George Bursick - A Life in Wine
George Bursick is among the generation of winemakers who have shaped the current era in California’s wine industry. In the early 1970s, California wine had little of the cachet it does now. Wineries were relatively few and the ambition of making a living as a winemaker was rare. In the part of Sonoma Country where George grew up however, many of his friends’ families were grape growers and he was exposed to vineyards and winemaking early on. He first attended UC Santa Barbara, but when George returned home to Santa Rosa, he received the classic fatherly wisdom “get a job”.
Just over the mountains from home, Beringer Winery in St Helena was offering part-time work. George applied and was hired. His first duty was assembling Christmas gift packs for the tasting room. Soon after however, he graduated to the cellar where in 1970 he was “…dragging hoses for $5.26 an hour. I was glad to be making such good money.” It was at Beringer where he met and worked under winemaking legend Myron Nightingale.
“Myron was my first mentor, my first serious inspiration to become a winemaker,” says Bursick. “He encouraged me to return to college and finish my under grad work in plant physiology and to get a Master’s Degree in enology from UC Davis. In the meantime I was learning the winery business from the ground up working in the cellars at Beringer.”
It was an exciting time, as George became a member of the famous UC Davis class of ‘76 which produced a list of winemakers who have brought Northern California winemaking to the high level it is today. Kathy Corison, Paul Hobbs, John Konsgaard, Mike Martini, Doug Nalle, David Ramey, Jack Stewart and others fomented a revolution in how wine is made in California.
Upon graduation from UC Davis, George began his first solo winemaking job at McDowell Valley Vineyards in Mendocino County on the recommendation of John Parducci. One of his most significant accomplishments there was the first varietal release of Syrah in California. This was produced in 1980 from the 1978 vintage of 100-year-old vines, long misidentified as Petit Sirah. George suspected the mistake and brought in ampelographists to verify his opinion that the vines were in fact, Syrah and more than worthy of a special bottling.
After nine years at McDowell, old friend Justin Meyer recommended him to Rhonda and Don Carano. They were in the early stages of their plans for a new winery in Sonoma County called Ferrari-Carano and George joined the design/build team as Director of Winemaking. “I came on when there wasn’t even a hole in the ground, just prune orchards. I designed the winery and defined the style for each of the varietals. We started out with just a few thousand cases, mostly Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and a little Cabernet.”
"From the beginning, I think we were all what you might call progressive; maybe aggressive.” He says of the early days at Ferrari-Carano. “We wanted to make really great wine and we explored all possibilities. We were among the first to bring in ENTAV clones from the France’s viticultural authority. We experimented with barrels, fermentation, yeasts, we researched everything and we’d try anything, in the winery and in the vineyard. And for the most part, the results were worth it.”
The turning point for the enterprise was in 1986 when Wine Spectator magazine named the 1985 Ferrari-Carano Chardonnay “Wine of the Year” and featured only that wine on its cover. “We pretty quickly went from being just another struggling winery to a being a major name in California white wine,” continues George. “Big restaurant sales, high name recognition.”
The success of their efforts fueled the expansion of Ferrari-Carano. Vineyards were acquired and the winery increased it’s capacity. George was a part of it all, even in assessing potential vineyard sites. “The three of us, Don Carano, vineyard manager Steve Dominicelli and I would find a likely place for sale, haul a backhoe out to it and look at the soil. If we liked what we saw, we had a blank canvas to create the ideal vineyards for our wines.”
Increasingly, that applied to red wines. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Sangiovese and Zinfandel became a larger part of the brand. In 1987, the flagship meritage blend Tresor was launched followed in 1989 by Sienna, “It’s a Sonoma Super Tuscan,” says George, “Sangiovese, Cabernet, Merlot . They both took off right at release and have been very popular ever since.”
Many milestones were achieved in his career and countless awards and accolades have been awarded to his Ferrari-Carano wines. “I celebrated 21 harvests there and in that time, I can’t imagine there’s anything that a vineyard or winery can throw at you that we haven’t had to deal with. At the same time, I’ve had the thrill of knowing these wines are served in some of the best restaurants in the world and the honor of having them served to Presidents, foreign heads-of state, and dignitaries from around the world.”
George left Ferrari Carano in 2006 in order to focus on his growing consulting business. Among his clients was J Vineyards & Winery, a well-respected brand that was at a crossroads. His uncompromising approach to the creation of world-class wines was in perfect harmony with Founder and President, Judy Jordan’s quest to establish J Vineyards & Winery as a true world luxury icon.
Bringing his lifetime of winemaking experience to bear, George took giant steps towards Judy’s vision for J. He employed a variety of innovative viticultural practices focusing on site-specific blocks and introducing a myriad of variables, each designed for a specific vineyard’s characteristics during the fermentation process.
The results were so successful that Judy eventually persuaded George to become Vice President of Winemaking at J. He agreed to the take the position with the stipulation that his existing consulting clients would not be affected. With that agreement, George ushered J Vineyards in to a new era of wine production focused on cool-climate, site-specific Russian River Valley Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
As many in the wine industry know, George’s “real job” is as a drummer. “Rock' n' roll, jazz, country, I’ve been playing drums longer than I’ve been making wine.” Over the years he’s worked in dozens of bands, in nightclubs and concerts. “Regrettably, my schedule has forced me to give up regular stints with a band. Both interests are very time-consuming and demanding so the drums are a little dusty right now.”
Of his future, George says, "I am amazed at the ever-evolving potential of great vineyards in Northern California, especially Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. California’s greatest wines are still to be made. I plan to do my part in raising the bar."