Chatting over a cup of good coffee in their Walla Walla home, Dawn and Gary Brumfield are warm, happy and relaxed. The couple, high school sweethearts, grew up in Tillamook, Ore., and moved almost 20 times during Gary’s Army career. So, settling into their comfortable home for the long run has been a welcome change.
It’s a far cry from where they were just a few years ago. Gary, who retired from the Army in 1999 after 21 years of service, was a manager for General Dynamics Land Systems on their Stryker retrofit contract at Fort Lewis, Wash. His job involved eight months of travel a year, which included going to destinations as far away as Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait.
Dawn was a social worker at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, a job which included working with patients suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
And although Dawn and Gary loved their home in Steilacoom, Wash., they weren’t enjoying the stress levels of their respective jobs or the congestion of the state’s West Side.
When Dawn had the chance to transfer to the Jonathan M. Wainwright Memorial VA Medical Center in Walla Walla and be closer to two of their grandchildre in Pendleton, the couple decided to make the move.
Walla Walla’s laid-back atmosphere, sunnier weather, abundance of wineries and local terroir — a term that refers to the soil, climate and other environmental properties that influence how wine grapes mature — also appealed to these wine aficionados.
Dawn arrived in town in October 2010 and spent her first cold winter in Walla Walla in an RV park while Gary sold their home. He followed her here in January of 2011.
After a frustrating job search, Gary, adopting the spirit of “Will work for wine,” started volunteering at Zerba Cellars and Three Rivers Winery. Knee-deep in bottling wine, and with the encouragement of a local tasting room manager and winemaker, it occurred to him that a new career path might be right under his nose.
Three months later, Gary entered the enology and viticulture program at Walla Walla Community College. He spent one year studying viticulture, and his second year learning winemaking.
He also discovered the winemaking business is downright physical — he lost 28 pounds in three months. Gary says it’s “the most physical thing [he’s] done since Army basic training.”
Currently, he is a harvest cellar assistant at Saviah Cellars, and “learning something new every day.” In the next year or two, he hopes to work his way up to being an assistant winemaker somewhere in the Valley.
After an injury sidelined her for five months last year, Dawn decided not to go back to social work. She struck out on a new path, one that initially led her to a job in the tasting room at Seven Hills Winery, and more recently as the manager at Maison Bleue Family Winery’s new bistro-style tasting room at 20 N. Second Ave. She is enjoying the relaxed and friendly nature of her new work.
Gary and Dawn are also in the process of establishing their own winery, Miracles Vintners. They are starting with a small vineyard on their one-acre property, which has 50 Petit Verdot and 50 Cabernet Sauvignon vines.
The Brumfields’ goal is to produce quality wines available on an allocation-only basis. The name of their winery pays homage to a miracle in the Bible, the turning of water into wine.
This year, Dawn and Gary are buying a ton of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes to produce their first vintage, Cana Cabernet (look for it in 2015). Thanks to winemaker Devin Stinger, Gary will be utilizing the facilities at Adamant Cellars for the first production.
He will be working with several of his classmates from the WWCC program who are also making their own wines — Josh McCarthy (Ascend Cellars), Jason Fox (Lagana Cellars) and Chuck Hundley (Tricycle Cellars).
The Brumfields have found the wine industry to be the friendliest business they’ve ever experienced. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the competition is more friendly than cutthroat. Dawn and Gary have noticed how everyone helps each other, whether it’s loaning equipment, lending a hand or simply providing encouragement. It’s much more like family than strictly business.
When Dawn and Gary were looking for a home in Walla Walla, they knew they wanted space for their dogs, but the added benefit of the house they got was that Dawn was able to plant her first vegetable garden, a luxury she never had while they were a military family. Her 800-square-foot garden features raised beds full of vegetables, and spills over into the yard to accommodate sprawling vines of pumpkins, squash and watermelons.
The Brumfields found their terroir in the Walla Walla Valley and are enjoying new careers, great restaurants, music, Life Church and friends. Their son A.J. and daughter Ashley and their families are frequent visitors.
As Dawn says, “You can re-create yourself and enjoy life,” and it’s clear that Dawn and Gary are savoring their second act in a place they love.