Wine from the Sonoma Valley wasn't always so glamorous. Jim Bundschu recalls his dad hanging out at the kitchen table with California Burgundy jug pioneer August Sebastiani, playing the card game Pedro in the early 1960s. "They'd be drinking wine out of peanut butter jars while my mom made slumgulleon," says Bundschu, who oversees the vineyards of the Gundlach Bundschu estate in the hilly Carneros region of Sonoma. But in 1966, with a stiff new diploma in agricultural economics, Bundschu recognized the potential, maybe not for glamour, but certainly to create something extraordinary.
It was Bundschu, together with a handful of aspiring vintners, who saw the potential of premium, estate-bottled California wines. Think of them as the American wine industry's greatest generation: guys like the late Robert Mondavi, who witnessed the transformation of the Napa and Sonoma valleys from a weedy agricultural outback of commodity grapes and slumgulleon, to a region with a worldwide reputation for first-class wines. And, of course, a landscape that generates a multibillion-dollar chunk of the state's economy.
In 1999, Bundschu handed over executive responsibilities to his son Jeff - the sixth generation to direct the business - to focus on the vineyards, with their gewürztraminer, chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, and zinfandel varietals, among others. ("My interest is in farming anyway," he says.) Now 64, Jim Bundschu is lean, with a wiry mass of sandy hair, sporting Wranglers and scuffed cowboy boots as he moves around the cluttered office in one wing of his family's rambling home, built in 1918 from local stone. He has a modesty that seems out of proportion with Gundlach Bundschu's success. Listen, for instance, to his pronunciation of the family business: Gun-lock Bun-shoe. All traces of the original German bred out of it, with a ring as solidly American as if it named a brand of farm machinery.
Bundschu worked in the family vineyards summers and after school - you get the feeling he's always been happier seated on a tractor than in a desk chair. Even as a brother in the Zeta Psi house, in the potent atmosphere of Free Speech Movement-era Berkeley, he was tagged a hayseed. Teased for it, too. Bundschu's father, Towle - himself a Cal man - persuaded his son to consider Berkeley instead of the more ag-oriented Davis, with its burgeoning department of viticulture and enology.
"He told me, 'You already know about grape growing. Why don't you go and learn about the world?'" Bundschu says.
But there was nothing wet behind the ears about Bundschu's resolve, post Cal, to revive the family vineyards starting in 1969. More than a hundred years earlier, Bavarian immigrant Jacob Gundlach planted the winery's original vines on a 400-acre spread dubbed Rhinefarm. In 1868, another German immigrant, Charles Bundschu, joined the winery, one of only a dozen in California's nascent industry. But after the 1906 earthquake destroyed the company's wine-making facility (located, like fellow wineries, in San Francisco), operations retreated to Rhinefarm, and Gundlach Bundschu remade itself as a small estate producer.
Beginning in 1919, Prohibition all but killed the business. Rhinefarm shrank to just over a hundred acres - it produced some grapes for the juice market, but focused instead on its pear orchards. When the 18th Amendment was repealed, Jim Bundschu's father grew wine grapes for sale to then-prestigious wineries like Almaden. Still, Bartlett pears were more important to the family account books than pinot noir.
But by the mid-1960s, more and more Americans were drinking wine. For the first time in 50 years, estate-bottling wines in California began to look like a viable business enterprise. Of course, fresh from the Zeta Psi house, Jim Bundschu didn't begin with some far-sighted scheme to become a celebrated winemaker. "I had no economic plan whatsoever, except that I knew I wanted to grow wine grapes," he says. He got a contract to sell wine grapes to Sebastiani; at the same time, he made 300 cases of Gundlach Bundschu zinfandel (released in 1973). Bundschu replanted Rhinefarm's 200-plus acreage with new vines; they now spread over more than 300 acres.
"The excitement was just unbounded," Bundschu says. "We were able to focus on the quality of the fruit, of what an acre could produce, and not just as a commodity." It was excitement that ended up fueling a huge change in the global wine industry, as Bundschu, together with Sebastiani, Mondavi, Inglenook, and even Gallo, combined new viticulture and winemaking technologies in the rapid pursuit of quality. And while other wineries of the same generation pursued massive output - Fetzer, for instance, produces more than 5 million cases a year - Bundschu opted for measured growth and family control in pursuit of becoming a top estate producer of wines the San Francisco Chronicle calls "elegant and silky."
Having gone to Cal to learn about the world, Bundschu ended up helping to change it.