. (She farms organically, but isn't certified.) "Mission grapes are super floral and in your face," she says, "but for pinot noir the floral quality is elusive; you have to go looking for it." Eschewing any of the "creepy chemicals" that some wineries use to add flavor or color, she says, "I capture the fragrance of the grape flower in bloom in the glass. If I can do that, I've actually captured the pinot noir character."