Bob Appleby is a craftsman by nature. A longtime woodworker (he owned Robert Appleby Woodworking for more than 25 years), he also makes acoustic guitars, writes songs, plays in an acoustic band (called “Bottle Shock,” which is a term used to describe, in Appleby’s words, when wine is first bottled and “kind of weirds out”)—and makes handcrafted, vineyard-designate wines.
His modest property, located in Graton in the Green Valley appellation, is situated along (you guessed it) Atascadero Creek, which is a main tributary of the Russian River. His estate vineyard is made up of four 900-foot rows of Pinot Noir that run along the back of his property. “I call it the Railroad Vineyard, because it’s on the old tracks,” he says. He’s even managed to reuse some of the tracks themselves as posts for his vineyard rows. There are also birdhouses onsite to attract swallows and bluebirds for natural pest control. “When I planted the vineyard, I thought it would be great if I got 100 cases out of it. Last year I finally did.”
Most of the time, you’ll find Appleby with his golden lab, Albert (recently featured in the book Winery Dogs of Sonoma). “Albert gets his own email,” says Appleby. “People are like, ‘Hey, tell Albert I like his photo.’ So I’ll tell him, and he’ll just sort of look at me.” Albert likes to be in charge. While I was visiting, he accompanied us to the Railroad Vineyard (where I saw “baby” grapes for the first time!). We passed by some chickens that Appleby says are occasionally herded by Albert, “if they go someplace on the property he thinks they shouldn’t be.”
Aside from the dog, Appleby says, “I’m pretty much a one-man operation. My wife, Rosemary, helps me during crush, as do my brother and a few others.” But for the most part, Appleby wants to take care of business on his own. “I don’t think I’ll ever go beyond 1,000 cases in a year. That’s the most I think I can do myself.”
It all started in 1989, when a friend approached him about making some “hobby” wine. They started with a barrel of Zinfandel, and “it turned out pretty good!” he says. The following year, they made Zinfandel and Pinot Noir. “We kept making barrels every year, just for us and our friends,” says Appleby.
By 1994, his friend had left the area, and Appleby had realized he really knew what he was doing—and loved it, too. “I’d just built my house, so I started making wine in a room downstairs,” he says. He began entering his wines into the Sonoma County Harvest Fair, and has (so far) accumulated 17 medals.
The winery was bonded in 2001. “I had no idea what I was doing [marketing-wise] back then. I was pretty much wandering around Sebastopol with a couple bottles, trying to sell it,” he says.
By 2003, he’d stopped making cabinets. “Some people still talk me into it though,” he says. Today, Appleby makes Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Syrah, Sangiovese, Merlot and small amounts of dry Rosé and Sauvignon Blanc. Most of his wine is sold at local restaurants and wine shops, as well as on his website.
“Larger wineries are shooting for year-to-year consistency,” he says. “But for me, it’s different.” Appleby’s main goal is to let the vineyard shine through in the end product. “All my reds are unfined and unfiltered. I’m a minimalist in terms of manipulating the wine,” he says. “If you get good grapes, you don’t have to [manipulate]. The grapes want to be wine, they just need a little guidance. I like to take each vineyard and guide it to its full potential.”
Appleby doesn’t blend any of his wines. He also uses a “low-tech approach” to winemaking. Most of the lots he uses are less than 100 cases. He places them in open-top fermenters and manually punches them down. They’re gently pressed in a hand-operated, wooden stave basket press, then moved into French oak barrels for 12 to 24 months. Following that, they’re bottled and labeled by hand. (Most get the Atascadero Creek label, but some are done under Appleby’s second brand, Windmill Vineyards.)
Most recently, Appleby has joined forces with the folks at Graton Ridge Cellars, whose winery is opening a tasting room this July. “Art and Barbara [of Graton Ridge Cellars] called and asked if I was interested in sharing their tasting room,” he says. There was only one stipulation to the deal—they also asked him to build the tasting room bar. “So I did,” says Appleby with a smile.
“We opened early for barrel tasting in March,” he continues. “It was a great success. Lots of people bought futures.” Occidental Cellars will also share the tasting room space. It’s open Fridays through Sundays at the corner of Highway 116 and Vine Hill Road in Graton.
“Having the tasting room will be great,” says Appleby. “It’ll be fun to taste all the different Zinfandels in one place, for example. Just line them up in front of you and decide what you like.”
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