Passing the torch at Dehlinger Winery

  • Tom Dehlinger, right, with his granddaughter Luka, 20 months, wife Carole, and daughter Carmen at their winery in Sebastopol, Calif., on February 7, 2014. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)

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."

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