A Tradition of Pride in Grapes, Wine : Bundschu Fights to Regain Pre-Prohibition Reputation

Chroman is a free-lance wine writer and author who also practices law in Beverly Hills

Gundlach Bundschu is one of several wineries that lays claim to the title of California's oldest family-owned vineyard. Jacob Gundlach, who founded the winery in 1858, was the first to import Riesling vines to Sonoma County from Germany. Today, Jim Bundschu, Gundlach's great-great-grandson, is still farming grapes and making wine on the original 120-acre vineyard known as Rheinfarm in the Vineburg District, two miles southeast of Sonoma.

Bundschu, trained in farming more than in wine making, takes as much pride, if not more, in his grapes as in his wines, even though both are considered special. The winery reopened in 1973 after a long hiatus, which included such trying events as the destruction of its noted wine values in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 and followed by Prohibition. Bundschu's first wines were labeled Sonoma Riesling produced from Kleinberger grapes, known as Elbling in Germany, and likely to be the only such grapes produced commercially in the United States. Special emphasis too was placed on Zinfandel, which Bundschu considers a strong contender in an ever-expanding line.

Soft, Generous Zinfandel

A remarkably good buy at $6.50, Gundlach Bundschu, Zinfandel, Rheinfarm Vineyard 1982 reflects the famous Sonoma Zinfandel spice and pepper, an attractive nose and taste characteristic that makes it easy to recognize and enjoy. Here is a soft, generous wine with heaps of flavor as a red that does not require much, if any, aging. Its high 14.7% alcohol is not a deterrent to pleasant drinking now.

Another in the good and less expensive line is Gundlach Bundschu's Sonoma Valley Red Wine, Non Vintage, which shows similar spice in a blend emphasizing Merlot, Pinot Noir and finished by Zinfandel and Cabernet. The wine is soft and generous, dominated by the Pinot Noir and Merlot and marked by a bit of unique botrytis and tannin, which will require a short period of additional cellar aging if greater silky texture is desired. Neither big structured nor robust, with excellent flavor now, it is an excellent bet as an everyday wine for casual dining with fast foods such as hamburger and pasta-type dishes. This is a remarkably well-blended wine with non-intrusive 13.6% alcohol at the even more remarkable price of $3.50, and competes well with wines at twice the cost.

Two 1981 Gundlach Bundschu Cabernets are attractive. The first from Rheinfarm vines is also made in a soft, generous, full-flavored style for earlier drinking yet with ample tannin for aging. Its mellowness is the strong feature for today's pleasure, and at 13.3% alcohol, it is a wine that shows no finish heat. Worthy of a look and taste at $8.

The other Cabernet produced from Sonoma Valley grapes is better yet, but is priced higher at $12. It is not fully developed as yet, but is developing well and shows the promise of elegance and softness with a bit more structure and greater intensity. A good candidate for long-term cellaring, it is a well-made wine that will provide great pleasure within the next five years.

Best of all the Cabernets is the 1980 from Bato Ranch in Sonoma Valley at $13. A fragrant violet-like nose scent is developing beautifully, with an already mellowing taste character, soft elegant and claret-like with some astringency showing, especially in the finish. With depth and length, it is an excellent buy even at the higher price because it may be the winery's best to date, capable of competing with many of California's best. For the impatient, it can be pleasurable now, especially if a vigorous style Cabernet is a taste preference.

Cabernet 1982, also from Sonoma Valley grapes, has a soft, no-hard-edge style and is a decent buy at $12. It is the fattest and roundest of the winery's Cabernets with less intensity and will not be as long lasting as the '81 or '80. As vintages go, Bundschu prefers the '81 and '80; nevertheless, the wine may be enjoyed earlier while waiting for the others to age longer.

A better buy is the Merlot, Rheinfarm, 1982, which has considerable flavor, softness, elegance and even a measure of complexity. A most likable and drinkable wine now without any need for further aging, it features the peppery nose and taste found in many of Gundlach Bundschu's wines. Bundschu says that all of his grapes feature the pepperiness, a characteristic for which he cannot account, although I am convinced he sprays them all with table pepper, a theory that brought instant denial.

The winery's best white is Gewurztraminer, Rheinfarm, 1983, at an accommodating price of $6. Here is a strong, assertive spicy nose in a mouth-filling fat style with the suggestion of peach-like, slightly sweet flavors. It is an easy, generous wine and is not as crisp as other Gewurztraminers, but for many that may be a more desirable taste characteristic. The wine may be better for casual, leisurely sipping as an aperitif, rather than at the table.

Pinot Noir, Rheinfarm, 1982 is another in California's withdrawal from the heavy-handed robust Pinot Noir syndrome. Extremely soft with some elegance and flavor and a bit of finish heat at 13.4% alcohol, a portion of the wine was fermented in barrel, leaving a fragrant, rose-like bouquet, with easy taste access. Without power and strong structure it should do well with light-styled meat dishes at a welcome price of $8.

Restrained High-Alcohol Style

Least interesting is the Chardonnay 1981 from the Sangiacomo Ranch, Sonoma Valley, in a restrained high-alcohol style. The wine was barrel fermented in oak with some wood still showing. Fortunately, its texture is lean, despite barrel fermentation, unlike so many others that are overly fat and buttery. Better versions are expected, and at $14 other choices may be better considered.

It is clear that with an abundance of Bundschu's well-managed and trained vineyards, the winery is maintaining its 19th-Century roots and reputation nicely. Wines are made by Lance Cutler, a self-taught, experienced wine maker who enjoys the vigor of young, sometimes raw wines, especially in Cabernets, but is smart enough to allow Bundschu's grapes to speak for themselves. Reluctant, even nervous in the insertion of any of his self-styled wine-making flourishes, Cutler too is convinced of the super quality of Bundschu's grapes.

As Bundschu becomes more active in the wine-making process, he is learning to trust in wine-making skill and artistry while trying to match a longstanding commodity, the winery's greater pre-Prohibition reputation.

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