On the Trail

Harvest Time in Sonoma

David Driscoll

Last week I spent the day in Sonoma with our owner and domestic buyer Trey Beffa visiting some of our favorite wineries and shaking hands with old friends. While it would be difficult (and likely unprofessional) to say I have a favorite California producer or declare one property to be the absolute best of the best, our stop at Gundlach Bundschu confirmed what I have always thought about the storied winemaker: they are about as real as it gets. There's no pageantry or cultivated wine country aesthetic at the family-owned estate, nor is there a costly line-up of weighty bottles waiting for you behind the tasting bar. There is no snobbery or snootiness, nor are there any snarky sommelier types either. What you do get at Gundlach Bundschu are high-quality, old school, and reasonably-priced California wines that taste the way they should. You also get the chance to visit one of the most historic and traditional wineries in the state, as Gun Bun (as it's known on the street) is also the oldest family-run winery we have here in CA. The company was established back in 1858 and now sits just a stone's throw from the top of the San Pablo Bay. The Rhinefarm is 256 acres of prime winemaking real estate; but while it's indeed a gorgeous piece of land, it's the mood and the atmosphere at Gundlach Bundschu that really strikes you. The staff is young and laid-back. The winery-related trinkets in the tasting bar are modern and hip to today's pop culture scene. We caught the gang just as they were finishing their 2016 harvest and the fun was definitely flowing.

As I mentioned above, Gun Bun is the oldest family-run winery in California and you get a sense of the family's history the moment you walk in and see the array of old bottles on display. The company was originally established by German-born Joseph Gundlach (who eventually partnered with his son-in-law Charles Bundschu) and for forty-eight years he sold his wine from their San Francisco office on downtown Bryant Street. There they prospered for decades until the big one struck in 1906 and gutted the entire operation. The family's third generation moved the business to Sonoma, but was ultimately stymied again by Prohibition. During that time the Gundlach-Bundschu company supplemented the lack of wine sales with agriculture and cattle, until 1969 when Jim Bundschu and his father Towle decided to replant the family vineyard and get back into the wine game. Over forty years later, the estate is thriving like never before and has made huge commitments to sustainable farming practices that have the fruit tasting better than ever. We had a glass of the 2012 Mountain Cuvée right when we walked in and I couldn't help but smile. Here was an estate wine, made from all-estate fruit, that was utterly charming and perfectly balanced for less than twenty bucks! It had gusto and integrity. It's local and well-priced. It's everything California does well. So why aren't we selling cases and cases of this wine again?

Not only should you check out the wines of Gundlach Bundschu at K&L next time you come by, you should most definitely take a drive up north and visit the estate yourself. You can tour the gigantic cave, have a picnic, hike through the property, check out the amphitheater where they host serious rock and roll concerts, and make a day of it. Not only is it an easy drive from San Francisco, it's a beautiful one. Having put up with my career and its many wine-related duties for ten years now, the last thing my wife wants to do on our day off is visit a winery, but even she was game after I showed her the photos from our visit and had her taste the wines I brought home. Gundlach Bundschu truly has something for everyone: they make a hearty cabernet, a soft and supple pinot noir, a heady chardonnay, and even a bone-dry gewürztraminer that should please even the most serious of wine drinkers. The Rhinefarm has a low-elevation site where the coastal fog settles and helps maintain the winery's cool-climate varietals, allowing them to maintain their acidity. It's a truly remarkable property in that so many of California's regional strengths are flourishing on one single Sonoma estate.

It's a testament to the diverse and unique geographic elements of the estate that Gundlach Bundschu is able to make a ripe, robust, and varietally-correct merlot, but it also has to do with their restraint in the cellar. The wines are not overly oaky, or overly-ripe, or overdone—period.  I couldn't decide which wine was my favorite by the end of the day. Their estate cabernet is a reasonable thirty-five bucks and delivers every dollar's worth with layers of dark fruits balanced by savory spice and earth. Contrast that with the over-extracted $100+ luxury bottles we're seeing from Napa these days and breath a sigh as you take your next sip of real California goodness. This isn't anything new, however. It's not like Gundlach Bundschu hasn't been making honest wines like this for decades and we just discovered them now (I've been selling the Mountain Cuvée since my earliest days on the K&L sales floor). It's just that I had never taken the time to actually visit the property and put two and two together—to meet the super cool staff, to take a walk through the vineyards and take in the sights.

Drinking a glass of Gundlach Bundschu at the Rhinefarm is an entirely different experience. Rather than send you into one of our three locations to buy a bottle, I'd recommend taking the weekend to drive up there yourself. It's harvest time in Sonoma right now. The temperature couldn't be more perfect. The Fall weather is gorgeous and an afternoon on the Rhinefarm estate is just the thing to get you into the spirit of the season. Grab some food, a few bottles of wine, and take advantage of the fact that this little slice of heaven is just a short jaunt away. I'm seriously considering jumping in the car again next week and heading back for more and I'm not really the outdoor guy or likes to hike or go fishing. There's just something about this place that really moved me—the lack of pretense, perhaps. Plus, it's less than an hour from downtown San Francisco, so that's no different than driving to San Jose or over to the Livermore outlets for a day of shopping. 

-David Driscoll