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An unidentified buyer is purchasing Twin Hill Ranch outside Sebastopol and intends to convert the iconic apple farm into a vineyard, the latest expansion of grapes into the county's historic apple orchards.

The deal is likely to be finalized in the first week of January, said Tom Larson, the real estate broker for the owners. He declined to identify the buyer or reveal the purchase price for the 21-acre property, but said the new owner intends to remove the last remaining eight acres of the old apple orchard and plant grapes.

<i>Search our interactive map of Sonoma County vineyards<a href="http://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/99999999/multimedia/131119775"> <b>here</b></a></i>

"I think it is changing usage to be more of a high-end pinot vineyard," Larson said.

The property has been on and off the market for nearly a year, with an asking price of $2.25 million, according to the website for NorCal Vineyards, Larson's brokerage firm.

Owner Jeff Palk did not respond to requests for comment.

Twin Hill is a beloved institution in west Sonoma County, offering a wide variety of baked goods and crafts in addition to heirloom apples. It was a frequent holiday stop for families shopping for Christmas trees in the area or searching for traditional treats and gifts.

The business has been closed since at least the first week in December, though employees had been telling guests about the sale since before Thanksgiving.

"We just started to cry outright because so much of the county is going to grapevines and we're losing the orchards," said Pati Wilburn, a Roseland resident who visited the ranch in late November with her daughter and a friend.

She said it was her first visit, though she had seen the business before because her late husband is buried nearby.

"We just fell in love with the place. We thought, 'We'll support them and get something from the store,'" only to learn from the clerk that the business was destined to close, she said.

Wilburn said she had emailed Palk offering to volunteer in any effort to save the ranch from closure should he change his mind about selling, but received no response.

Twin Hill was established in 1942, when apples were the second-most valuable crop in Sonoma County, behind only prunes.

Over the next 70 years, the county would lose more than 80 percent of its apple orchards, contracting to 2,195 acres in 2012, according to crop reports compiled by the county Agricultural Commissioner's Office. Vineyard acreage nearly tripled during the same period, to more than 58,000 acres last year.

Twin Hill founder Darrel Hurst and his wife, Maggie, raised 13 children on the property, including eight adopted, before his death in 1998. The remaining 21-acre property is just a part of the Hursts' original farm; pieces were sold off by the family or donated to various causes over the years.

Jeff and Kelley Palk bought the ranch from the Hurst family in 2010 and vowed to maintain it as the founders had intended. In addition to eight acres of apples, there are already about five acres of wine grapes on the property, plus a large barn, a house and several outbuildings.

The business was shut down for several months earlier this year by county officials when a pump failed on a well that supplied water to the ranch and several nearby houses. At the time, Jeff Palk vowed to maintain the business as a tourist attraction once the pump was repaired, though he admitted that he was struggling to keep the business profitable in its traditional role as an apple producer and packing house.

The demise of Twin Hill Ranch came as a "heartbreaking" shock to longtime customer Jacqui Salyer of Santa Rosa, who tried to relive happy family memories by visiting with her husband and mother-in-law on Dec. 7. They arrived to find the property vacant and the store closed.

"Each year we looked forward to fresh caramel apples, hot apple cider and the many pies and crafts to choose from," she said. "At the entry would be stacked firewood, the heat of the fire pit at the inside entry and everyone enjoying the cheer."

With her children now grown, a daughter who lives out of the county and a son away on a deployment with the Navy, Salyer said she was hoping to recapture some of the joy she had experienced with her kids when they were younger.

"It's nice to hear children's laughter, to be around family, to meet people," she said.

Now with Twin Hill permanently shuttered, "it really saddens me," she said. "It feels like more and more holiday traditions, family traditions, are disappearing from Sonoma County."