Gundlach Bunschu’s story began way back in 1858 when Jacob Gundlach purchased 400 acres in Sonoma and named it Rhinefarm. He then returned to Bavaria (in Germany) married, and traveled through Germany and France with his new wife Eva, buying up the rootstock they would need to plant on the land in Sonoma when they returned to the property.
When planting began on Rhinefarm in 1859, Jacob had three partners (Dresel, Kuchel & Lutgens), and they planted the first 60,000 vines on the ranch. (This was a number that towered over the perhaps only dozen other vineyards in wine country at the time with only 27,000 vines.) The first vintage was in 1861, but Gundlach & his partners were already producing wine and brandy from locally grown grapes and fruit.
In 1868, Charles Bundschu joined the winery after working in the produce industry for six years.
During the phylloxera outbreak in the 1870’s, Gundlach and his partner Julius Dresel averted the crisis by grafting the sickly European rootstock to the vines that Dresel had brought from Texas, making them the first in Sonoma to use this procedure. The grafted plantings produced high quality grapes for almost 100 years, until being replanted by Jim Bundschu in 1969.
In 1875, Charles Bundschu joined the family by marrying the eldest child of Jacob Gundlach, Francisca. Jacob retired and Charles managed the winery’s business in San Francisco for many years. Following Jacob’s death in 1984, the winery was renamed Gundlach Bundschu.
The winery was at the height of its success, when disaster struck in 1906. The San Francisco earthquake and fire destroyed one million gallons of wine and three family homes. The family took refuge at their country home at Rhinefarm and began plans to rebuild.
By 1910, 68-year-old Charles Bundschu passed away (never fully recovering mentally from the trauma of the fire and physically ill from an illness he came down with during the devastation). His sons Carl and Walter took joint command.
In 1919, prohibition closed the winery, and the company was liquidated. The family was able to hold on to the 130 acres of land and continue to grow grapes to be sold to the “juice grape” market, but half the vineyard was ripped out and replanted with Bartlett pears and some was used as pasture land.
in 1933, prohibition was repealed, but Walter’s wife Sadie remained a prohibitionist and was against reopening Gunlach Bundschu as a winery. Carl Bundschu was soon hired by Suzanne Niebaum to run Inglenook Winery in Napa and to mentor John Daniels, Jr., who eventually took control in 1938.
In 1938, Towle Bundschu took over Rhinefarm following the death of his father, Walter. He also restored Rhinefarm to 200 acres by acquiring an adjacent parcel of land. Soon after, a long contract with Almaden Winery was signed. Towle also served in the Korean War as an aerial gunner until he was discharged in 1946.
In 1969, Rhinefarm was replanted (for quality reasons) by Towle’s son Jim. By 1973, Jim crushed 20 tons of Zinfandel to produce the first wines in the old stone winery in over 50 years. When Towle saw the passion and commitment to the quality and success of the winery Jim possessed, he gave his blessing to use the family name and so Gundlach Bundschu Winery was given new life!
In 1976, Gundlach Bundschu released its “first” three wines: a 1973 Zinfandel, a 1975 Riesling, and 1975 Kleinberger, all estate grown and produced. Also in 1976, the winery became one of the first in California to produce a Merlot.
In 1981, came a Cabernet Sauvignon release, and a Best Red Wine award for it at the annual Sonoma Harvest Fair.
Jim Bundschu had a cave for the wines dug and completed by 1991, to mimic wine caves he had seen while visiting France. The 10,000 square foot, 430-foot-long cave ultimately benefits the 1,800 barrels it can accommodate by keeping the temperature and humidity at optimal levels.
Jeff Bundschu took the helm of the winery in 2000, and in 2001, it is decided the winery will produce estate-grown only wines. Currently, the winery produces Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Mountain Cuvée, Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo and a Vintage Reserve.
Why are they able to grow all of these different grapes (who need all different climates to flourish)? Because Rhinefarm is located at the intersection of four AVAs––Carneros, Napa Valley, Sonoma Valley and Sonoma Coast. If you visit the property you will see its elevation changes. Parts of Rhinefarm are hilly and parts are flat. The land is cooled by the coastal influences of the San Pablo Bay from the south and Pacific breezes through the Petaluma Gap on the west. This cool climate allows for slow ripening and more complexity, structure, and overall more control of the outcome of the harvest. If you’d like to see an interactive map of the vineyards you can click here and congratulations, you have completely geeked out (but that’s a good thing!!)
I wanted to share a little history of the winery because I think it is so interesting. During our visit we tasted the wines listed below, and were hosted by a tasting associate named Ronni, who literally told us everything I wrote about in the paragraphs above and had the whole story committed to memory. If you get stuck with her for a tasting, you’re in for a treat.
Artist Nate Reifke came to Gundlach Bundschu Winery to help turn a rusted 1953 International panel truck that had been collecting weeds in Huichica Creek on Rhinefarm for four decades into a centerpiece at the entrance to the winery.
If you plan on visiting, there are even different tours you can experience. There are the Pinzgauer Tour (aboard a 12-person, 6-wheeled, Austrian Army Vehicle), the Cave Tour, the Heritage Experience, the Vista Courtyard and the Historic Tasting Room options from which to choose. (We enjoyed the historic tasting room option.)