An American Wine Dynasty

Jeff Bundschu

I’ve written recently about French winemaking families that go back for generations, and it turns out there’s one American family with similar history: Gundlach Bundschu. I met Jeff Bundschu recently, for lunch in my neighborhood, and we had so much in common (surfing, first and foremost, but also mountain biking, and being the same age and having children the same age and sort of looking alike, too) that we almost forgot to talk about wine. But once we did, I came away feeling that his family’s story was one of the great California stories. It starts in 1858, when a Bavarian named Jacob Gundlach bought 400 Sonoma acres and then went home to Bavaria to marry his childhood sweetheart. What I love about this piece of the story is all that’s left out. Went home? How, for God’s sake?! A Gold Rush–era sailing ship around the Horn, no doubt, and up the east coast of South America, then to New York, and on across to Europe.

Jacob Gundlach

Anyway, the Civil War broke out in the year of their first vintage, and Charles Bundschu partnered with Gundlach in 1868. The phylloxera outbreak that destroyed the vineyards of Europe hit here, too, and Gundlach and Bundschu were deeply involved in the ultimate solution: grafting European vines onto resistant native rootstock. The great San Francisco earthquake of 1906 came at a time when Gundlach Bundschu had a block-long winery in the city, vinifying all the family’s Sonoma grapes and selling the wine overseas. The postearthquake firestorm destroyed 1 million gallons of their wine and three of the family’s homes, so they left the city and rebuilt their lives on the vineyard properties, again making enough wine to have warehouses in New York and sales accounts overseas.

Late 19th-century Gundlach Bundschu poster

The Panama-Pacific International Exposition, marking the 1915 opening of the Panama Canal, had a Gundlach Bundschu wines exhibit, but only four years later the whole operation was shut down by Prohibition. Most of the grapevines were torn up, and upon repeal in 1933, Gundlach Bundschu sold the harvest from its remaining vines to other wineries, including Niebaum and Almaden. But 36 years later, in 1969, Jim Bundschu replanted the entire family property, and the 1973 vintage was the first new one bottled under the Gundlach Bundschu name. In the year 2000, Jim’s son, Jeff, took over the family business, which he still runs.

And as he sat across from me at lunch, talking about his nine-foot longboard and the waves on the Sonoma Coast, and where he likes to mountain bike up in Sonoma, I was struck by the rarity of this guy’s past, and how it encapsulates the entire history of California winemaking. It must be quite a feeling, to live in this ageless and ever-changing state of ours, but with all that time and continuity on your side, all that family integrity. The rest of us, by comparison, are just passing through.

2007 Gundlach Bundschu Gewürztraminer
Grapes: 100 percent Gewürztraminer
Wood: Strictly stainless steel
Alcohol: 14.5 percent (whoa!)
Price: $25 from the winery
My Tasting Notes: I’m crazy about Alsace Gewürztraminer, and I thought this wine was operating in that tradition, with enough acidic brightness to back up the riot of unusual fruit and nut flavors. In my view, Gewürz is an odd-but-beautiful bird of a grape, making a huge range of wines in which most suck, but this is a very solid new-world example.

2005 Gundlach Bundschu Pinot Noir
Grapes: 100 percent Pinot Noir
Wood: 11 months in “fine-grain, medium toast French oak barrels (45% new), primarily in Tonnellerie Remond-coopered wood”
Alcohol: 14.1 percent
Price: $38 from the winery
My Tasting Notes: This wine comes from vineyards right up against the border of the Carneros appellation, and it reflects that: It’s a cool, restrained, balanced sort of Pinot Noir, not overpowering. It would make a terrific food wine.