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Jeff Bundschu: Orchestrating a Six-Generation Wine Brand with Irreverence and Authenticity 

Laura Ness.

GunBun, as it’s affectionately known, is the oldest family-owned business in California since 1858, when Bavarian immigrant Jacob Gundlach bought 400 acres of land in Sonoma, which he named Reinfarm. With roots in his native Germany, Gundlach Rheinfarm made one of the largest vineyards in Sonoma at the time. Among his contemporaries are A. Haraszti and Charles Krug. In 1868, another German immigrant, Karl Bundschuh, joined the winery and married Gundlach’s oldest daughter and became part of the family. When struck by deadly phylloxera in the 1870s, they experimented with native Texas rootstocks that proved resistant, making Reinpharm the first vineyard in Sonoma to be grafted onto aphid-resistant vines. In fact, these vines produced consistently good wines until they were replanted nearly 100 years later, in 1969.

Jeff Bundschu: Orchestrating a Six-Generation Wine Brand with Irreverence and Authenticity 

In 1906, at the height of the Gundlach-Bundschuh basement’s fame, a massive earthquake and fire destroyed the San Francisco basement building and three family homes. They moved to Reinfarm and began rebuilding. In 1915, the winery gained international prominence at the Pacific International Exhibition in San Francisco, held to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal. They participated in an international wine competition and won medals for each of their 19 wines as well as the Grand Prix. The winery then survived two world wars and Prohibition, forcing the sale of much of the property and the planting of Bartlett pears on some of the remaining land. To make matters worse, Sadie, Walter Bundschuh’s then-wife, was an ardent 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 out there. There is a lesson to be learned: Perseverance and love of country.

Jeff Bundschu: Orchestrating a Six-Generation Wine Brand with Irreverence and Authenticity  Jeff, Katie and Jim

Jeff Bundschuh is one of the few sixth-generation winemakers still practicing his craft. Born and raised in Sonoma, he says this place is in my blood. Dad (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.

Since Sonoma was a small town, Jeff decided he was ready for the city when it came time to go to college. After studying international relations and business at USC Los Angeles, he spent 14 months traveling the world and working 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, Bundschu says. 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 at the beach!

Jeff Bundschu: Orchestrating a Six-Generation Wine Brand with Irreverence and Authenticity  When he decided to return to the family ranch, his father was grateful. It’s a complicated case, and he was happy to be helped. Even though after two years of our ongoing struggle, I don’t know how long this gratitude lasted!

He went back 26 years and took over the company in 2000 at the age of 33. A lover of the land and the brand, he is leading his family business into the future by continually 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 bothered Bundschuh since the beginning of its distribution is the pomp and circumstance surrounding the wine. There are a lot of gatekeepers in the industry who will tell you what’s good and what’s 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 snobbery has discouraged me. I’ve always kept an open mind. Finally, I have made a career out of producing authentic wines that respect our family values. You may recall that Bundschu (along with his high school friends Mike Sanjacomo and John Sebastiani) founded a group called Wine Brothers in 1994, with the goal of reaching the next generation of wine lovers.

Jeff Bundschu: Orchestrating a Six-Generation Wine Brand with Irreverence and Authenticity  It was important to Jeff to stay true to his family roots and vineyards, and he and his father Jim decided to move all the vineyards in 2001. Music has also played a big part in the current chapter of GunBun under Jeff’s leadership. 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 hit the road, meeting new groups and visiting bucolic locations like New York’s Hudson Valley and Walla Walla in Washington State to expand the brand’s reach through strategic marketing opportunities and partnerships. A portion of Huichica Sonoma’s revenue is earmarked for educational organizations and foundations in Sonoma County. The winery also produces wines and music in collaboration with bands like Lord Huron and Real Estate under the Echo Echo label.

Bundschuh, who played in the band himself, started organizing a series of concerts in the basement and attracting touring bands to the basement in between other scheduled concerts. I love live music! I’m a big fan. You can’t just show up: You have to be on board 100%! We are an old brand, but we have helped bring our wine to a new audience through live music.

Jeff Bundschu: Orchestrating a Six-Generation Wine Brand with Irreverence and Authenticity 

As a winemaker who has studied the workings of the vineyard for years, Bundschu takes a close look at what makes and promotes the GunBun successful. 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 are more confident in their tastes now. They want to know our history. Heck, you can’t even say Gundlach Bundschuh in an elevator!!!

The longevity 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. Many people have been here for a long time, and while there aren’t 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 attitudes and in our participation.

It’s about encouraging people to follow their passion and do things that aren’t always the most profitable. Pay attention to what turns you on 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.

Jeff Bundschu: Orchestrating a Six-Generation Wine Brand with Irreverence and Authenticity  Family portrait of Bundschuh

Fortunately, one of the few disasters of 2020 did not result in another invasion of phylloxera. However, this led to the purchase of a valuable piece of land with a vineyard from 1860.

In February 2020, Bundschu purchased 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 began as a brand with a tasting room on the Plaza. We also did not 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.

Jeff Bundschu: Orchestrating a Six-Generation Wine Brand with Irreverence and Authenticity  Abtenpassage Winery & Mercantile

He said New Glen Ellen has a super dynamic production facility that will allow it to increase production and make the wines more profitable. Until then, his opportunities at Rhinefarm Ranch were very limited.

Mr. Bundschu is grateful for the help of his cousin, Taule Merritt, who has extensive experience in Napa’s vineyards and the vision to establish efficiency processes that can help the company grow in ways it hasn’t in decades. As we grow up, we develop business structures that would have failed in my early years, Bundschuh says. We are 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 is 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!

More information can be found here: The most inspiring wine people of 2021.

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Jeff Bundschu: Orchestrating a Six-Generation Wine Brand with Irreverence and Authenticity 

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