Tucked away in the Goldridge and Altamont soils along Vine Hill Road in Sebastopol, Dehlinger Winery has been quietly questing for quality since 1974, when a former pre-med student and trained enologist named Tom Dehlinger, with job experience at Beringer, Hanzell and Dry Creek Vineyard, bought an old apple orchard in the Russian River Valley and made his first set of wines, starting with chardonnay, zinfandel and cabernet sauvignon.
That was with purchased fruit. The goal was always to be an estate winery.
"This property had a reputation for having the earliest apples in Sebastopol, an indicator of good land," Dehlinger said. "I planted red grapes in red soil, the Altamont, which is more or less in the hillsides, and white grapes in white soil."
He and his brother soon built the now-iconic Octagon House at the top of a hill overlooking the newly planted vineyard: 14 acres of chardonnay, pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon and riesling, the latter long since gone.
"I had no conception that wine would become what is has become today," Dehlinger recalled. "My biggest ambition was to make good wine, not to make world-class wine. I didn't think there was such a thing at the time."
He added that there were only 35 wineries in Sonoma County when he applied to get his winery bond.
"Our idea of a great winery was Pedroncelli," he said. "They made good, solid wine at fair prices. We wanted to be like them."
Open sparingly to the public now, Dehlinger ran an active tasting room from 1980 through 1996, hosting as many as 15,000 people a year. But it was hard to balance the hospitality end of the business with the demanding vineyard and cellar work that had to be done, mostly by Tom.
"We closed and I gambled on being able to sell our wine through newsletter offerings," he said. "We've sold about 80-percent direct since then."
His wife, Carole, added, "Our biggest champions were our customers. Many have been on the list 20 years."
Today, pinot noir makes up exactly half of Dehlinger's 44 acres of plantings, followed by 9 acres of Wente-clone chardonnay, 3 acres of syrah and, rarer yet, 5 acres of cabernet sauvignon. The winery makes about 6,000 cases in total each year (they've made as much as 11,000/year), highly sought after by devoted wine list members and longtime followers in the restaurant and retail trade.
"No winery has done better with pinot, and, frankly, none really comes close," said Charlie Olken, publisher of the Connoisseurs' Guide to California Wine. "Dehlinger set the pace for pinot before the grape became so very fashionable, and now, with far more competition, Dehlinger remains at the top of its game. It is a singular effort borne of one man's continuing vision, and it is that vision that keeps Dehlinger at the top of the list of great pinot noir producers."
Vineyard plantings date back to 1975, 1982 and 1989, and most of the pinot noir vines were either Swan or Pommard clones. It wasn't until 2011 that Dehlinger undertook its first replanting, even adding the Calera clone to its pinot plantings, a process that's ongoing, mirroring the family's never-ending quest to make better wine.
"Over time, we've gone to thinning the grapes where the yield now is half what it used to be per acre," Dehlinger explained. "We have a really different conception of the kind of wine we want to make. It's evolved over time. We're constantly trying to improve."