Gundlach Bundschu winery president Jeff Bundschu’s blog ?Blogshu.com,? isn’t the only indication of a ?GunBun 2.0? consciousness arising at the family-owned winery. On the site, Bundschu refers to himself as a ?6th generation vintner looking for something to prove.? With an astute blend of vision, talent and technology, Bundschu has at least proven that GunBun, The Next Generation, will continue to create wines that boldly go where no wine has gone before. Or at least that’s what one might infer from his, um, captain’s blog.
It’s noteworthy that the Sonoma institution, recently celebrated a much-ballyhooed ‘sesquicentennial? (a fifty-cent way of saying ?150th anniversary? that, as Bundschu contemporary Chris Benziger of Benziger Family Winery jocularly quipped on a recent video tribute, ‘sounds like brettanomyces?). Bundschu, credits the milestone to ?Luck, perseverance, and a true and driving love of our vineyard in Sonoma and all its natural beauty.? It was likely this sentiment that bolstered Bundschu’s confidence that an old winery could be taught new tricks.
In 2000, the winery underwent a change of generational leadership and Bundschu became general manager and CEO. Having always worked closely with his father, director of viticulture Jim Bundschu, the occasion wasn’t s so much a torch-passing as a stoking of the fires already ablaze in the son. Notably, Bundschu’s ascent to president came on the heels of the purchase of an additional 100 acres of adjacent vineyard property that the family had managed since the 1850s and another portion since the 1970s. The combination of new land and new leadership were to determine the winery’s current trajectory.
?In any successful business you’re always looking to take it to the next level and this was a real consorted, conscious effort,? explains director of winemaking Linda Trotta, who describes Bundschu as a ?great visionary with sights all over the place.? Those sights were aimed high according to Trotta, who recalls Bundschu sitting down with his father and saying ?Look if we are going to invest in planting this land let’s do it right and let’s take the opportunity to make everything go up a level.?
Dubbed ?Rhinefarm? in 1858 by Bavarian native Jacob Gundlac, the notion of taking the 150-year-old vineyard ?up a level? soon transcended the purview of a father-son chat. The younger Bundschu brought others into the conversation, including vineyard consultant Phil Freese and winemaking consultant Zelma Long. With his father and Trotta, this team was not at a loss as to where to begin. As Trotta says wryly, ?It all starts in the dirt. If I screwed up in the dirt then it gets screwed up in the glass, and there’s no one else to blame.?
Located on the southwesterly grade of the Mayacamas Mountains about 45 minutes north of San Francisco, Rhinefarm is situated at the southernmost point of Sonoma Valley and is bordered by the Carneros growing region on its south side and by the Napa Valley on the east. GunBun’s vineyard boasts sediment rife with minerals and studded by light stream gravel from the clay-loam soils left by Huichica Creek, a finger of the Napa Slough, which is itself fed by the San Pablo Bay. The winery’s critically-lauded pinot noir, gew?rztraminer and chardonnay do well by these soils much as its cabernet sauvignon and merlot, as well as smaller plantings of cabernet franc, malbec, petit verdot, syrah and zinfandel, thrive 150 feet further up where the comparatively rocky soil is infused by an alluvial wash and rhyolitic ash. This acidic form of volcanic residue was coughed up during the Miocene, sometime between 5 and 23 million years ago (sort of puts a ‘sesquicentennial? in perspective, doesn’t it?).
Since the last major geological epoch, however, the changes at Rhinefarm have been achieved through the intervention of the GunBun team. Trotta describes the resulting wine not so much as a stylistic shift, but rather a refinement of the processes through which the style of their wines is achieved. The question for Trotta was ?How can we make the fruit sing louder in the glass??
Like a league of vocal coaches tutoring a choir, singer by singer, the GunBun team approached their task varietal by varietal, seeking harmony in every element of the fruits? life cycle.
?We looked at everything from yeast strains to harvest timing to barrel coopers to fermentation regimes ? every element of every variety,? recalls Trotta, who adds that the same protocol was brought to the vineyard as well. ?The vineyard is broken up into a little over 60 blocks, and we took it block by block. We said, ?Here’s how it’s performing now, here’s how we think it should be performing or could be,?? says Trotta.
This included the team putting a premium on sourcing only its own fruit. Theretofore GunBun had supplemented its fruit with that of outside providers, Bundschu however, was eager to push the winery’s endeavors toward an exclusively estate program.
?Five years ago, we were 50 to 60 percent estate-grown fruit. The balance was definitely purchased,? recalls Bundschu, who has elevated the percentage of estate-grown fruit to about 95 percent. ?The driving factor was to become, truly estate-driven. With that focus and initiative in mind, the next step was to make sure that our estate vineyard was at the highest level possible. And that’s what we did.?
Of course, such a commitment would have direct impact on the wine that the winery and its winemaker produced. But like Bundschu, Trotta was sanguine about moving forward and perceived little in the way of compromise as far as, say, her ability to blend given the relative range of fruit represented in the vineyard.
?I think that by far having the advantage of having complete control over your fruit source outweighs the lack of maybe the other spectrums of the palette to blend in. But is such a diverse estate with 320 acres. We are in Sonoma, literally across the street from Carneros,? observes Trotta. ?We have vineyards on the valley floor that share the exact same influences as Carneros and then we ‘ve got vineyards that are on the base of the Mayacamas Mountains on the southwest with thinner soils. The merlot on the hillside is drastically different from the merlot on the valley floor. It’s almost like sourcing from a different vineyard.?
Bundschu concurs and attributes the wide variation achievable in the vineyard primarily to its soil types and exposure, which is relatively cool says Bundschu.
?But in the afternoon, in the growing season, we’re just being baked and there’s no vine-to-vine shading. There’s a lot more ambient heat facing our hillsides than our vineyards on the valley floor, which tend to behave a lot more like vineyards in Carneros due to their soil type,? Bundschu explains. ?If you were to look where Napa, Sonoma and Carneros all touched, we’re right in that corner. We’re technically Sonoma Valley, but our pinot and chardonnay from our lower section of the vineyard qualify for Sonoma Coast, believe it or not.?
This multifaceted terroir permits Rhinefarm to produce not only dramatically different flavor profiles in single varietals, it also allows for a wide variety of varietals to prosper on a single vineyard.
The Gundlach Bundschu property wasn’t always considered capable of supporting such varietal diversity. A somewhat withering report published in a U.S. Department of Agriculture Bulletin in 1916 references ??The Sonoma Experiment Vineyard? located on Gundlach-Bundschu property? and tartly reports, ?the soil is of rather poor quality.? Later, the 92-year-old bulletin claims that ?the surface drainage is good, and no injurious quantity of alkali exists,? and says it produces ‘superior white wines of the Riesling, Chasselas, and Traminer types.?
Apparently, times ? and tastes ? have changed and Gundlach Bundschu has benefited from both. Since the re-visioning of the winery and vineyard, winemaker Trotta enjoys more options when it comes to perfecting the product. If, for example, the mid-palate of her merlot seems to dip a bit between vintages, she now has on-premise solutions to address it. In a word, she has more ?control,? a notion she recognizes as having a positive impact on her professional development.
?It has also given me an ability to express different aspects of myself. I get to be a farmer and I get to make something,? says Trotta who, with Jim Bundschu’s mentoring, has become more involved with the vineyard itself. ?I really get an appreciation for what really goes into growing grapes of the quality we’re growing. I have all these opportunities to tweak it.?
Now, according to Trotta, the team has entered its ?fine-tuning? stage and is pleased with the systems and tools they now have in place. Here out, it’s ?baby steps? toward an ongoing quest for perfection, which Trotta quips, with the koan-like quality of a Zen master, they ?will never meet, because that’s where we’re going.?
Helping them get there (or not, philosophically speaking) are a handful of technological upgrades including a RotoVib destemmer that Bundschu’s declares their ‘secret weapon!? beneath a photo of the new machine on his blog. Made in Germany by Armbruster, the RotoVib adds a linear vibratory movement to the pin shaft of the destemmer, which disperses the grapes inside the destemming cylinder at lower and gentler speeds. The treatment of the grapes is milder than destemmers that only use rubber paddles, moreover, it discharges the stems relatively intact as well as dry. This eliminates the need for destemming cylinders with multiple openings of differing size and mitigates the possibility of damage by foreign objects.
?It’s hugely popular this year,? beams Trotta. ?It gives a very clean separation of fruit and stock.? Beyond bringing greater ease to the process, the new destemmer has direct benefit on the flavor profile of the resulting wine, says Trotta. Simply put, there is less stem left behind to muddle up the fruit. ?What I am expecting is a cleaner expression of fruit,? she says.
Additionally, a new belt system designed by Santa Rosa, CA-based P & L Specialties, affords the opportunity to sort clusters and extract leaves and other detritus en route to the destemmer. Trotta credits the technology with her increased fastidiousness as a winemaker. ?I am far more critical and annoying as a winemaker now,? she laughs. ?The more control you have the crazier it drives you because you know what you have. ?I can make it a little bit better.??
This same control was brought into the vineyard, which the GunBun team reconfigured into a constituency of small, distinctive blocks. To bring each to its optimal point of physiological maturation, the bocks can be micromanaged from soil type, varietal and clonal difference, to individual drainage capacity.
?A big driver for us was hitting maturity in the vineyards ? really bringing full ripeness. It’s not rocket science, and I don’t think it’s anything that most vineyard winegrowers aren’t doing, but five years ago it was a big move for us,? reflects Bundschu. ?In our case, we ‘ve been a part of the same property for so long, particularly my dad, that it’s a matter of taking intuition and applying current tools to help further that intuition. For the most part, there was nothing we had to do that was too radical.?
Indeed, after farming the same land for six generations, the Bundschus are acutely aware of intuitional equity they have stocked in the vineyard. Bundschu himself is particularly attuned to this phenomenon, which he both honors and supplements with a modicum of science.
?Intuitively, we were managing things correctly, but once we decided to really look under the microscope ? we realized that it would cost more ? but we could essentially divide the vineyard up even more to ensure that we were treating a given block and giving it what it needed without messing something else up,? he says.
The result is that the fruit can be harvested when consistently mature, block by block.
?We harvest the whole block at once, but the block might be smaller. In terms of bringing that fruit to full maturity, we ‘ve always been deficit irrigators, meaning we are fairly maniacal in that we want to strip the vine as much as possible prior to harvest to intensify the fruit,? says Bundschu.
In many ways, Bundschu’s irrigation strategy is an apt metaphor for the current state of family winery in culture of consolidation at play in the industry ? smaller entities, reaching maturity under measured stress, yielding intensity.
?The landscape in our industry is continually changing and becoming more competitive. Given the challenges of getting to market in the first place through an already consolidated distributor network, and the myriad domestic and foreign wines to compete with once you get there, it is not surprising to see some of our most venerable winery families decide they want to get out. Especially when there are no apparent heirs to drive them forward,? Bundschu says sagely. ?I view that trend as natural transition as opposed to a sign of impending doom.?
Bundshcu remains assured that family wineries ? and not just his own ? will continue to flourish regardless of the circumstances affecting the business at-large.
?The great thing about wine is that for every family that has run its course, there a multitude more just getting in, some of whom will one day be considered venerable themselves. Despite the evolving business environment, good wine is really about a passionate connection to the land from which it comes and the people with whom its shared,? says Bundschu. ?It has been my experience that those things will always draw new and dynamic people into the fold.?