Sonoma Barrel Auction honors Bundschu, Sangiacomo

By Kathleen Hill

At last week’s Sonoma County Barrel Auction, led by Sonoma County Vintners director Jean Arnold Sessions of Sonoma, fifth generation Sonoma winemaker Jim Bundschu and Angelo Sangiacomo were recognized for their “lifelong contributions to winemaking and grape growing in our region.”

A little background: Jacob Bundschu bought 400 acres southeast of Sonoma in 1858 and named it Rhinefarm, for his Bavarian origins, which makes it the oldest continuously operating winery in California. In 1868, Bundschu and friends planted 60,000 vines and eventually made wine in their San Francisco factory at Second and Bryant streets.

The 1906 earthquake dealt Gundlach its first setback by destroying its San Francisco production facility, after which they moved family and what was left to the Sonoma property.

During Prohibition they couldn’t sell wine, so they let the vines go, replacing that crop with cattle under the leadership of Jim Bundschu’s parents, Mary and Towle Bundschu.

In 1969, Jim Bundschu started to replant the vineyard in the cow-fertilized soil, and then became president of the company in 1970, establishing it as a leader in sustainable winemaking. So many of us enjoyed Jim’s early vintages as the house wine at the Swiss Hotel.By

Jeff Bundschu took over as president in 2000.

Growing up on the family farm, Angelo Sangiacomo helped convert his family’s pear orchard into vineyard on prime land in the 1960s, now leading the family enterprise covering more than 1,600 acres.

Ang’s father, Vittorio Sangiacomo, left Genoa, Italy for America in 1913, and started his first job at age 17 working at Bay Farm Island in Alameda County, followed by scavenger (garbage) jobs in San Francisco. Ready to get back to the land, he purchased 52 acres of fruit orchard in Sonoma Valley in 1927, now called Home Ranch. In 1928 Vittorio married Maria, also from Genoa.

Eventually grapes replaced pears and now Ang, Buck, Lorraine, and next generation Mike, Steve, and sister Mia’s husband, Mike Pucci, manage the enterprise, which produces some of the most valued and sustainably grown grapes in California.

Jim Pedroncelli of Pedroncelli Winery in Geyserville was also recognized.

From the Sonoma Coast, Chardonnays of Energy and Memories

By Eric Asimov

The Sonoma Coast has been on my mind quite a bit lately.

Chardonnay from the Sonoma Coast.  Credit Dan Neville for The New York Times

Chardonnay from the Sonoma Coast.  Credit Dan Neville for The New York Times

First came a wine panel tasting in February of pinot noirs from the region. Now, we have followed up with a tasting of 20 Sonoma Coast chardonnays from recent vintages.

In both tastings, we found wines that combined intensity with balance and subtlety, indicating that the Sonoma Coast is a region of great promise. The region remains difficult for consumers to grasp, partly because it is geographically unwieldy, encompassing a stretch not just along the Pacific coastline but also extending far inland, bringing together wildly different vineyard areas.

[Eric Kent Sangiacomo Green Acres Hill Chardonnay] rich with tropical fruit and oak flavors though lively nonetheless.

The jumble of regions means that racy wines from the coast and richer, fruitier wines from inland may wear the same appellation. Even among the wines made near the ocean, stylistic differences abound. That’s both a problem and an incentive for consumers to get to know the producers and their styles rather than pay strict attention to appellations.

As far as wines that come from the coastal region, I feel as if we are just beginning to understand its potential. While the region has concentrated on Burgundian varieties like pinot noir and chardonnay, it also produces superb syrahs and whites from Rhône grapes like marsanne and roussanne. I’ve had an intriguing trousseau, a red mostly associated with the Jura, and a terrific Sonoma Coast cabernet sauvignon.

But I would not be telling the whole story if I did not add that I have my own emotional reasons for pondering the Sonoma Coast. It may be my favorite area in the world, for reasons that have little to do with wine.

My wife, Deborah, and I were married on the Sonoma Coast, at the tiny Sea Ranch Chapel, several miles to the north of the house where Deborah’s older brother and sister-in-law had a house for many years.

Their house, just north of Fort Ross, was a gorgeous, low-slung sprawl that practically hung on the edge of a cliff over the gray Pacific. The coastal winds blew incessantly, weathering the cedar shingles and battering the cypress trees surrounding the house into a permanent tilt inland, concealing it from cars on the Pacific Coast Highway to the east.

Deborah and I had been traveling out there for almost as long as the Sonoma Coast has been an American Viticultural Area, as it was declared in 1987. Back then, most of the grape-growing activity was well inland. Nobody thought much about coastal wines, although a few visionary pioneers, like David Hirsch at Hirsch Vineyards and Daniel Schoenfeld at Wild Hog Vineyard, had already staked out land precariously close to the ocean.

Sadly, this brother-in-law, Peter Henschel, died young, at 53. While we still cherished the house, the region and our many friends in the area, spending time there for me became emotionally complicated. Several years ago, my sister-in-law sold the house. Though there is no longer a Sonoma Coast family outpost, the area continues to resonate with me in unexpected ways, as do the wines.

I mention all this to make the point that wine has an uncanny ability to touch the emotions. Like music, wine can arouse long-buried memories and jolt them awake with all of their baggage: raw, jagged, tender or painful.

Marketers know this. They understand the power of establishing direct, personal connections between wine producers and consumers through winery visits, and do what they can to shape lasting associations. In a more general way, when I drink a wine that I love from the coast, I imagine I can feel my brother-in-law’s presence.

I kept those feelings to myself at our tasting, where Florence Fabricant and I were joined by Alex Alan, an owner and wine director at Freek’s Mill in Gowanus, Brooklyn, and Kristie Petrullo of Petrullo Wine Company, a wine-education consultancy.

We all noted the broad range of styles that included brawny, fruity examples, and leaner wines that showed more savory, stony flavors — “sea spray,” Alex said at one point. The crucial quality that separated my favorites from the also-rans was energy.

You might ask what energy means in the context of wine, and it’s a good question. For me, energy is the quality that impels you to take another sip. It’s a forward thrust, a sense of tangy vitality that is lip smacking and thirst quenching. It’s texture as well. Some wines feel so good in the mouth that you want another sip to regain the feeling.

Energy is sometimes mistaken for acidity, which levels out sweetness in fruits and is necessary for balance in wines. While energy without acidity is difficult, we found several wines with plenty of acidity but no energy. What accounts for that? Kristie suggested that acidification, the process of adding acid to wine if the grapes are not sufficiently acidic, may cause the imbalance.

Acidification is permitted in California and many other warm regions where ripeness can result in acid deficiency. Usually, tartaric acid, natural in grapes, is used. Kristie may have been correct, as some of these wines lacking in energy tasted sharply acidic. I don’t know if acidification was the reason.

Lack of energy was not a problem in our favorite wines. Our No. 1 bottle was the 2014 Joy Road Vineyard chardonnay from Rivers-Marie, deep, savory and stony, a lovely wine. No. 2 was the 2014 Charles Heintz Vineyard from Ceritas, rich, resonant and harmonious.

The Joy Road Vineyard, near the town of Occidental, and Charles Heintz, to the east, are both near the coastline, and you can feel it in the wines with their raciness and well-integrated acidity. Our No. 3 bottle, the 2014 Sangiacomo Green Acres Hill from Eric Kent, came from a vineyard southwest of the city of Sonoma, considerably east of Highway 101, and closer to Los Carneros and San Pablo Bay than to the coast.

We thought the Kent was a fine wine, but it was completely different in character from the Rivers-Marie and the Ceritas, rich with tropical fruit and oak flavors though lively nonetheless. Yet the label says it’s a Sonoma Coast wine.

The rest of our top 10 were largely from vineyards near the ocean. The 2014 Flowers chardonnay, our No. 4 bottle, was fresh, bright and tangy. When we learned the identity of the wines, I couldn’t help but recall visiting Flowers with my brother-in-law in the late 1990s not so long after the winery was constructed in Cazadero, just about two miles from the ocean.

Rivers-Marie had a second wine on our list; the lively but slightly oaky 2014 B. Thieriot was our No. 5 bottle. Also worth noting were the richly textured 2013 Freestone Vineyard from Joseph Phelps; the savory, slightly funky 2013 Red Car; the lively 2014 Failla; and the bright, tangy 2013 Ramey.

I should point out that the wines from Failla, Ramey and Red Car were the producers’ entry-level wines. Each makes more expensive single-vineyard designates that are often deeper and more complex. What’s more, chardonnays from top producers like Cobb, Kutch, Littorai and Radio-Coteau were unavailable.

The Pacific Coast in Sonoma is an isolated place. Wineries like Flowers or Hirsch Vineyards, on the ocean, are difficult destinations for supplies and repairs. Many Sonoma Coast producers, like Peay Vineyards and Failla, have more accessible winemaking facilities inland. Even so, these wines are rarely inexpensive and none seemed worthy of being designated best value.

Nonetheless, the top wines can be superb. And for me, it’s hard to put a price on memories.

Tasting Notes: Sonoma Coast Chardonnays


Deep and energetic, with savory flavors of citrus, herbs and stony minerals.


Harmonious, rich and resonant, with aromas and flavors of citrus, flowers and minerals.


More typically Californian, but lively and well made, with flavors of tropical fruits, citrus and oak.


Fresh, lively and rich, with bright, tangy flavors of lemon, herbs and a touch of oak.


Lively flavors of citrus and minerals, but slightly oaky.


Richly textured, with aromas of hot stones and flavors of apple and lemon.


Idiosyncratic, with savory flavors of citrus and herbs and a touch of funk.


Richly textured and lively, with flavors of citrus, nuts and herbs.


Bright, tangy and clean, with flavors of lemon, herbs and a bit of oak.


Broad, rich and stolid, with flavors of citrus and nuts.




Sonoma County Barrel Auction Honors Icons of Wine


The Sonoma County Vintners association will honor three winemaking veterans at the annual Sonoma County Barrel Auction Friday at the Vintners Inn.

“The Sonoma County wine landscape has been shaped by a long line of trailblazing visionaries and it is important that the region honor these three modern icons,” said Jean Arnold Sessions, the trade group’s executive director, in a statement.

The honorees are:

Jim Bundschu of Gundlach Bundschu Winery in Sonoma. Bundschu in 1969 started replanting vineyards on his family’s lot, and a year later became president of the revived Gundlach Bundschu Winery. The winery has since created a name as one of the most well-known family wineries in the area, with a focus on sustainable winemaking.

Jim Pedroncelli of the Pedroncelli Winery in Geyserville. In 1963, Pedroncelli and his brother, John, bought the winery and he took over as head of its sales and marketing department. Pedroncelli was among the first to add “Sonoma” to its wine label. He has served on the board of the Wine Institute, the Sonoma County Vintners Co-Op and the Sonoma County Winery Association, the precursor to the vintners group.

Angelo Sangiacomo of Sangiacomo Family Vineyards in Sonoma. Sangiacomo helped move his family’s business in the 1960s from growing pears to growing grapes. The company now has more than 1,600 acres of planted vineyards in Sonoma County, one of the largest in the area. He was also a pioneer in establishing vineyard designated and single vineyard wines.

Robert Parker Gives Thumbs Up to Sangiacomo-Designated Wines

The most recent issue of Robert Parker's newsletter awarded the following Sangiacomo-designated wines 90+ scores:

La Follette 2014 Pinot Noir: 91

MacRostie  2015 Chardonnay: 90

Ram’s Gate 2014 Chardonnay: 94

Ram's Gate 2014 Pinot Noir: 90

Roadhouse 2015 Pinot Noir: 90

Saxon Brown 2014 Chardonnay: 93

Sojourn 2015 Chardonnay: 93

Sojourn 2015 Pinot Noir: 92

Sonoma-Loeb 2015 Chardonnay: 92

Sonoma-Loeb 2015 Pinot Noir: 90

Walt Wines 2015 Chardonnay: 92