Winery founder Robert Rue dies at 73

Industrious and inquisitive, Robert Rue kept plenty busy with his day jobs. But the Santa Barbara native and longtime Sonoma County resident also ached to farm wine grapes.

In 1973, the welder and future industrial gases executive and his wife, Carlene, bought a 10-acre home with nearly century-old zinfandel vineyards in Fulton, north of Santa Rosa. For almost 30 years they sold their Russian River Valley grapes to well-known wineries: Martini & Pratti, Cline, Ravenswood and Mark West Vineyards.

“He worked nonstop,” Kimberly Michalik of Santa Rosa said of her father.

In 2001, a potent desire to make wine produced the first bottles that wore the Robert Rue Winery label. In 2010, the Rues opened their own winery and tasting room on Wood Road, off Fulton Road south of River Road.

An independent review that year praised the Rues’ hospitality and the wines made with the help of winemaker Carol Shelton.

The review noted the small-production winery “is unique in character in that, not only are the zinfandel vines over 100 years old, but also the vineyard is sprinkled with petite sirah, alicante bouschet, and carignane. Yes, an old field blend where all the grapes are harvested together. That is how wine was made in the old days.”

As Robert Rue Vineyard & Winery attracted accolades, Rue continued to work his regular job: He’d ascended the ladder into management at the Airgas branch in Santa Rosa, which distributes industrial, medical and specialty gases. But he had to retire from Airgas in 2012, and step back from most of his responsibilities at the winery. A medical crisis derailed his life.

His daughter, Michalik, said a cancer diagnosis led to removal of his prostate, and after the surgery he contracted sepsis, then developed the onset of dementia.

“After he woke up from surgery, my dad was never the same,” Michalik said.

Robert Rue lost himself to Alzheimer’s disease. He died July 17 at the age of 73.

He was born in Santa Barbara on Oct. 22, 1945 and began his life there. On Tuesday, his birthday, his family will scatter his ashes off the Santa Barbara coast.

Robert Rue wasn’t yet a teenager when his parents moved their family from Santa Barbara to Monte Rio. He started high school at El Molino High in Forestville and transferred to Santa Rosa High.

As a young man he went to work at a Mobil service station in central Santa Rosa owned by Joseph Carreira. Rue counted among his luckiest days the one in 1965 when he met the boss’s daughter, Carlene. They married and Robert Rue adopted Carlene’s daughter from a previous marriage, Kristine.

From the gas station, Rue went on to learn welding, then he started a career delivering and selling acetylene and other gases. He would work for Airgas for more than 40 years, for much of that time taking other work as he could find it.

Michalik said she was just a baby when, in the early 1970s, her dad found a side job helping Gene Muzio with his Fulton-area vineyard.

“When it came time for Mr. Muzio to sell his ranch, he offered to carry a note for Bob and Carlene in order for them to buy the 10-acre vineyard and ranch house from him,” Michalik recounted.

“The one thing that Muzio told Bob was to never get rid of the vines for someday they would make him a lot of money. Neither men knew that it would lead Bob into a dream of becoming a winery owner some day.”

While continuing in sales with Airgas, Robert Rue mastered the tending of his old vines. He sold his grapes, but grew increasingly eager to make and bottle his own wine.

In 2001, with the help of Shelton, he made the switch from grape seller to vintner. His wines, initially made at a west Sonoma County winery, were well received. The evolution of Robert Rue Winery continued in 2008 with the arrival of Dan Barwick, who makes wines also for Paradise Ridge.

Then came the opening of the Rues’ own winery and tasting room. Word of the 5,000-case-a-year operation was spreading when Robert Rue was diagnosed with prostate cancer, then contracted sepsis and began showing signs of dementia.

As he declined, Carlene Rue took over the tending of the vineyards and the operation of the winery. She also cared for her husband, until another bout of sepsis in 2015 put him in a hospital, where he was comatose for two weeks. Upon recovering, he moved into a care home on Guerneville Road.

In April 2016, Carlene Rue sold the winery to Venge Vineyards of Calistoga. Winemaker Kirk Venge changed its name to Croix Estate.

Michalik said that at the care home, her dad talked “about his wine and about going home when he got better. As the years went on his memory and capabilities got worse but he still wore his Robert Rue logo shirts.”

Rue is survived by his wife, Carlene Rue of Santa Rosa, his daughters, Kimberly Michalik and Kristine Rue, both of Santa Rosa; his sister, Virginia Sorenson of Point Arena, and three grandchildren.

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