Time in a bottle
150 years of Gun Bun — hijinks, hijacking and highly acclaimed wines
Three generations of Bundschus— Jim (left), Eva and Gracie (top, bottom) and their father, Jeff—ponder the future of Gun Bun fun
They put Dali on a label and kidnapped Sir Richard Branson.
Their winemaker favors tequila. Their offbeat posters are legendary. And right now, while you’re reading this, they could be unpacking their masks and capes and planning their next covert operation.
It’s not clear if or when they’ll strike again. But if they do, we have a message for Gundlach Bundschu.
Please, please, come for us.
Because nothing quite compares to being captured by renegade winemakers, especially when they’re armed with a family history reaching back to the dawn of Sonoma. We’re talking about 150 years of unbroken succession. Think about your parents and your grandparents and your great-grandparents and your great-great- grandparents and their parents, all living on the same land, making extraordinary wine and occasionally dressing up in tights or animal skins or funny hats to lend visual and vocal expression to whatever muse or demon inspires them.
They are so well known they allow us locals to clip their name into a gleeful, syncopated punch line of a sound that people can actually pronounce: Gun Bun.
These days, in fact, the Bundschus are respected enough and loved enough to pull off pretty much anything. Case in point: The greatest heist in Wine Country history: hijacking the Napa Valley Wine Train.
It was 1990. The controversial Napa Valley Wine Train, already in full swing, tugged winetasting tourists through the vineyards in protracted show-and-tell. Of course, anyone who knows Wine Country understands the long-standing rivalry between Sonoma and Napa, and Jim Bundschu wasn’t about to sit back and watch Napa grab all the glory.
So he called his buddies from the Sonoma Valley Wine Patrol, a grass-roots group of winery owners who made it their business to promote Sonoma wines.
A simple plan was hatched: Board the train, throw out Napa wine and replace it with better bottles from Sonoma.
Attired in capes and masks, the patrol arrived at the station with 20 suitcases of wine, ready to perform their best Zorro impression. Unfortunately, they were an hour early.
“We had capes on, and when we finally got on the car, the conductor didn’t even blink an eye,” Jim recalls. “I thought they’d stop us, but they said nothing.”
Ignoring the affront of being ignored, the SVWP leapt into action once the train was rolling.
“I just dumped their wine in the dump bucket and poured them a glass of our wine,” Jim says with a grin. “The whole train was behind us and we were having a ball.”
The story is emblematic of Gun Bun history, rife with ingenuity, irreverence and whimsy. But that’s not the whole story.
On the flip side of the tomfoolery is the legacy of six generations, whose members endured Prohibition, earthquake, drought, phylloxera, fragile finances and the fickle flux of cultural fancy to become the oldest family-owned winery in America.
It’s a grand claim, and as far as anyone can determine, it’s true. A few wineries are marginally older. Buena Vista is justly famous, and its nearby tasting room preceded Gun Bun, but that winery has passed through several corporate hands.
So let’s be clear. You don’t hit one and a half centuries just through fun, frolic and fortuitous circumstances. Those years are carved out of dirt and rock and calloused labor, with epic effort, and with more than a touch of grace.
This family drama has unfolded at Rhinefarm, a scenic 320-acre homestead sprawled at the base of the Mayacamas Mountains. Armed with enough European rootstock to plant his own vineyards, Bavarian immigrant Jacob Gundlach purchased the land in 1858, and he knew what he was doing. The property consisted of both steep hillsides and cool valley floors, whose microclimates would eventually nurture not simply Riesling but a dizzying mélange of Bordeaux and Burgundian varietals as well as grapes like zinfandel and Gewürztraminer. Charles Bundschu joined the company in 1868 and soon fell for and married Francisca, Gundlach’s comely daughter.
A century and a half later, the family is still rooted at Rhinefarm, celebrating their sesquicentennial year and exploring their evolving identity.
“We’re constantly reinventing ourselves. It’s the acceptance of change and the pursuit of change,” says patriarch, director of viticulture and resident wit Jim, as he sits in the house his grandfather built from stone in 1918.
Jim’s evolutionary spirit is, in fact, what revived the family winemaking business in the 1970s—an unruly, “anything goes” era that might be called the Wild West of Wine. While the family has consistently grown and sold wine grapes, the winemaking business officially halted in 1919 during Prohibition. It was not until 1969 that Jim persuaded his dad to let him reopen the winery and replant his ancestor’s old vines. After all, this was the Sonoma family that created the first Vintage Festival, and Sonoma was fast becoming a hub for California’s new wine industry.
“It was like a gold rush. Every facet of the industry was gearing up,” Jim recalls. “The price of grapes went from $30 a ton to $700 to $800 a ton in a matter of five years.”
Unlike latecomers who had never planted a vine before, the Bundschus had spent more than a century on the same soil. “My father knew this land, he understood the climate and the soil,” Jim says. “We had a much easier time.”
Easier, yes, but not easy. American winemaking then was not the elegant, established science it is today. “No one was there to tell you that you were doing it wrong, or that you were doing it right,” Jim remembers. “All you had to do was put grapes in a bucket, stomp on them and you’ve got wine.”
And they did. Jim recalls the family’s first vintage in 1973, made from just four tons of grapes. Since then, they’ve won more accolades and awards than they can count.
They also took risks. Gun Bun was one of the only wineries in California to plant merlot, a commonplace varietal in Europe but not in the United States.
“People all called it mer-lott. No one knew what it was,” Jim says. Difficulty saying it equated to a difficult sell.
It’s the acceptance of change and the pursuit of change.” – Jim Bundschu
But strange times call for stranger measures, and Jim looked for creative ways to peddle the family wares, harnessing his humor in an immensely successful poster campaign.
The first one, showing a motorcycle cop making a traffic stop in a vineyard, read “Sonoma Valley Sobriety Test: If you can’t say Gundlach Bundschu Gewürztraminer, you shouldn’t be driving.”
It was this willingness to insert tongue in cheek that helped secure Gundlach Bundschu’s place in the industry. (That, and some very, very good wines.)
“Without even knowing it, (my dad) made wine approachable through his humor,” says Jeff Bundschu, Jim’s son and winery president.
For Jim, humor is a family heirloom, and few places near or far can claim a 150-year monopoly on the definitive place to party. And if you’re lucky enough to be invited to a Gun Bun affair, bring your best stand-up act if you want to eat.
“We’ve had a big tradition of singing for your supper,” Jeff says. “We never have a dinner without audience participation.”
Whether or not you end up in the spotlight, there’s always something going on at the winery, from Shakespeare in the hillside amphitheater to rambunctious harvest parties to movie screenings.
Now add to the repertoire a show that’s been commissioned for Gun Bun’s 150th birthday: Written and performed by Mark Kenward and directed by David Ford, “Towle’s Hill” is an original, one-man play named for Jim’s father and retelling the Gun Bun story. (It will run in Sonoma this fall during the Vintage Festival.)
Characters and antics aside, when Jeff took the helm as president in 2000, he ensured the business had the goods to back up Gun Bun fun.
“We were known more for the shenanigans and the love of life than for the winemaking. Our wines weren’t jumping off the page,” Jeff says. “So far, my tenure has been about making the wines absolutely and impenetrably world-class. The challenge is making sure you’re thriving while having fun.”
Getting down to business means meticulous, sustainable farming and a winemaking style that allows the grapes to speak or, in vintage Gun Bun fashion, sing for themselves.
Cooled by San Pablo Bay and warmed by Carneros sun, the lush Rhinefarm Estate consists of two main areas: the “bench,” a rocky shelf along the banks of the Mayacamas, where volcanic ash nurtures cab sauvignon, merlot, cab franc, petit verdot, syrah and zinfandel; and the “lowlands,” where loamy soil, gravel and clay keep good company with chard, pinot noir and Gewürztraminer.
In recent years, Jeff has trimmed annual wine production from 80,000 cases to 40,000, investing the winery and winemaker Linda Trotta with more control over the quality of each bottle.
In Sonoma, says Jeff, there’s one true test of a good wine.
Whenever the family attends a local function, like any proper guest they’ll bring a bottle of wine. But this is Sonoma, where every third person owns a winery, works at a winery, or drives past a winery on their way to work. Good wine is common as sunshine. The question Jeff asks, the question Gun Bun stakes its business on, is, “Which bottle is empty at the end of the night? That’s the bottle I want to be,” Jeff says.
A timeline of the rhinefarm
1858: Jacob Gundlach breaks ground on 400 virgin acres at his freshly purchased Rhinefarm.
1868: Accountant Charles Bundschu joins the business, falls hard for Jacob’s daughter, Francisca, and the pair weds in 1875, creating the Gundlach Bundschu family name.
1897: The Gun Buns aren’t just vintners, they’re homegrown thespians. The family puts on a play, invites the whole community, thus launching the Sonoma Vintage Festival.
1906: On April 18 the great earthquake rocks the Bay Area, destroying the Gun Bun production facilities in San Francisco. They lose a million gallons of wine, their headquarters and three family homes. The Gun Buns retreat to the Rhinefarm to rebuild.
1915: Charles succumbs to illness, his sons Walter and Carl take over. The Panama Pacific International Exhibition comes to San Francisco, with Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Gun Bun, which submits wine to 19 international competitions, winning 19 awards, including Grand Prize.
1919: Prohibition arrives, essentially shutting down the winery. Walter remains at Rhinefarm, growing grapes for juice and Bartlett pears.
1938: Walter dies suddenly, his 19-year-old son Towle (rhymes with “Pole”) takes over the business. It’s a hard row to hoe.
1942: Towle is drafted in the U.S. Army and serves in Korea.
1950: Napa winemaker Louis Martini contracts with Towle to purchase grapes—a huge endorsement of Rhinefarm’s grape quality.
1969: Jim convinces Towle to replant the vineyards, to eventually resume winemaking.
1973: The family produces its first wine in 50 years under the Gundlach Bundschu name.
1990: Jim helps hijack the Napa Valley Wine Train.
1994: Jeff follows in his dad’s renegade footsteps by orchestrating another hijacking. This time it’s billionaire playboy Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Atlantic Airlines.
Branson has planned a Napa Valley tour with an entourage of international journalists to promote Virgin’s inaugural San Francisco flight. The group’s tour bus is surrounded by jeeps, motorcycles and a helicopter, which guide the bus back to the Rhinefarm.
“(Branson) didn’t know it was going to happen,” Jeff says. “The only guy who knew was the bus driver.”
The family entertains the billionaire, providing him with plenty of wine, a vineyard tour and a long-lasting impression. Branson later recalls, “Two guys in a helicopter with fake submachine guns forced our bus down a dirt road and locked me up in a big shed, where naked ladies were jumping up and down in grape vats. I was forced to get in there and join them. They went to enormous lengths to convert us to their wines ... and it worked! I’ve been sold on Sonoma ever since. They are definitely less stuffy.”
On the cover of the Summer issue of SONOMA: Robbi Pengelly captured two generations of Bunschus, Jiime (left) and Jeff, plotting the futre at home on Rhinefarm.
From the Summer 2008 issue of SONOMA