If you’ve been in the wine business since the mid-nineteenth century like Darryl and me, your majestical roof—your brave overhanging firmament—probably resembles the sky above Selfridge Air Base during pilot training week. Lots of criss-crossing contrails with comrades in arms, right? People you knew in past lives keep popping up like those Whack-a-Gopher rodents at the Ionia County State Fair, any number of whom you would like to crack in the skull with a mallet?
No mallet for Darryl, though. Our paths have bisected along so many memorable byways over the centuries that our recent Gundlach Bundschu tasting wound up being more an excuse to get blissfully blotto at 11 AM (me more than him: He’s in silk tie and designer suit; I’m in do-rag and sweats) than to work.
Indeed, we scrambled our A-10 Thunderbolts of reflection and reminiscence.
Still, unlike the end-game of those sixty Thunderbolts deployed to Iraq in 2003, ours did indeed wind up—somehow, some way—as mission accomplished.
So First, the Wares:
Gundlach Bundschu is the oldest family-owned winery in California, which should be obvious to anyone who tries to pronounce ‘Gundlach Bundschu’. Clearly, these vineyards were established before the discovery of English caused the great California Linguistic Rush of 1849—coincidentally, the same year that I became a sommelier and Darryl became a wine rep.
Following a bizarre journey from Bavaria to California, during which he shipwrecked in Africa and somehow wound up in Brazil, Jacob Gundlach finally made the Left Coast where he picked up some 400 acres of primo Sonoma grapeland (which he christened ‘Rhinefarm’) and then went home to fetch his childhood squeeze, Ava.
The following year, he planted 60,000 vinifera vines on Rhinefarm; at this time, there were only twelve wineries in all of Sonoma County tending a grand total of 27,000 vines.
No surprise that ‘Gundlach’ is German for ‘jumping into battle’.
By the time he released his first estate bottling in 1861, he’d been making wine and brandy from locally purchased grapes for nearly a decade; within another ten years, production had risen to 150,000 cases, and he understood that it was time to bring someone on board familiar with finance.
That someone was Charles Bundschu, a member of the local German enclave. And old Charles knew a good thing when he saw it, so to braze the bonding, the randy old bean counter married Jake and Ava’s daughter Francisca, who—if you do the math—couldn’t have been more than 15 at the time.
The couple soon went all high-society, joining the ranks of San Francisco glitterati and forging a Gundlach Bundschu reputation as benefactors of the arts that is still in play today.
Jacob passed away in 1894 and Charles took over; a role for which he figured he might at least tag his surname onto the winery’s. Thus, the first vintage of Gundlach Bundschu was released the following season.
By the turn of the century, thirty years of canny viticulture and clever marketing had elevated Gundlach Bundschu to the top of the California drink chain; they were distributing a quarter million cases of wine every year in a global market. Charles Bundschu, who in his spare time was a poet of international fame, formed the highly successful ‘Bacchus Club’, celebrating two of life’s most important amenities: Wine and literature.
Then the Shoe Dropped…
On April 18, 1906 at 5:12 AM, the deadliest earthquake in American history hit San Francisco. More than three thousand people died, nearly twenty time as many as were killed in America’s second deadliest quake. *
* (Alaska, 1964)
Having been built on Second and Bryant in what is now San Francisco’s Soma District, the Gundlach Bundschu winery was pretty much demolished; the fires that followed the quake destroyed three family homes and more than a million gallons of wine. To avoid complete ruin, Gundlach Bundschu reinvented itself as a modest estate winery, and that survival-mode desperation allowed the family to eke out a bare-bones living. But the shock proved more than Charles Bundschu could manage: He died within a few years of the disaster, and his sons Carl and Walter picked up the reins.
Almost immediately, this brace of brilliant Bundschu boys managed to maneuver the estate back to sunshine and lollipops, and in 1915, only nine years after the quake, they entered their wines in the Panama Pacific International Exhibition and took 19 awards—including Grand Prize.
And then the other shoe dropped: Prohibition.
Lips That Touch Riesling Will Never Touch Mine
Even Walter Bundschu’s wife supported the 18th Amendment, and that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. By the time it was repealed fourteen years later, of the 800 California wineries, only 140 were still in business.
Gundlach Bundschu was not among them: And the winery windows remained shuttered for five decades.
Speaking of Camel’s Backs…
Thank you very much, Anti-Defamation League; I am fully aware that my Muslim brethren consider the term ‘camel jockey’—as used in this story’s scarehead—to be an unambiguously pejorative ethnic slur. I suppose they have a meter running, too, waiting for an explanation before Radio Tehran announces a fatwā demanding my execution.
Well, Islamic world, wine writing is a man’s life, and all man I be: I will explain myself when I am damn good and ready.
Meanwhile—although in my drink-damaged dotage the details might have deteriorated a dash—I believe that I first met Darryl Vennard at the Seven Lakes Vineyard, then the only estate-bottling winery in Oakland County, Michigan. He had been hired by Chris Guest, Seven Lakes’ proprietor, from Michigan State’s enology laboratory, where Darryl was finishing up a science credit needed for his utterly un-wine-related major in European Literature.
But as it happens, the relationship worked, because Chris Guest is a winemaker by profession (he now crushes and consults in the Leelanau and Old Mission peninsulas) but a dramatist both by design and DNA—his sister Judith wrote the paradigm-shifter Ordinary People and his uncle was Edgar Guest, Michigan’s only Poet Laureate.
I’d guess (pun) that at the time, the three of us would rather have been scribbling scat in our Moleskine journals and discussing why otherwise sane and sensible Jane Eyre gives in to unexplained outbursts of superstition while drinking wine that somebody else made and critiqued. Still, if life hands you botrytised vignoles…
I mention botrytised vignoles because discovering that it was infecting Guest’s late-harvest vignoles was Darryl’s proudest moment at Seven Lakes: His training under G. Stanley Howell, MSU professor (now emeritus) of enology had paid off; he recognized the fungus by its faint strawberry hue. The resulting wine was so lovely that it was picked up by sommelier (now MS) Madeline Triffon and featured on the tony London Chop House’s acclaimed wine list—an unheard-of honor for a Michigan wine.
European Lit boy made good: When I worked at Seven Lakes, the only thing I discovered was Chris Guest’s stash of experimental rosé, and I spent the entire harvest with a low-grade buzz.
From Boscs to Bovines and Back to Bundschu Barrels
For fifty years following Prohibition, the Gundlach Bundschu family raised pears and cattle, making wine only for home consumption. But by 1970, the market for wine grapes had improved to an extent that Jim Bundschu, grandson of Charles, convinced his father Towle that the former winery needed to retrieve the towel they’d thrown into the ring. Towle agreed with a single condition: That they replant using proven phylloxera-resistent St. George rootstock rather than the then-in-vogue AXR-1. Towle wound up being a visionary: A decade later, in the Eighties, AXR1 succumbed to root louse and caused untold financial and agricultural damage throughout California wine country.
The first modern-era, estate-bottled Gundlach Bundschu was 1973’s zinfandel, and throughout the 80’s and 90’s, the winery produced upwards of 70,000 cases annually—far below their turn-of-the-century heyday, but with the lower grape yields and resultant higher quality demanded by resuscitated winery, still quite respectable.
That number was slashed in half in 2001 when the family opted to eliminate all non-estate wines from their portfolio and focus exclusively on fruit from Rhinefarm. According to Jeff Bundschu, Charles Bundschu’s great-great grandson, “Quality is how we’re going to make it — quality of wine and quality of life. The family business is based on this philosophy: Make sure you do what you love when you’re doing it, because you never know when it’s going to change.”
Towle May Have Been Right About the AXR-1, but Muslims Don’t Drink Wine and They Don’t Like ‘Towle Head’ Any More Than ‘Camel Jockey’
Not quite yet, Mujahidin/Hezbollah jackholes; I’m getting to it. First, as we follow the arrow of Gundlach Bundschu’s timeline, so we must with Darryl Vennard. He was plucked from the bowels of Seven Lakes by a local distributor who needed someone to help market and sell Gundlach Bundschu wines to the local market—in part, no doubt, because it was hard to pronounce.
The story goes that a disgruntled Jim Bundschu had earlier stormed into the distributor’s head office where he’d taken a hand grenade from his briefcase, pulled the pin and laid it on the president’s desk, saying, ‘Okay; time to make a decision…’
Darryl, who actually likes to say ‘Gundlach Bundschu’, ended up being that decision. Through his business prowess, he put Gundlach Bundschu on the Michigan map, wound up as a highly regarded representative in what is probably the most unusual rakehell turn for a professor of European Lit wannabe ever conceived. So pleased was the Bundschu bunch with the results that years later, they brought him on board as Regional Rep for the Midwest, or something like that, and moved him to St. Louis. All I know is that he bops back into town from time to time, and we are able to share tea, crumpets and red pop while I listen to his bizarre, demented ramblings—the last of which I will share in a minute.
Emerson, Lake Sonoma and Palmer Creek Road
In 2009, a winemaker named Keith Emerson—who doesn’t know from ‘Chopsticks’ on the keyboards—was brought on board the Gundlach Bundschu dreadnought to make wines that ‘tell each vineyard’s story’. They were vineyards he’d seen before: Earlier in his career, he’d been an associate winemaker at Gundlach Bundschu and states, “I know the estate and I believe in its potential to produce stellar wines. Working with Jeff and the team, I find myself extremely motivated.”
And indeed, stellar wines he has made; since his tenure began, the winery has hauled down consistent scores in the nineties, including the scrumptious 2011 gewurtztraminer which is multi-functional as a food wine: It goes particularly well with King Biscuits and Brain Salad.
‘And Again I Say Unto You, It is Easier for a Camel to Go Through the Eye of a Needle Than For a Drunken Teenager to Enter into the Detroit Zoo After Dark…’ - Mark 10:25
Unless you’re Darryl Vennard. When we were idiotically younger dudes, Darryl lived in Pleasant Ridge and I lived in Huntington Woods and we had the Detroit Zoo in between us. Although the camel habitat was on my side, that did not stop a peculiar plastered person (whose name I’d share, but I haven’t heard back from his parole officer yet—but, let’s say it rhymes with ‘Schmarryl’) from vaulting the eight-foot stone wall, dodging surveillance cameras and security officers while crossing the park, then breaking into the dromedary digs.
And riding camels.
He claims to have done it a hundred times or more, which may be the product of a moonshine-manumitted tongue—or even a forked one—but it is a blue-ribbon story for sure and has naught to do with any anti-Arab attitudes or Muslim malevolence.
Anyway, Darryl is French/German.
Hear that, Grand Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Hosseini Khamenei? No offense intended. Now, please excuse me while I go feed and water Salman Rushdie who has been hiding in my wine cellar since 1988.
Gundlach Bundschu Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast, 2010, about $27: An excellent example of cool-climate California chard: Lemon zest and apple peel on the nose, rich and sharp on the tongue—no malolactic overtones, but plenty of true fruit acidity shining through. Pear and citrus on the palate, with a slightly abrupt finish.
Gundlach Bundschu Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma Valley, 2009, about $35: Sappy and sweet-smelling, with deep scents of blackberry preserves, succulent herbs and eucalyptus. Round, fruity and opulent, although midway through you are spanked with Whack-A-Gopher mallet (this time made of Limousin oak)—the wine clearly needs another five years in the cellar alongside Salman Rushdie.
Gundlach Bundschu Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, 2010, about $35: Gigantic, fully extracted bouquet—I think I would have missed that it was pinot noir in a blind tasting. The flavors are pretty true to form however, but the dominant fruits are plum and blueberry, with cherry—generally a hallmark of the varietal—putting in but a cameo near the end. It’s a lovely, integrated finish with coffee, hazelnut and brown spice.
Gundlach Bundschu Mountain Cuvée, Sonoma County, 2010 about $24: The posh label, along with a soft, sophisticated mouthfeel belies the fact that this wine might elsewhere be considered a mishmash of grapes picked on the final vineyard sweep: It’s a blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cab franc, zinfandel, syrah, malbec and petit verdot—in other words, if it’s purple and grows on a vine? Like Prego maintains, ‘It’s in there.’ The fact that each varietal is individually pressed and tailored to a specific phenolic profile, and blended only after fermentation, is likely what saves this wine from being a congeries of confusion. Instead, it is rich, red and raucous, jammed with jam and milk chocolate.