A sixth generation winemaker, Katie Bundschu’s first childhood memories are of celebrations on her family’s Sonoma County farm. “We always had awesome parties,” she says. Her father, Jim Bundschu, was famous for throwing bacchanals for every occasion: finishing the white wine, end of the harvest, big pig roasts. “The parents were off drinking and dancing while the kids got to run free and get in all kinds of trouble,” says Katie.
A communal, celebratory approach to winemaking has kept Gundlach-Bundschu Winery going strong for nearly 160 years. Now the oldest family-owned winery in the state of California, Gundlach-Bundschu (fondly called Gun-Bun) has fought through its share of hardships. In 1874, the vines were nearly devastated by a blight of phylloxera (an aphid-like insect); after the catastrophic 1906 earthquake, resulting fires destroyed one million gallons of wine; and prohibition forced a complete liquidation of the business in 1919. As the vice president of marketing and sales, Katie has proudly recounted the stories of tribulation and triumph countless times over the years—but she never expected another dangerous trial to occur on her watch.
Out of Nowhere, a Literal Fire Storm
On October 8, the winery had hosted a concert in its 100-year-old barn. “The whole night had an eerie feeling because of the strong gusts of unpredicted winds,” Katie recalls. After guests went home, a few facilities workers noticed an odd glow in the distance and drove out to investigate. They saw a fire burning far across the valley on the other side in Napa, nothing to worry about. Feeling secure, they turned the truck around to head back when another glow came into view. This one was closer, and moving quickly, directly toward the house where Katie’s parents were sleeping.
“I drove straight there,” says Katie. “The only way I can describe it was a hurricane fire storm. The sound was so loud; there were embers flying everywhere. The flames were high and moving so fast that it took my breath away.” By the time she and her brother arrived, her parents were up, hosing down their house and barn with water.
“My dad wanted to stay and try to fight,” she says, but the fire kept creeping closer. They had no choice but to leave. “Going down the driveway, we were driving through flames,” she says. The family convened at the bottom of the lane from their winery. “We were all accounted for, but we weren’t out of the woods,” says Katie. “We didn’t see any firefighters at all. They were completely outnumbered.”
When there was enough light to inspect the first night’s damage, Katie drove with her parents toward their house. Arriving at the driveway, they could see that their home had burned to the ground. “We were all in shock,” she says. “The house was built in 1906 and they lived there for 32 years.” Still, there was no time for mourning. “The focus immediately shifted to do whatever it took to save the winery.”
Picking Up Hoses
For the next eight days, the entire Bundschu family, along with their production team, friends, and eventually a crew of three firefighters worked around the clock to keep the flames at bay and protect the grounds. Shifting winds meant moments of cautious relief followed by days filled with panic.
After over a week of hosing down structures, digging to create defensible space, and transporting valuables to safer grounds, the Bundschu family saw something in the sky they will never forget: a fleet of seven helicopters descending on the property. For two hours, the aircrafts took water from the winery’s pond and dumped it on the fire, finally extinguishing its blaze. “I’ll never forget that feeling of chills, joy, relief, tears, all of the emotions, pure exhaustion, being so grateful,” Katie recalls. “The nightmare was over.”
A mere two weeks later, Gundlach-Bundschu reopened its doors. Katie and her brothers knew the occasion needed to be special. What would their dad have done when he was running the winery? Of course: They threw a party.
“It was a beautiful fall day,” says Katie. “It felt like the whole town came out. You could tell it was such a reprieve for everyone. It was the first time for many people seeing each other after the fire.” Despite the damage to their own property and family home, Gundlach-Bundschu donated the proceeds from all of their tasting fees to the Sonoma County Resilience Fund, raising an impressive $26,000.
“What Matters Most”
If you visit Gundlach-Bundschu today, the first thing you’ll see is an old milk truck. A few years ago, the family decided to place it on the property as a piece of reclaimed art. They painted the truck with the winery logo and decorated the back with a Charles Bukowski quote indicative of the family’s past: “What matters most is how well you walk through the fire.”
“I’m still getting there, but I know I will reflect on that quote for many years to come,” Katie says. What feels most salient right now is the support of neighbors, friends, and the entire Wine Country community. “I realized how much we all rely on each other,” she explains. “That closeness of all having to live through this—I hope we will remember that forever.”