SARA GAGNON knew she was in trouble when the plane’s windshield hit her in the face.
It was August 2004, just before wine-grape harvest was to begin, and Gagnon was riding in a Cessna 182 from her hometown of Port Angeles to Boeing Field on a cloudy, rainy night. In the plane was co-worker Tammi Hinkle, and in the pilot seat was friend Barry Koehler.
They barely made it 10 miles out of town when they came through a cloud bank and everything went wrong.
“We clipped the top of a ridge and went down into the trees at about 150 miles an hour,” Gagnon remembers. “It was full speed. The plane disintegrated around us, and I was pretty sure that was it. I was unlucky enough to not lose consciousness, so I get to remember.”
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Koehler died in the crash, and Gagnon and Hinkle, both badly injured, were left stuck all night in a remote area of Olympic National Park, wondering if they would be found, because Koehler hadn’t filed a flight plan.
“It was a pretty wild night. I was afraid to fall asleep because I didn’t want to wake up dead.”
They were found the next morning and hiked out of the forest.
Gagnon, who had returned to Port Angeles from Seattle four years earlier to follow her passion for winemaking, was the head winemaker at Olympic Cellars in nearby Sequim. She was having a blast in the job and also had discovered a love for kayaking that moved her to become a professional guide.
As she recovered from a fractured sternum, cracked pelvis, broken nose and concussion, Gagnon came to a hard-earned conclusion: Life is too short to not follow your dreams.
“That really shifted my perspective and made me realize that I wanted to go do my own thing. So I finished up harvest at Olympic Cellars and moved on.”
Out of her near death was born Harbinger Winery.
In the decade since, Gagnon has built Harbinger into a 3,000-case winery. West of Port Angeles on Highway 101, it is the northwestern-most winery in the continental United States. She shares the winery building with Hinkle, with whom she co-owns Adventures Through Kayaking, putting both her passions under one roof.
As a result of the harrowing plane crash, Gagnon is stronger mentally and physically. Whether she’s in the cellar making wine or working the tasting room, she takes on life in a gentle, Zen-like manner, living for the moment rather than for the paycheck.
Andy Perdue is a wine author, journalist and international judge. Learn more about wine at www.greatnorthwestwine.com.