Sonoma Valley may have hundreds of wineries, but two stand out as being the oldest, not only in the area, but also in California. While Buena Vista Winery is the oldest commercial winery in the state, Gundlach Bundschu is the oldest family-owned winery. Let's talk a little more about these two fabulous places and learn more about the story of California's oldest wineries.
Buena Vista Winery: A Brief History
Founded by pioneer, Agoston Haraszthy de Mokesa, in 1857, Buena Vista Winery is located at 18000 Old Winery Road in Sonoma.
Haraszthy de Mokesa came to America in 1840 already familiar with vineyards as he grew up amongst the ones his family owned back in Europe. He founded what is now Sauk City in Wisconsin and was also the first to plant hops in the state. Due to the bitter winters causing issues for his grape-growing, he packed his bags and headed for San Diego in 1849 where he became the first sheriff of the city. After trying his hand at establishing a vineyard in Mission Valley, Haraszthy de Mokesa realized he needed to go north in search of better grape-growing conditions. He bought 120 acres in San Francisco in 1852 and tried once again to start up vineyards, this time in Crystal Springs and Las Flores, but fog didn't help his venture. Haraszthy de Mokesa made his way to Sonoma in 1856, bought 800 acres right outside of town, and eventually referred to himself as “The Count of Buena Vista.” The first vintage alone produced 6,500 gallons and within three years there were over 250 acres of vines. He made many advancements in the wine industry, including excavating Sonoma's first caves as a way to age and store wine, constructing the first gravity-flow winery in the state, and being the first to use Redwood barrels for fermenting and aging. Buena Vista Winery's tasting room was established in 1862 while the wine cellars were completed two years later. In 1869 while crossing an alligator-infested stream in Nicaragua, Haraszthy de Mokesa reportedly fell from a tree branch and wasn't heard from again.
Due to financial issues, the estate and winery were auctioned off in 1878, but in 1943 it was purchased by Frank and Antonia Bartholomew who decided to breathe new life into the property. In 1949, Buena Vista Winery released its first vintage after Prohibition. In 2011, the winery was bought by Boisset Family Estates and today is looked after by Jean-Charles Boisset. For more information on Buena Vista's rich history, please visit their site here.
A Review of Buena Vista Winery
When you first arrive at Buena Vista at the end of Old Winery Road, you'll have to park a bit away from the winery before walking along the path to the heart of the estate known as the "Pioneers Promenade." Walking along the shaded path to the tasting room, you'll notice framed canvases telling the winery's story from the 19th century to today. You'll also find picnic areas scattered about, filling the area of wooden terrain directly across from the winery building. Closer to the main building, you'll see the echoes of Sonoma's founding dotted across the landscape, from the beautiful "California Heritage Garden" to the statue-filled "Welcome Courtyard."
Buena Vista's tasting room is part of the Press House, named for the 1980s California landmark. Upon entering, guests are welcomed with an impressive building that makes them feel like they took a step back in time. Staff members dress in authentic 19th century clothing; they look completely at home in the building that seems like it hasn't changed since it was built all those years ago. The rough stone wall, wrought iron chandeliers, and exposed wooden beams help guests imagine what Buena Vista looked like when Mokesa was still running things.
However, you'll notice Boisset's rejuvenation of the winery in the wines themselves. For decades, as Buena Vista passed from owner to owner, the wines were widely inconsistent, never gaining critical acclaim. Today, with access to Sonoma's finest fruit and excellent management of the historical vineyards, Buena Vista and its wines are finally gaining the attention they deserve.
Buena Vista's Wines
One of our favorite tastings at Buena Vista was of five wines, which were all cleverly named for Haraszthy's family members.
- The 2012 Counts Selection Pinot Gris
- The 2008 Belas Selection Pinot Noir
- The 2011 Karolys Zinfandel
- The 2011 Idas Selection Pinot Noir
- The 2009 Elenoras Selection Chardonnay
All five wines were complex, well-structured, and aromatic, with each one showing off its exceptional varietal typicity. The pinot noirs offered the perfect balance between earth and fruit tones with an excellent acidic structure. The zinfandel was restrained yet elegant, with some elements of spice that were greatly highlighted by its soft, mouth-coating tannins.
Related: Our Visit to Bedell Cellars
Gundlach Bundschu Winery: A Brief History
Jacob Gundlach bought 400 acres of land in Sonoma in 1858, named it Rhinefarm, and the following year, he and his three partners planted 60,000 vines. The first vintage was two years later in 1861. Charles Bundschu came over from Germany in 1862 and became part of the winery six years later. In the late 1870s, they became the very first to graft European vines to native roots that were resistant to phylloxera, and that single move spurred grapes for almost a century. Gundlach passed away at the age of 76 in 1894, and his son-in-law (Bundschu) later renamed the winery to Gundlach Bundschu Wine Company.
In 1906, the San Francisco fire and earthquake destroyed three family homes and over 1 million gallons of wine. It was at that point that they decided to live in their country home that was set on the vineyard. In 1910, at the age of 68, Bundschu died from an illness that he contracted during the fire. Due to Prohibition in 1919, the winery closed, but the family was able to hold onto 130 acres (and later purchase 70 more acres). The winery remained closed until 1970 (when it was incorporated as Vineburg Wine Company), and three years later the Gundlach Bundschu Winery came to be once more. That same year, they released three wines, and they also became one of the first wineries in the state to make a varietal Merlot. In 1991 Jim Bundschu had 10,000 square foot, 430-foot long caves dug to hold wine barrels, which at the time was one of the largest of its type in the state. The Bundschu family still owns the winery today. For more information on the Gundlach Bundschu Wine Company, please visit their site here.
A Review of Gundlach Bundschu Winery
If you're serious about having some fun at a winery, Gundlach Bundschu is the place for you. As you drive along the long road bisecting areas of the lower vineyard, you'll notice that this isn't your typical California winery. From the unbelievably massive palm trees guarding the gate to the sign facing the exit side of the winery's driveway warning people to "Beware of the real world beyond these gates," we knew we were in for an amazing experience before we even got started.
If you visit in the summer, you likely won't spend much time on the picturesque patio or expansive picnic area as you might like to—getting into the nice, cool tasting room will seem like a much better idea. Once you get inside, you'll first notice that the walls are covered from the floor to the ceiling in historical photographs, pictures, memorabilia, maps, and of course, antique wine bottles. Imagine a museum showing off the winery's historical significance. A museum without the hushed stuffiness but with wine. Does it get any better? Gundlach Bundschu gives you a fun ride before walking into the winery, but it keeps getting better at every turn.
If it's anything like when we visited, the guests all around you will be having a great time, with smiles and laughter at every table. With two tasting flights at $10 and $15 per guest, we knew we had to try both (hint: we weren't disappointed!)
Gundlach Bundschu's Wines
In an ambitious tasting set of 12 different wines, we tried nine reds, two whites, and a rosé of Tempranillo. Each wine was well made with the fruits and acids integrating perfectly with the tannins, giving each one an attractive and elegant tension. The rosé features complex minerality and layers of fruits with a pretty nose.
While all of the reds were delicious, we were surprised (and more than impressed!) by the Tempranillo, which was not easy to put down with its long, smooth finish and bright flavors enticing you to take just one more sip. The zinfandel was equally delightful. Very few wineries out there can boast a lineup of 12 wines that pleases at every point.
California's Oldest Wineries: Honorable Mentions
We can't talk about the oldest, most historic wineries without mentioning Charles Krug—the oldest winery of Napa Valley, founded in 1861. Today, the winery does an excellent job of blending the new with the old. While it was recently renovated, the tasting room lies in a building built by Krug in 1872. And with over 150 years of history behind the winery, the new owners do a great job of balancing their priorities of keeping the authenticity from the past while releasing new wines and continuous innovation.
Then we have Wente Vineyards in Alameda County, claiming the title of the oldest continuously family-owned winery in the country. Wente was a first-generation German immigrant who purchased 47 acres across the Livermore Valley in 1883. And as the winery grew over the years, subsequent generations of the Wentes family took over the business. It's impossible to visit the winery without coming in contact with a few pieces of history. However, Wente Vineyards has some more modern elements these days, with a concert stage and fine-dining restaurant making their appearance.
Related: Our Visit to Wolffer Estate
Don't Miss Out On These Wineries!
Buena Vista Winery is a California flagship, and it's gotten even better with the renewed commitment to excellence that is obvious in its facilities and wines.
Gundlach Bundschu Winery had a fantastic selection and might be the most fun winery we've visited—we didn't want to leave!
If you're ever in the Sonoma Valley, make sure to spend some time at the two oldest wineries in California. You certainly won't regret it!