Saturday, March 14, 2009

A Trio of Historic Wineries in Sonoma: Buena Vista Carneros, Cline Cellars, Gundlach Bundschu Winery

California has a large selection of wine regions to explore - Mendocino, Lake Country, Sonoma and Napa in the north, Livermore and Santa Cruz in the San Francisco Bay Area, the Sierra foothills in the east, Lodi in the central valley, long the central coast there is Monterey, Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, and then finally in southern California there is Temecula and San Diego.

It also has a lost history of forgotten names, monumental events and prestigious wines. Only now is that which was lost during the Prohibition finally regaining and advancing the lost glory of the 19th century. Providentially we had a break in the rain and two days of sunshine so last weekend I explored three important and historic wineries in Sonoma, each with its own unique story and heritage – Cline Cellars, Buena Vista Carneros and Gundlach Bundschu Winery.

Cline Cellars

Cline Cellars has an interesting history with a great little California Missions museum, perfect for a 4th grade field trip. So whether you are learning about the history of the settlement of the state of California or its viniculture, this is a great place to explore!

Across the street from Cline Cellars is Jacuzzi Family Vineyards, named after Fred Cline's maternal grandfather, Valeriano Jacuzzi, who invented the Jacuzzi spa. The difference between the two is that is Jacuzzi Family Vineyards specializes in Italian varietals whereas Cline Cellars specializes in Rhone varietal wines.

In the latter part of the 1800s Valeriano Jacuzzi moved to Oakley in Contra Costa County (not far from Walnut Creek where I grew up) and that is where Fred Cline was first introduced to wine. Later, Fred earned a degree in Agriculture Management from U.C. Davis and in 1982, with an inheritance from his grandfather, he founded Cline Cellars near Oakley, California. Then in 1991, Fred and his wife Nancy relocated the winery to the Carneros region of Sonoma County on a historic 350-acre estate with new vineyards and facilities. While much of the cool Carneros region is planted to Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Merlot, Fred pioneered the planting of Rhône varietals including Syrah, Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne.

The first wine I tasted was the 2008 Marsanne-Roussanne blend ($20). Both Marsanne and Rousanne are white grapes that originate from the Northern Rhône and it is not uncommon to find them blended with Viognier, such as in Borra Vineyard’s White Fusion. This wine is consists of 80% Marsanne from Cline’s estate vineyard in Carneros appellation and 20% Roussanne from their Sonoma Coast vineyard. This wine has definite fresh citrus character, nice acidity, well balanced and lively stone fruit flavors.

My next wine was Cline’s 2007 Los Carneros Viognier ($16). Originally grown in the Condrieu and Château-Grillet regions of northern Rhône, these grapes come from vines first planted in Sonoma vineyards in 1990. This has got to be my favorite white wine varietal and a classic version of Viognier will always display a great floral bouquet. Cline’s Viognier is at fair price at $16 and it offers rich and distinctive aromas of peaches, apricots, orange blossoms and honeysuckle.

My first red was the Cline's 2007 Cashmere ($21). This is a classic GSM Rhone varietal red blend of 39% Grenache, 38% Syrah and 23% Mourvèdre. Most of the Grenache for comes from the Massoni Vineyard and Mourvèdre some from their Ancient Vines in and the Syrah is sourced primarily from Paso Robles. The is a fruit forward wine with big cherry, raspberry and chocolate notes with hints of cracked black pepper and plum on the finish.

My second red wine from Cline 2007 was their Ancient Vines Carignane ($16). Dark ruby in color, with concentrated plum, chocolate and clove with hints of dark berries aromas. The 2007 Ancient Vines Carignane is from Cline’s most historic vineyards, many of which are over 100 years old. This was the most differentiated wine of the lineup and my favorite, so I brought a bottle home.

My third red wine was Cline’s 2007 Ancient Vines Mourvèdre ($18). Mourvèdre, also found in the Rhône, is a key component in the famous Chateauneuf-du-Pape. This wine is also known as Mataro which is why it is comparable to Trintas Cellar’s 2006 Old Vine Mataro ($25), also sourced from Contra Costa County, yet for $7 less! The wine exhibits dark plum, chocolate, dusty black berries and just a hint of oak.

My last tasting was Cline’s 2007 Ancient Vines Zinfandel ($18). I’ve been a big fan of Old Vine Zins for quite some time, especially those from Lodi and the Sierra Foothills. Cline’s Zinfandel comes from a blend of old vines from various regions including Oakley’s 80 to 100-year dry farmed sandy, phylloxera-resistant soils as well as old vines from Lodi, the delta waterways and a small amount from Mendocino, and Sonoma. The wine exhibits layers of black cherry, raspberry, pepper and spice with a hint of vanilla and supple tannins. This is a really nice barbeque wine ready to be paired with grilled meats.

Buena Vista Vineyards

Our second stop for the day was at the historic Buena Vista Vineyards (Carneros). I studied this legendary winery and its founder last semester and have wanted to pay a visit ever since then purely for its historical significance. However, after tasting their wines I discovered that there is much more to this winery than merely being a historical landmark, their wines are outstanding!

Before I talk about their wine, let me tell you a little about their founder’s history.

Buena Vista Carneros was founded in 1857 by “The Father of California Viticulture,” Count Agoston Haraszthy (August 30, 1812, - July 6, 1869). Haraszthy was a man ahead of his time - a visionary who laid the ground work for California’s now lost and almost forgotten wine history and culture (due to the aftermath of Prohibition). Hence he is also known as the “Father of Modern Winemaking in California.”

A Hungarian-American traveler, writer, town-builder, and pioneer winemaker in Wisconsin and California, Haraszthy was one of the first men to plant vineyards in Wisconsin and an early and important writer on California wine and viticulture. In California he introduced more than three hundred varieties of European grape varietals. Sadly, the recipients of those vines failed to follow his vision for planting quality varietals in the state and instead discarded them in favor of varietals that produced higher volume and more alcohol.

In 1856, he bought a small vineyard northeast Sonoma, expanded the acreage to 5,000 acres of valley and hillside and renamed it Buena Vista.

In 1857, he bore wine caves into the sides of a nearby mountain, built stone cellars at their entrance and two large stone winery buildings, equipped with underground tunnels and the latest wine-making equipment in California.

In 1858, Haraszthy wrote the “Report on Grapes and Wine of California.” It was published by the California State Agricultural Society and was the first treatise on winemaking written and published in California, and praised as the “first American explication of traditional European winemaking practices.”

In 1863, Haraszthy incorporated the Buena Vista Vinicultural Society, the first large corporation in California (perhaps in the United States) organized for the express purpose of engaging in agriculture. With the support of prominent investors, he greatly expanded his vineyards in Sonoma, making wine which was sold as far away as New York. In 1864, an article in Harper's Magazine proclaimed that Buena Vista was “the largest establishment of the kind in the world.”

Long after its founder’s passing, Buena Vista has continued to be an important player in the revival of California’s wine culture. In the 1960s, Buena Vista helped pioneer the Carneros wine region, the only sub-AVA (American Viticulture Area) that covers two AVAs, Napa and Sonoma just north of the San Pablo Bay. The climate of this area makes it ideal for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

In March, 2007, Haraszthy was inducted into the Vintners Hall of Fame by the Culinary Institute of America. Seventy wine journalists cast ballots, honoring Haraszthy for his contributions to the early development of the wine industry in California. The award was accepted in Haraszthy's behalf by his great-great grandson, Vallejo Haraszthy.

The Wines of Buena Vista Carneros

The winery is a bit off the beaten path, tucked back into the hills and hidden under a canopy of oak trees and the foot of a hillside. After you park your car you’ll feel like you are away at camp as you walk along a long path through a grove of oak and pine trees.

After snapping a few photos, my friend and I ventured into the old stone building, where we bellied up to the wine tasting bar. Above the tasting room along a walkway you can read a visual timeline that marks the significant people and events in the history of the winery as well as take a peak at a collection of bottles from the winery’s historical vintages.

Our first wine was the 2007 Carneros Pinot Gris ($22) This French grape was originally a mutation of Pinot Noir. It is known as “Pinot Grigo” in Italy where it has a distinctive style and in Germany it is known as Rulander, where it tends to be a blend of French and Italian styles. Buena Vista’s Pinot Gris is crisp and refreshing with classic flavors of pineapple, pear, nectarine, tangerine melon and citrus fruit.

Our second wine was the 2006 Ramal Vineyard Chardonnay, Dijon Clone ($36) This is a well balanced and focused wine with a well integrated character of fruit, floral accents, acidity and oak. Exhibiting green-apple, lemon, pear, and vanilla with a candied ginger finish.

I was impressed with the Dijon clones more even more so with out next wine, the 2005 Ramal Vineyard Chardonnay ($36). This wine’s blend of various clones undoubtedly is a major contributor to its complex and multilayered character of green apple, apple pie, pear, citrus, mineral, and hazelnut.

Our first red wine was the 2005 Carneros Pinot Noir ($25). Although this Pinot was much more affordable than the following versions, I found this one to be the most Burgundian as it portrays a definite sense of fruit and terrior with bright cherry, a nuttiness, and an earthy-mushroominess. It is not easy to find Pinot Noirs of this sort in California so I brought a bottle home with me, a definitely wise purchase at only 25 bucks.

Our next wine was the 2006 Ramal Vineyard Pinot Noir, Swan Selection ($42). This is a much more intense and fruit forward version, garnet and purple in color with floral aromas followed by fresh cherry, raspberry, cranberry, orange peel, clove, cardamom and just a hint of cinnamon toast.

Our final wine was the 2006 Ramal Vineyard Pinot Noir, Dijon Clones ($42). This wine is very distinct from our previous wines with aromas of blackberry, mocha, toast, forest floor, cardamom and roasted nuts. Whereas our first Pinot had definite earthiness this was is more fruit forward with really nice acidity, bright cherry cola, sweet pipe tobacco and a slight reminiscence of chocolate covered maraschino cherries.

Gundlach Bundschu Winery

After a relaxing picnic lunch at Buenna Vista, our final stop for the day was at Gundlach Bundschu Winery. While Buena Vista is the “oldest premier winery” Gundlach Bundschu is often claims to be “California’s oldest family-owned winery” as it is still owned and operated by the founder’s heirs and today led by the sixth generation, Jeff Bundschu.

Not far from Buena Vista, the winery’s 320-acre estate vineyard, named Rhinefarm by Bavarian-born Jacob Gundlach in 1858, is at the crossroads of the Sonoma Valley, Los Carneros AVA and Napa Valley AVA, along the Mayacamas Mountains. The winery is quite a drive from the main road and you will pass through their vineyards as you make your way to tasting room and wine cave tucked back into the hills

They had a number of wines available and you can choose four from a long line up for a fee of $5. My first wine was the 2007 Gewürztraminer ($25). This wine was a welcome surprise as so few California wineries produce this spicy Alsatian wine. This wine has a great nose of exotic flowers followed by bright and fresh flavors of ripe pear, peach, nectarine, passion fruit, orange zest, golden raisons and mango.

My second taste was the 2005 Tempranillo ($33). I LOVED this wine! I could have spent hours on the nose alone. It can be a bit difficult to find this grape in California and when I do I am rarely impressed. Of all the reds I tasted at Gundlach Bundschu this was my definite favorite. Loads of pomegranate and cherry on the immeidate nose followed by a spicy beef-jerky, dusty berry and hebral tea on the palate with bright acidity.

My third wine was the 2006 Syrah ($36). This wine screams, “Rhone!” on the nose and has one of the supplest velvety textures on the palate I have ever felt in a syrah. This is a far cry from the in-your-face peppery versions typical of New World Syrahs. It has plenty of black cherry and rasberry fruit, a little cocoa followed by a pleasing and prolonged smoke and spicy finish.

My fourth wine was the 2005 Mountain Cuvee ($24). A blend of Cabernet Sauvigon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Syrah that displays a bit of toast, spice, plum, black cherry, raspberries and a touch of cocoa. I couldn’t quite put my finger on the direct cause, but this wine seemed to lack focus as the various flavors seems to be fighting with each other for dominance rather than integrating well together. It was like an orchestra with many instruments but no conductor to bring it all together. However, I suspect that if this wine was paired appropriately with the right food, such as a meaty dish, the meal might pulled out of this wine a player to be the first violin.

Last but not least, my fifth wine was the 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon ($40) Complex aromas of blackberry, black currant, a little new leather, and grilled meat on the nose that are confirmed on the palate with the addition of cocoa and freshly brewed cappicino.

There is more to wine than what is in the glass. The wine is a reflection of the land, soil, climate and weather as well as the people who have artistically and patiently nurtured the wine to its maturity. If you really want to gain a greater appreciation of wine in your own tasting adventures, take the time to learn a little about the heritage of the wineries and the winemakers who standing on the shoulders of giants.


Tony Lombardi said...

Hi Erik,

Thanks for your wonderful posting of your visit to California's first winery ... Buena Vista Carneros.

I invite you and friends anytime, for a return trip as our guests for a complimentary VIP tour and tasting.

Beautiful picture montage! I've share with all the BVC employees.



Tony Lombardi
Public Relations Director
Ascentia Wine Estates
375 Healdsburg Avenue, 2nd Floor
Healdsburg, CA 95448
Direct - 707.473.2364
Cell - 707.280.5917
Fax - 707.433.3538

Ascentia Wine Estates LLC
Atlas Peak - Buena Vista Carneros - Gary Farrell Vineyards & Winery - Geyser Peak Winery - XYZin - Columbia Winery - Covey Run - Ste. Chapelle

Gundlach Bundschu said...

Erik, thank you so much for your complimentary and thorough post about your visit to Gundlach Bundschu, and for telling the story of Sonoma historic wineries. Yes, we're old - 151 years last week - but what truly inspires us is know our wines can still elicit all caps outpourings of love! Hope to see you again at the winery soon - by the way, with a prior appointment, you can do a seated tasting in the cave, or taste out in the vineyard, so plan ahead!
All the best,
Susan Sueiro
Marketing Director, Gundlach Bundschu Winery

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