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Balzer on Wine

What's In A Name?

February 03, 1985|ROBERT L. BALZER

When, as a professional wine buyer, I first began to study the great classification of 1855 of Bordeaux wines, memorizing the first growths, I always wondered about the Sauternes beyond d'Yquem's Great First Growth status, the other first growths, such as Chateau Lafaurie-Peyraguey, and even Suduiraut and Rieussec. Who could pronounce them? In contrast, La Tour-Blanche, Coutet and Climens were easy.

Speaking of names, I remember, as a very young wine merchant, my first trip to the Napa Valley. At Inglenook, I met a giant of a man with a booming bass voice, Carl Bundschu, the general manager; "Whispering Carl" he was called. Gundlach, Bundschu and Dresel were among those who, early on, assisted the immortal Count Agoston Haraszthy with his famous vineyards and winery at Buena Vista. The "Bacchus" label wines of Gundlach-Bundschu from their Sonoma "Rhinefarm" were famous in elite San Francisco circles even before the 1906 earthquake.

The Gundlach-Bundschu Winery is still in the hands of direct descendants and operating on the original estate. A golden Bacchus astride a wine cask, from the original label design, proudly states the founding date of 1858. The wines are in national distribution, but the Gundlach-Bundschu moniker is hardly a household word. My efforts here are an attempt to move it more in that direction, because Jim Bundschu and his wine maker, Lance Cutler, are doing a wonderful job, making award-winning wines.

Recently, I sat down with Bundschu to sample a broad spectrum of his current releases. I'm just like everyone else in that I keep looking for a really good daily table wine, and Gundlach-Bundschu has one. The non-vintage Sonoma Valley Sonoma Red is an absolute winner. It's a blending of 45% Pinot Noir, 30% Merlot, 20% Zinfandel and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon. With that kind of pedigree, you know it is good, and the $3.25 price tag makes it even better.

The Sonoma White 1983 is good but less exciting--clean, crisp, tart, dry ($3.95). Much finer, and less than a nickel more, is the 1982 Sonoma Valley Dresel-Sonoma Riesling, a blending of 20% Sylvaner, 5% Kleinberger and 75% White Riesling ($3.99). The 1982 Sonoma Valley Chardonnay ($7.49) was fermented in stainless-steel and aged in Limousin oak.

Those who continue trying to find outstanding Pinot Noir from California wineries have already waxed enthusiastic about the Gundlach-Bundschu 1982 Estate-Bottled Rhinefarm Pinot Noir ($9). Made 100% of this temperamental varietal, it has a true nose that is absolutely fantastic. It is already quite good, and a few more years will bring it into world-class splendor. The same is true of the winery's Sonoma Sweepstakes winner, the Gundlach-Bundschu 1981 Cabernet Sauvignon-Batto Ranch vineyard-designated wine.

Appropriately, we concluded our tasting with a golden elixir of Riesling, a 1977 Mendocino Late Harvest Johannisberg Riesling from the winery's library. Bronze in color, with 11.6% residual sugar, sip after sip tended to soften those difficult syllables of the name--Gundlach-Bundschu. It doesn't come trippingly off the tongue, but it is a name to remember when you go shopping for a good wine from California.

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