Karen La Bonte uncorks holiday optimism after defeating cancer (3 times), and giving up winemaking.
THE HOLIDAYS OFFER a chance to reflect on the blessings in our lives, and to be thankful for what we have. That’s certainly true for Karen La Bonte, who, after beating cancer three times, still realized her dream to become a successful Walla Walla winemaker — only to have that taken from her, too.
La Bonte grew up near Sacramento. Her after-school jobs included stints in walnut and almond orchards and tomato fields. Those experiences taught her the value of a hard day’s work.
By 1983, she’d entered the corporate world as a network engineer for Verizon. Two months after her son was born, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Then her husband left the family, leaving her a young, single mother facing a fight for her life.
From those dark times came a vision: Work hard, put her son through college, retire at 50 and become a winemaker. Between chemo treatments, she planned a path with her skeptical financial planner.
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Once she beat cancer, she got to work, plowing every bonus and raise into retirement accounts, eschewing the lavish lifestyles her fellow execs lived.
When cancer returned, she steeled herself for another battle and won again. When it emerged once more 16 years ago, she faced it down yet again, vanquishing the beast a third time.
Between working in Manhattan and Honolulu, she found time to take winemaking courses in California. By 2007, she was living in Everett; her son was graduating from college; and she was nearly 50, so she retired and moved to Walla Walla to learn winemaking at Walla Walla Community College. Upon graduation, she bought into an ownership role at Patit Creek Cellars, eventually selling her stake to finance her purchase of Trio Vintners. She opened a tasting room inside the Marcus Whitman Hotel and began making wines that earned high marks from judges and critics.
It had come together. La Bonte had followed her plan and was living her dream, making the cancer battles distant memories.
Then she started having dizzy spells that would leave her housebound for days. She was eventually diagnosed with Ménière’s disease, an inner-ear imbalance. She controlled it with steroids and acupuncture, until she lost hearing in one ear and 75 percent in the other. She and her life partner (now husband), Turner, noticed the dizziness got worse when local wheat farmers burned field stubble, and seemed to clear up when they went to the Oregon Coast for weekends.
Based on this deduction, La Bonte shuttered her winery, bought land in Cannon Beach and left the Walla Walla Valley behind. Since then, her hearing has stabilized, and the dizzy spells have disappeared. She didn’t completely leave wine behind, however, helping Westport Winery open a tasting room in Cannon Beach. She now works for the city, and Turner is a successful graphic artist. La Bonte says she misses the winemaking life, particularly her customers, but she has her health, and she’s never too far from a view of Haystack Rock.
It could be worse, she figures. She knows all too well: You can’t predict what life will give you next — and you can’t live a life filled with worry about the future. Instead, this holiday season, remember that your blessings are as numerous as drops of wine in a bottle, and say a toast to a bright future.