Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Wine by the Generation

Originally published June 10, 2001

For more than five generations Jeff Bundschu’s family has farmed, harvested and created fine wines in Sonoma County. Is there anything left worth doing for a young-man in an old-wine family? Jeff thinks there's plenty and he's happy to be in charge of the family business.


Fred Dodsworth: Jeff, do you consider yourself a farmer, vintner or manager?
Jeff Bundschu: I don’t think you can run a winery or a vineyard without being a manager. My aspiration in life is to manage an entire cohesive unit from the time Jose Luis lays the cover crop, all the way to the time that vine is producing a berry, and makes it to the winery and then into a bottle. What we have that’s so unique is total control over the entire estate. You rarely see an operation owned by a single, focused owner without having to blend outside grapes or without the pressure of larger projects.

Dodsworth: One of the complaints I’ve heard about the wine industry is the use of pesticides.
Bundschu: The beautiful self protector when it coming to pesticide management is that anything you apply to those berries is going to show up in the wine, either in the way it tastes or in the way fermentation goes. There’s a natural barrier there that ensures that the fruit that ends up making wine is pretty much naturally produced. I can’t speak for the whole industry but I can say in the case of North Coast vineyards – Sonoma, Napa – there’s a huge effort to move away from unnecessary applications. Some wineries are going to the extreme level of organic certification. Others, like ourselves, are pursuing a program of integrated pest management. We don’t use any pesticides except in the case of very special outbreaks. We going to be responsible for pesticide use but we also have a responsibility to preserve our crops.

In California there’s always going to be a tenuous relationship between agriculture and developing communities. There are a lot of people that didn’t grow up around tractors disking in the middle of the night, or sulfuring in the middle of the night or fans going on and waking you up. It used to be that your neighbors all grew up in a farming community and understood that those noises were part of making a living. It’s definitely a big issue but I’m coming from a place where you’ve got to be respectful and respond to their legitimate concerns. That doesn’t mean we have to stop what we’re doing but it’s just being a responsible neighbor. You got to trust that the majority are going to respect what you’ve got to do to make a living.

Dodsworth: Who actually started this winery?
Bundschu: My great-great-great grandfather Jacob Gundlach bought this vineyard in 1858 and started his winery in San Francisco. The house was designed by the same architect that did Jack London’s “Wolfhouse” in Glen Ellen. My grandmother still lives in one section and the main offices are in the rest of the house. It’s still very much a family feel, too much so occasionally, given how close quarters are. There’re a little too many signs that it’s been here 140 years to my liking if you get my drift.

Dodsworth: Is your dad still involved?
Bundschu: He’s always been the farmer. The vineyard has always been his main focus.

Dodsworth: How has your family managed to keep the family farm?
Bundschu: I’m the sixth generation to be doing this. The way that the business has always been passed on is not in order of birth or anything like that, it’s been who’s been engaged in the business. There was never any pressure to come back, in fact it was the opposite. The encouragement was not to study viticulture, it was to go out and to make sure if you came back that the decision was your own. That’s the advice my grandfather gave to my father and my father gave to me.

The unspoken reality of inheriting a six-generational family business is you’re here to preserve it, you’re not here to grow it and sell it. There’s a definite understanding that you’re working in a place that will be around a long time and you want to do well while you’re here. The winery’s ability to stay intact is more important that who owns it. That’s the way it goes. I’m trying to build the place and ensure that once my time here is over that it stays alive and successful as the family goes on. The pressure has been more from me than anyone else.

I guess the thing that’s made it survivable was that I went into it thinking I could add value. I didn’t go into it thinking this was some crown jewel that had everything intact and my job was just to polish it. My perception was that I could take this to a whole new level. My own fear is that I could discover I’d not lived up to that.

I’m in this because what I’m doing here brings joy to my life. If I got so involved in the process of making the wine and I couldn’t enjoy what it’s intended to do, I have come too far. I’ve watched people of my dad’s generation come to terms with being in families while running companies. Too often I’ve seen cases where the companies succeeded but the families didn’t. That is one thing I’m striving to avoid. If I have to go broke but I get to see my daughter every night, that’s a price I’d gladly pay.

Dodsworth: Let’s talk about food and wine.
Bundschu: Genetically I’m pretty well disposed to be a food and wine lover. (Laughter.) Food in my family has been the focal point for our social gatherings. A good cook is not defined by doing back flips in the kitchen. It’s more somebody who understands what good ingredients are. I learned from my family that the quality of the ingredients impacts the taste of the most basic meal. We always lived with our wines as an accompaniment to great big family meals. Breaking down how our wines would go with different foods is not something we every made a practice of. Usually there’s way too much more fun things to talk about around our table.

Dodsworth: Do you ever send wines back?
Bundschu: Five percent of all wines are corked, and that’s going up. You can smell it as much as taste it – basically a musty, locker room smell. It’s common enough that you’ve probably tasted it if you buy wines in restaurants.
Generally speaking, if you send wine back you should never be embarrassed. I was always coming from a place were I wouldn’t want to make a big stink, but they’d much rather have you send stuff back than leave with a bad impression of the restaurant.

Dodsworth: I frequently feel stupid when ordering wine.
Bundschu: To be honest, if we’re not talking about Northern California wines, I pretty much have to throw my hands up and trust the server. I can either buy what I know or take advantage of the sommelier’s efforts in putting his wine list together and let him go to town for me. A good restaurant should have a good wine list and a great restaurant has a sommelier that knows each of those wines.

Dodsworth: Talk to me about alcohol and alcoholism.
Bundschu: There’s no question to me that alcohol is something you’ve got to be responsible with. I’m privileged that I can enjoy wine and lead a productive life but I respect that there are some people in our community that can’t. Fundamentally I hold those people responsible for their own actions. I think most producers of wine are very responsible in the way that they show it and live it, at least wine in our category. I think if you look around here you’re going to see a pretty healthful lifestyle.

Dodsworth: How much is appropriate to drink a day?
Bundschu: I think it’s completely up to the individual. For me a glass and a half or two glasses a night, occasional lunches, not a regular lunch. I’m not afraid to drink at any time but I definitely view it as a privilege that I respect. I never take it for granted.

E-mail Fred Dodsworth at fdodsworth@comcast.net

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