Living in Napa, literally within walking distance to local wineries, we often get locked in to our hometown wineries. For the past few years, we have been working our way up and down the Napa Valley and mostly ignoring wineries in neighboring Sonoma. This weekend, we decided to break out and get out of town and try something a bit father from home. Not that far from home, mind you – we went about 10 miles away to Gundlach Bundschu Winery in Sonoma. We have found their wines at restaurants over the years and were mostly familiar with their white wines. Also, we have driven by the entrance to the winery every time we drive out of Napa. Today, we decided it was time to pay them a visit.
Rather than just a tasting, we signed up for a tour and tasting because the description of the tour was so intriguing. Beyond the typical walk around the winery and visit to the barrel room, the Gundlach tour involved jumping into a jeep-type vehicle and driving around through the vineyards and, ultimately, having our tasting in the middle of the vines. This seemed too good to pass up.
When we arrived and joined our fellow tour participants, we met our guide. Surprisingly, our tour guide turned out to be Rob Bundschu, 158 years removed from the original Bundschu that started the winery. Appropriately billed as the “Commander of Hospitality,” Rob packed us all into a Pinzgauer 712, an Austrian army vehicle that comfortably seated the 8 of us taking the tour.
As we drove around the vineyard, named Rhinefarm, we got a sense of the history of Gundlach Bundschu. Rob took us through history of the winery, which opened for business in 1858, started by two german immigrants (you guessed it, Gundlach and Bundschu). From their native Germany, they brought cuttings of traditional varietals such as Gewürztraminer. Today, six generations of Bundschu’s later, they are still making a German-style Gewürztraminer but have also added a number of other wines to their repertoire. Among them are such Sonoma standards as Zinfandel, Chardonnay and Pinot, but also some wines not as frequently found in Sonoma: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Tempranillo.
From 1858 to 2016, Gundlach Bundschu has been through a number of ups and downs. The 1906 San Francisco earthquake nearly destroyed the company as its tasting room was located in San Francisco. Not long after the winery recovered from the earthquake and moved its headquarters to Sonoma, an even more devastating challenge came along: Prohibition. From 1920 to 1933, the sale of alcoholic beverages, including wine, was illegal in the United States. During that time, Gundlach Bundschu, along with most other U.S. wineries, closed down – most of them forever. Fortunately, in 1973, 40 years after the end of prohibition, Gundlach Bundschu reopened and began selling wines again. Today, the winery makes and sells about 30,000 cases a year – one-tenth of the volume it made and sold prior to prohibition.
After taking us around most of the 32o acres of Rhinefarm, Rob stopped the Pinzgauer and we got out and sat down for our tasting in a quaint seating area right in the middle of the vineyard.
First, Rob poured the Gewürztraminer, a very balanced white wine with no residual sugar. Unlike others of this varietal, the Gundlach Bundschu Gewürztraminer was balanced, with aromas and flavors of fruit balanced by a nice acidity. Following the white wine we tasted a lovely Pinot Noir, a Zinfandel and then a Cabernet Sauvignon, all paired with a cheese plate. When we finished these wines, Rob put us back on the Pinzgauer and we drove back towards the main winery building. But instead of taking us to the main entrance, Rob took us through the barrel room, which can hold over 2,000 barrels.
Finally, we made our way back to the main part of the winery for our final wine – a Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. We enjoyed this final wine in the quaint tasting room with the rest of our tour group.
Driving by the winery so many times, we could not have imagined how large the Gundlach Bundschu estate is, nor how expansive their visitor area would be. In addition to the tasting room, they have a separate area to buy wines by the glass and a large section of seating. This generation of Bundschu’s has built an impressive marketing and sales team and the winery clearly has developed a reputation as a must-visit location in Sonoma. The parking lot was filled with dozens of cars when we arrived and people were continuing to arrive when we left around 4:30. The winery is not our usual “hidden gem,” as many others have discovered it as well. However, it is a beautiful location, they make great wines, and, unlike other large-scale operations, they are still a family business, even after 158 years. What’s not to love about that?
John & Irene Ingersoll
July 16, 2016