Gundlach Bundschu

By Sunny Brown on July 1, 2007

Category: Winery of the Month

This is usually the time when I relay to the reader what sets our Winery of the Month apart from other wineries; what makes them special so to speak. But sometimes it is better for the writer to just get out of the way. So here are the words directly from Jeff Bundschu as to why Gundlach Bundschu stands out in the crowd:

"150 years provides for a lot of hindsight, and a framework to define success using parameters much broader than income statements and balance sheets. For example: Is it a fun and inspirational place to work? Are the wines we are making due the same place on the pedestal in the outside world that we place them on internally? Are the employees fulfilled by what they do everyday? Are we able, no matter what the day to day stresses bring, to regularly appreciate the jaw-dropping beauty of the place our family has lived on for so long and that we go to work on everyday? Are we doing what it takes environmentally to ensure that my kids and grandkids inherit a sustainable eco-system on which to grow grapes? Are we considering the long term impact of the decisions that we are making today?"

For six generations Gundlach Bundschu has been producing quality grapes on their Rhinefarm Estate that is nestled at the intersection of Napa, Sonoma, Carneros and the Mayacamus Mountains. Jeff, who is president of Gundlach Bundschu, went on to define two other unique aspects of the winery as well: Family and location.

"Family- The spirit, irreverence, comfort and perspective that we have, given the scope of our history and individuality of our site."

"Site- A the cross roads of Napa Valley, Carneros and Sonoma Valley, on the western flanks of the Mayacamus Mountains, the setting is a unique combination of the west and south facing hillsides and cool, Carneros-like valley floor. It allows for a broad variety of wines that can grow at a very high quality level."

I am not sure that we have ever had our parameters for the Winery of the Month defined so clearly either.

But this is not to say that they don't know how to have a good time. How about the summer film fest that is held at the winery each year? Or the performances of works by Mozart and Shakespeare that take place in the hillside amphitheater? Or perhaps the annual harvest party, Holiday Open House or even the Day of the Dead celebrations? You name the date, and it seems that there is some sort of revelry happening at the winery. I can think of worse places to be than sitting on a picturesque hillside and listening to some good music or perhaps taking in a showing of Young Frankenstein (no joke) and sipping on some delicious wine that was created from grapes grown just a couple of hills over. Yes, indeed, there are worse places to be, like work.

This balance of fun and hard work seem to be a part of everything that goes on at Gundlach Bundschu and the Rhinefarm Estate. Dating back to 1858 when Jacob Gundlach and his new bride Eva brought European rootstock to their Rhinefarm Estate and began to put 400 acres to vines hard work was already seeping into the soil. It continued on through prosperous times, when Jacob and his Son-in-Law Charles Bundschu saw enormous growth and popularity for their wines leading into the turn of the 20th century. But there has also been tragedy, as just about all that was built by Jacob and Charles was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake that ravaged San Francisco.

The next 70 years brought good times and bad, prohibition and wars, and through it all the hard work and determination of the family was always an underlying theme. In 1973 Jim Bundschu saw an opportunity and he pounced on it. As the fifth-generation of grape growers at the estate, Jim knew a thing or two about the wine industry. He began to replant the old vines on the Rhinefarm estate and the Gundlach Bundschu winery was reborn.

Since that time accolades and awards have been the only things more numerous than the events held at the winery. Jim's son Jeff handles the operations, while Jim is in charge of all viticultural aspects, and longtime winemaker Linda Trotta is in charge in the cellar. Between the three of them they not only have a talented team, but each also brings a unique perspective to the table: Jim is the down to earth farmer who prefers to work the land and promote Sonoma. Jeff,, the CEO and President who keeps an eye on sales and marketing, and then Linda who grew up making wine with her father and grandfather. As she once put it: "It never occurred to me that people make a living making wine." Now into her second decade as winemaker for Gundlach Bundschu I would say a living is being made.

As for the wines themselves most of the credit must be given to the Rhinefarm Estate. Its unique positioning against the foothills of the Mayacamus Mountains provides distinctly different climates for the fifty or so blocks of vines located within the 300 acres of the Rhinefarm Estate. The Estate is generally thought of as two separate areas: The Bench is comprised of a mix of volcanic ash and alluvial wash, which provides a rocky and free-draining environment, perfect for growing Bordeaux varietals and even a little Zinfandel.

The Lowlands area is more suited to the delicate charms of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, though other fickle grapes such as Tempranillo and Gewürztraminer thrive here as well. The combination of clay and loam, mixed with a little gravel and alluvial deposits from the mountains retains more water than the free-draining soils higher up in the foothills, which is a good thing for cool-climate Burgundian varieties.

The Rhinefarm Estate enjoys the best of both worlds in Napa- the cooling influences of Petaluma and San Pablo Bay that drift into Carneros as well as the warm sun that bakes the mountain vineyards to the north. The result is a perfect spot that is neither too warm for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay nor too cool for Cabernet and Merlot, a real rarity for California vintners. Apparently Jacob Gundlach knew what he was doing in selecting this location.

Creating fine wines from such dramatically different grapes is not without obstacles, however, something Jeff described as "complexity in farming varieties that have divergent needs that, at certain times of the growing season, pose challenges with regard to having the right resources in the right place at the right time; as well as in making wines requiring different production techniques in order to achieve our wine quality and stylistic goals."

Production is small for all wines, and only the highest quality fruit is used after vigorous sorting and green harvesting. All 50 blocks of vines are harvested, sorted, crushed, fermented and aged separately, and only when they have reached the right levels of maturity are they blended before their travels into bottle. "Our goal first and foremost," says Jeff, "is to make sure that each block is planted with the varietal that will thrive most, then to farm that block to its highest potential, and then using a minimalist approach in the cellar let the wine speak for itself."

Though I am not the first to stand in line for California Chardonnay, the 2005 Chardonnay was a delightful mix of richness, balance and complexity. Tropical and inviting on the nose, the aromas ranged from mango to lime zest and back through a little ripe pear. On the palate the wine was broad and creamy, with enough acidity to keep all of the richness in line.

The 2005 Gewüurztraminer was about a classic example of the grape as you will find on this side of the pond. Rose hip, lychee, spices and candied apricot aromas and flavors dance on a frame that is ripe and round, with just faint hints of residual sugar.

Consistently one of my favorite wines is the Mountain Cuvée which the 2003 edition did not disappoint. A blend of Merlot and Cabernet, this easy to enjoy red brings a soft feel like a warm hug. Ripe black and red fruit notes abound along with hints of mocha and chocolate as well as a little barrel spice to round things out. Always a winner.

The 2004 Merlot may have been my favorite in this particular line up, as it was just an impeccably balanced wine. Aromas of ripe black fruits intertwine with dry earth, warm rock and a little dusty component. The flavors follow the same balance of earthy and fruity, but also add an element of rich dark chocolate and roasted herb. Chewy tannins and bright acidity on the finish lead me to believe a few years in the cellar would coax even greater nuance from this bottle.

The 2004 Cabernet was a burly mix of ripe dark fruits, cassis, dusty tannins and a little tobacco and spice. Big and broad on both the nose and the palate, it is approachable now but the ample tannins could undoubtedly use some time in bottle to settle into themselves. Still, I found myself standing in another part of my house and still chewing on the long finish, all the while wondering why I had left my glass in the other room.

But that is the intent with the wines of Gundlach Bundschu: To create as Jeff put it "Intense, aromatic flavors that jump out of the glass because they are balanced, nuanced reflections of the site from which they originate." And they have only been doing it for 150 years. And can they keep it up for another 150? "At the very least."

Well, at least in the future we won't run out of great wine.