Swirl 'n' Spit
Tasting Room of the Week
Gundlach Bundschu Winery
By Heather Irwin
Lowdown: There are those who thought that Jim Bundschu's Napa Valley Wine Train hijacking caper was hilarious. And then there are those who got their bow ties and Armani cummerbunds in a knot over the whole escapade. We'll let you guess who's who, because there are the Falcon Crest wine-family dynasties, and then there are the Bundschus. Though the estate sprawls some 250 acres, the winery bottles just 50,000 cases a year--less than one-12th of what neighbor Sebastiani and Sons does. They're less shoulder pads and big hair than blue jeans and, well, masks. Jim Bundschu's famous Napa heist occurred in 1990 when he decided junketing journalists riding the Napa-centric wine train deserved an Old West holdup which turned into more of a "tasteup." The bemused riders were given samples of nearby Sonoma wines, much to the astonishment and horror of a number of some ruffled Napans. But when Bacchus is your patron saint, grapeish mischief can only be expected.
Vibe: Fourteen years later, the train heist is history, though the Napa/Sonoma feud rages on--as does the party at GunBun. The Gundlach Bundschu (pronounced "gun lock bun shoe") of today is a winery in transition, but holding tight to its roots with kicked-back, approachable wines. They're not A-list wines for the most part; they're picnic, Superbowl, housewarming wines that are made to enjoy rather than impress. The tasting room takes on the same feeling--small and casual, with music blaring and the clink of the bottling room (they were doing a value-priced new label, Block 13, on the day we visited) accompanying the generous six to eight pours for $5. If you're looking for something a little more upscale, the Bundschu family also owns Bartholomew Park, just down the road, making more premium Merlots. The estate shares some grapes, though the majority of Bartholomew Park's come from leased Buena Vista land.
Mouth value: Head straight for the reds and don't look back. The most unique wine is the 2000 Tempranillo ($28)--a Spanish-style red with lots of spice and lusty, peppery flavors. The 2001 Morse Vineyard Zinfandel ($20) is a charming little coquette, pleasingly unrefined and saucy, while the 2001 Rhinefarm Cabernet Sauvignon ($32) and Merlot ($28) saunter around the palate like the plump, classy dames they are. The winery's dry Gewurztraminer is sold-out (like many of the winery's other premium Rhinefarm wines), but is an award-winning perennial favorite.
Don't miss: All that tasting is bound to work up an appetite. Before hitting the winery, stop by the Cheese Maker's Daughter (127 E. Napa St., Sonoma, 707.996.4060) for the $4.50 lunch special, a skinny baguette slathered with butter and fig spread, then draped with cheese and Serrano ham. Treat yourself to some Turkish yogurt out of the back refrigerator ($1.99), to make your lactose-laden meal complete, and a small container (75 cents) of Spanish almonds with olive oil and sea salt. The winery has some of the most spectacular picnic grounds in Sonoma, and eating in the car just won't do.
Five-second snob: An oak is not just an oak. Wine is aged in oak barrels that usually come from France or the United States. But there's more to the science: American oak barrels are labeled with the state the oak came from--Minnesota, Michigan, etc.--to let the vintner know the quality of the oak. Northern American oak is less porous, letting less oxidation occur. Southern oak is more porous, giving the opposite effect.
Spot: Gundlach Bundschu Winery, 2000 Denmark St., Sonoma. Open daily, 10am to 5pm. 707.938.5277.
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From the April 14-20, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.