By Laura Ness
GunBun, as it’s affectionately known, is the oldest continuously family owned winery in California, dating back to 1858, when Bavarian immigrant Jacob Gundlach purchased 400 acres in Sonoma which he named Rhinefarm. With rootstock from his native Germany, Gundlach made Rhinefarm among the largest vineyards in Sonoma at the time. Among his contemporaries were A. Haraszthy and Charles Krug. In 1868, another German immigrant, Charles Bundschu, joined the winery and married Gundlach eldest daughter, becoming part of the family. When deadly phylloxera hit in the 1870s, they experimented with native rootstocks from Texas, which proved resistant, making Rhinefarm the first vineyard in Sonoma to be grafted to louse-proof vines. In fact, those vines produced consistently good wines until being replanted nearly 100 years later in 1969.
In 1906, at the height of the Gundlach-Bundschu winery’s glory, the great earthquake and fire destroyed the winery building in San Francisco, along with three of the family’s homes. They moved to Rhinefarm and began rebuilding, and in 1915, the winery achieved international prominence at the Panama Pacific International Exhibition held in San Francisco to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal, entering 19 wines in the international wine competition, winning medals for each and taking the Grand prize. The winery subsequently survived two World Wars and Prohibition, which forced the sale of much of the property and the planting of Bartlett pears on a portion of the remaining acreage. To add insult to injury, Walter Bundschu’s wife at the time, Sadie, was a staunch prohibitionist, and her efforts kept the winery shuttered for decades, even after the passage of the 21st amendment. Meanwhile, Rhinefarm grapes were sold to Almaden, Inglenook and Louis Martini. When the Gundlach-Bundschu winery reopened in 1976, they were the first to bottle a varietal Merlot, followed by a varietal Cabernet Sauvignon in 1981. And today, in 2021, GunBun is still very much with us. There’s a lesson here: perseverance and love for the land.
Jeff Bundschu is one of a handful of sixth generation vintners still practicing his craft. Born and raised in Sonoma, he says the place “is in my blood. Dad (Jim) was adamant about our working on the ranch and in the vineyard. But he told us to follow our passion and pursue our own interests. If we came back, it was because we wanted to, not because we had to. We had to find how we fit in the world.”
Being that Sonoma was a small town, Jeff decided he was ready for a city when it came time to go to college. After studying international relations and economics at USC in LA, he traveled the world, working two harvests on a 14-month walkabout. Spending time in India and Africa, he was drawn to the family-centered way of life he observed in the villages. “I began to embrace a different perspective on the importance of family,” says Bundschu. He was also beginning to appreciate the innate charm of the place where he grew up. “Once I brought my big city friends to the ranch, and they saw what I had, their jaws dropped. And I saw the place in a different light. Suddenly, I appreciated the place where I couldn’t ride my skateboard, or work as a lifeguard during the summer, because I had to pick up rocks in the vineyard instead of hanging out at the beach!”
When he made the decision to return to the family ranch, Jeff says his Dad was grateful. “It’s a small, complex company, and he was happy to have help. Though, after two years of us constantly arguing, I’m not sure how long that gratitude lasted!”
He’s been back for 26 years now, taking over management of the company in 2000 at the age of 33. With love of land and brand, he’s leading his family owned winery into the future, constantly diversifying the portfolio and creating dynamic experiences for wine drinkers nationwide. “It’s not lost on me how much the business has changed. I actually think we’re in a unique place that’s pretty good for us.”
One thing that bothered Bundschu from his early days of sales was the preponderance of pomp surrounding wine. “There are a lot of gatekeepers in the business, saying what’s good and not good, and they can hold a lot of sway: reviewers, wine buyers, critics. It was assumed that knowledge was a prerequisite for enjoyment. There’s a lot of hype and wine snobbery that turned me off. I’ve always taken an open-minded approach. I ended up making a career out of producing wines of authenticity that honor our family values.” You might recall that Bundschu was co-creator of the group called Wine Brats in 1994 (along with high school buddies Mike Sangiacomo and Jon Sebastiani), aimed at reaching the next generation of wine drinkers.
Being true to the family roots and vineyard was important to Jeff, and he and his Dad, Jim, decided to go all estate in 2001. Music also played a big role in the current chapter of GunBun under Jeff’s leadership. He views music, especially live music, as an authentic experience, that like wine, brings people together. This is why he created the micro-music festival, Huichica, in 2009. It took him on the road, meeting new bands and visiting bucolic places like the Hudson Valley of NY and Walla Walla, WA, extending the brand’s reach through strategic marketing opportunities and partnerships. A portion of proceeds from Huichica Sonoma benefit education organizations and foundations in Sonoma County. The winery also produces wines and music in collaboration with bands like Lord Huron and Real Estate under the Echo Echo label.
Bundschu, who himself played in a band, set about creating a concert series at the winery, luring touring bands to the winery between their other scheduled gigs. “I love live music! I’m a big fan. You can’t just show up: you have to show up 100%! We’re an old brand, but we’ve helped introduce a brand new audience to our wine through live music.”
Like a winemaker studying how a vineyard performs over the years, Bundschu has been carefully observing what makes GunBun resonate, and promoting that. “Sometimes, you lead from behind. You have to understand and make the most of what you have. We are quietly making good wine and making people happy. We are less of a product than an experience. People are more confident in their own palates now. They want to know our story. Heck, you can’t even say ‘Gundlach Bundschu’ in an elevator!!”
At the core of the company’s longevity and freshness are its employees. Says Jeff, “Gundlach Bundschu is not a fast growing company, but we always want dynamic people. Lots of people have been here a long time, and while there may not be a lot of growth opportunities, we champion the skills it takes to go on to larger companies. I like to think of us as vibrant and youthful in both our outlook and engagement.”
That means encouraging people to follow their passion, and to look at doing things that might not always be the most profitable. “Notice what makes you most enthusiastic and go there. Try to change whatever is dragging you down. We try to make sure whatever we do keeps us motivated. Everyone here loves what we do: It has to mean something.”
One of the few disasters 2020 didn’t bring, thankfully, was another phylloxera invasion. What it did bring, though, was an acquisition of a prized piece of land, with a vineyard dating back to 1860.
In February 2020, the Bundschu Company acquired an historic 60-acre Sonoma Valley property, formerly Valley of the Moon, to be the new home of Abbot’s Passage Winery & Mercantile, the brainchild of Jeff’s sister, Katie. Bundschu says this property, on Madrone Road in Glen Ellen, represents a huge game-changer for the company. “This is a great manifestation of our approach. We had an old winery production facility in Sonoma (Denmark Road) that was outdated and needed upgrading. The outside area was not particularly comfortable. When we started Abbott’s Passage, we wanted to find a rural vineyard setting that did justice to Katie’s concept of field blends. Instead, it began as a brand with a tasting room in the Plaza. Also, we had no commercial kitchen at GunBun. We’d been trying to solve these problems on a one-off basis. Then, we saw this place! It’s the biggest move we’ve made in a generation.”
He says the new Glen Ellen property has a super dynamic production facility that will enable them to scale up, and make wines more cost-effectively. Up until then, they were quite limited in capacity at the Rhinefarm ranch.
Bundschu is grateful to have the assistance of his cousin, Towle Merritt, with deep vineyard experience in Napa and the vision to help establish efficiency processes that can help the company scale in ways it has not in decades. “As we grow, we are developing corporate structures that I would have bristled at in my early years,” Bundschu admits. “We are blenders and winemakers, living in our corner. We don’t wake up thinking about efficiency. But Towle is very efficiency focused. When he got here, he set the table for us to have a plan for the next decade. We can scale and be ambitious on our own terms. We can focus on what is unique to our properties. We can sell juice to outside folks. Everything we make is basically going to do what it’s supposed to be. We are just one brand. I feel the wind is at our back. I want to be hyper focused on quality and be able to share it with our customers, with open arms…and a loud stereo!”
Continue Reading: Wine’s Most Inspiring People 2021