GunBun, as it is affectionately called, is the oldest family business in California since 1858, when the Bavarian immigrant Jacob Gundlach bought 400 hectares of land in Sonoma, which he called Reinfarm. With roots in his native Germany, Gundlach Rheinfarm made one of the largest vineyards in Sonoma at that time. His contemporaries include A. Haraszti and Charles Krug. In 1868 another German emigrant, Karl Bundschuh, joined the estate and married the eldest daughter of Gundlach and became part of the family. When hit by deadly phylloxera in the 1870s, they experimented with indigenous Texas rootstocks that proved to be resistant, making Reinpharm the first vineyard in Sonoma to be grafted onto aphid-resistant vines. In fact, these vines consistently produced good wines until they were replanted almost 100 years later, in 1969.
In 1906, at the height of the fame of the Gundlach-Bundschuh- cellar, a violent earthquake destroyed the basement building in San Francisco and three family homes. They moved to Reinfarm and started rebuilding. In 1915, the winery gained international acclaim at the Pacific International Exhibition in San Francisco, held to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal. They took part in an international wine competition and won medals for each of their 19 wines and the Grand Prix. The winery survived two world wars and the ban, which forced the sale of a large part of the property and the planting of Bartlett pears on part of the remaining land. To make matters worse, Sadie, then wife of Walter Bundschuh, was a fervent prohibitionist, and her efforts kept the winery closed for decades, even after the passage of the 21st Amendment. Meanwhile the Reinfarm grapes have been sold to Almaden, Inglenuc and Louis Martini. When the Gundlach-Bundschuh winery reopened in 1976, it was the first to bottle Merlot, followed by Cabernet Sauvignon in 1981. And today, in 2021, GunBun is still very much present. There’s a lesson to be learned: Perseverance and love for the country.
Jeff Bundschuh is one of the few winemakers of the sixth generation still practising his profession. Born and raised in Sonoma, he says this place is in my blood. Daddy (Jim) was adamant about our work on the ranch and in the vineyard. But he told us to follow our passion and pursue our own interests. We came back because we wanted to, not because we had to. We had to figure out how to fit into this world.
Because Sonoma was a small town, Jeff decided he was ready for the city when it was time to go to college. After studying international relations and business at USC Los Angeles, he traveled the world for 14 months and worked on two crops. During his visits to India and Africa, he was fascinated by the family culture he observed in the villages. I began to see the importance of family differently, says Bundschu. He also began to appreciate the innate charm of the place where he had grown up. One day I brought my friends from the big city to the ranch, and when they saw what I had, their jaws fell apart. And I saw this place in a different light. Suddenly I was enjoying a place where I couldn’t skateboard or work as a lifeguard in the summer because I had to pick up rocks in the vineyard instead of hanging out on the beach!
When he made the decision to return to the family ranch, his father was grateful, Jeff says. It’s a complicated matter, and he was happy to be helped. Even though after two years of our constant struggle, I don’t know how long this gratitude has lasted!
He went back 26 years and took over the company in 2000 at the age of 33. As a country and brand enthusiast, he is leading his family business into the future by constantly diversifying his portfolio and creating dynamic experiences for wine lovers across the country. I’m not aware of how much things have changed. I really think we’re in a unique position, which is pretty good for us.
One thing that has disturbed Bundschuh since the beginning of its distribution is the splendour that reigns around the wine. There are many gatekeepers in the industry who tell you what is good and what is not, and they can have a lot of influence: The critics, the wine buyers, the critics. It was assumed that knowledge was a prerequisite for pleasure. A lot of hype and wine has discouraged me. I’ve always kept an open mind. Finally, I made a career in the production of authentic wines that respect our family values. You may remember that Bundschu (together with his high school friends Mike Sanjacomo and John Sebastiani) founded a group called Wine Brothers in 1994, with the aim of reaching the next generation of wine lovers.
Faithful to the family roots and the vineyards was important to Jeff, and he and his father Jim decided to move to the vineyard in 2001. Music has also played a major role in the current chapter of GunBun led by Jeff. He sees music, especially live music, as an authentic experience that, like wine, brings people together. That’s why he created the Wichita Micro Music Festival in 2009. He set out, met new groups and visited bucolic locations such as the Hudson Valley in New York and Walla Walla in Washington State to expand the brand’s reach through strategic marketing opportunities and partnerships. Part of the income of Huichica Sonoma is earmarked for educational organisations and foundations in Sonoma County. The winery also produces wines and music in collaboration with bands such as Lord Huron and Real Estate under the Echo Echo label.
Bundschuh, who played in the band himself, undertook to organize a series of concerts in the basement to attract tour bands in between the other planned performances. I love live music! I’m a big fan. You can’t just show up: You must be 100% on board! We’re an old brand, but we’ve helped bring our wine to a new audience through live music.
As a winemaker who has been studying the operation of the vineyard for years, Bundschu takes a close look at what makes the GunBun successful and promotes it. Sometimes you lead from behind. You have to understand what you have and make the best of it. We quietly make good wine and make people happy. We are less a product than an experience. People now have more confidence in their tastes. They want to know our history. You can’t even say Gundlach Bundschuh in an elevator!!!
The lifespan and freshness of a company depends on its employees. This is Jeff: Gundlach Bundschu is not a fast growing company, but we always want dynamic people. There are many people here, and although there are not many opportunities for growth, we are committed to providing the skills needed to work in large companies. I like to think that we are happy and young, both in our attitude and in our participation.
It’s about encouraging people to follow their passion and do things that aren’t always the most profitable. Watch what excites you the most and go for it. Try to change what’s pulling you down. We try to motivate everything we do. Everyone here loves what we do: That must mean something.
One of the few disasters of 2020 fortunately did not lead to another invasion of phylloxera. However, this led to the purchase of a valuable piece of land with a vineyard dating from 1860.
In February 2020, Bundschu bought the historic 60-acre estate in the Sonoma Valley, formerly the Valley of the Moon, to become the new home of Abbot’s Passage Winery & Mercantile, an idea of Jeff’s sister Kathy. According to Mr Bundschuh, this property, located on Madron Road in Glen Ellen, is a big change for the company. This is a great manifestation of our approach. We had an old vineyard in Sonoma (Danish Road) that was outdated and needed updating. It wasn’t very comfortable on the outside. When we launched Abbott’s Passage, we wanted to find rural vineyards that fit Kathy’s concept of field blends. Instead, it started as a brand with a tasting room in the Plaza. We also didn’t have a commercial kitchen at GunBun. We tried to solve these problems on an ad hoc basis. Then we saw the place! This is the biggest step we’ve taken in a generation.
He said that the new Glen Ellen has a super dynamic production facility that makes it possible to increase production and make the wines more profitable. Until then his possibilities on Rhinefarm Ranch were very limited.
Mr. Bundschu is grateful for the help of his cousin, Taule Merritt, who has extensive experience in the vineyards of Napa and has the vision to set up efficiency processes that can help the company grow in a way that it has not been able to do in decades. As we grow up, we develop business structures that would have failed in my early years, Bundschuh says. We’re blenders and winemakers and we live in our corner. You don’t wake up thinking about efficiency. But Towle is very concerned about efficiency. When he came here, he set the table for us to have a plan for the next decade. We can adapt and be ambitious on our own terms. We can focus on what is unique about our properties. We can sell juice to strangers. Everything we do will essentially do what it’s supposed to do. We’re just a brand. I can feel the wind behind our backs. I want to be hyper focused on quality and be able to share that with our customers, with open arms…. and a noisy stereo!
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