By Celia Strong
Today, we have a piece of California wine history that involves one winery and one person. But the two of them are so closely intertwined that our lesson is big and important, and interesting and fun too.
Buena Vista Winery is the oldest commercial winery in California. It was founded, in Carneros, in 1857, by Agoston Haraszthy. Haraszthy was born in Hungary in 1812. He came from a noble family: noble but not very wealthy. Still, his background gave him a far better education than most other immigrants at the time. He also had a great ambition and talent for self-promotion. Today, it can be difficult to separate fact from legend when it comes to Haraszthy, but here goes. He arrived in New York in 1840 and traveled to Wisconsin with a cousin. While there, he laid out a town that became Sauk City, raised livestock and grew wheat and hops. Then, he travelled to Budapest to see his wife, parents and three sons. In 1842, the whole family returned to Wisconsin. This time Haraszthy bought land, ran a steamboat line and experimented with “vitis lambrusca” grape vines. (These were native American vines, not the “vitis vinifera” vines that were in Europe.). Wisconsin winters were not friendly to Haraszthy’s health though, so news from California of gold and wonderful weather prompted him to move his family to the West Coast. They settled in San Diego.
In San Diego, Haraszthy went into various businesses, got himself elected sheriff, built a new jail, and, not to be left out, planted Mission grape vines. When California became a state, Haraszthy was elected to the state legislature which resulted in his family moving to San Francisco. And he bought more land. In 1853, Haraszthy and one of his sons, Geza, along with some partners, took advantage of a federal program that let them claim land in a canyon south of San Francisco called Crystal Springs. It was on this land that he first experimented with “vinifera” grapes.
At the same time as he was planting European grapes south of the city, Haraszthy, along with other Hungarian partners, opened a business to assay and refine gold. Luckily, in 1854, the first San Francisco branch of the U.S. mint was opened. Haraszthy was appointed assayer for the mint. Not so luckily, discrepancies were found in the mint’s numbers, Haraszthy was charged but eventually found not guilty. The damage was done though — his reputation was badly tarnished and working in close proximity to the heat and melting metal dust did damage to his health.
The vines that he’d been planting in Crystal Springs he now tore up and replanted in Sonoma. This location was named Buena Vista for its beautiful views. It was here his plantings became most successful. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot and Syrah all got attention from him. And, Zinfandel, which became so important to Sonoma and California wine making. Buena Vista was Haraszthy’s most successful business venture, although not one that he could stay with for too long. In 1863, financial support for the winery was taken over by the Buena Vista Horticultural Society with Haraszthy as the superintendent. Then, in 1866, he was forced to resign as superintendent of the winery. After filing bankruptcy in 1868, Haraszthy found new funding and went to Nicaragua to set up and run a sugar plantation. His wife died of yellow fever and Haraszthy fell off a tree branch trying to cross an alligator filled river. He died on July 16, 1869, although his body was never found.
Buena Vista Winery is still located where Haraszthy built it, just east of the town of Sonoma. In 1857, he started to bore tunnels into the sides of a nearby mountain. At the entrances to the tunnels he built stone winery buildings. There were underground tunnels and the latest wine making machinery available. Buena Vista was the first stone winery in California. Haraszthy kept adding more land to his holdings and, eventually, he had over 5,000 acres of valley and hillsides. He believed strongly in hillside vineyards, claiming the vines should grow without irrigation. Some of his land he divided into smaller plots that he encouraged friends to come to Sonoma to see and he planted vineyards for them on “their own” land. In the middle of the property, he built a villa that he and his family lived in.
In 1858, Haraszthy wrote a 19 page report on grapes and vines in California. It was published by the state agricultural society that he became president of in 1862. In 1863, Haraszthy incorporated the Buena Vista Horticultural Society. This was the first California, if not United States, corporation dedicated to the wine making business. And, in 1861, Haraszthy was appointed by the governor to prepare a report for the state legislature on why and how to develop the state’s wine business. In preparing for this report, he travelled through Europe investigating winery styles and methods, and gathering vine roots for planting (more than 100,000 vines, more than 350 different varieties). He offered to sell the rootstocks to the state, to plant them and see which varieties were best for California, to give them to wine makers across the state and more. None of his offers were accepted, and the massive expenditure was partly responsible for his later bankruptcy.
One last piece of the Haraszthy story is the Zinfandel controversy. His legend claims that he was responsible for bringing Zinfandel rootstock to California. In the 1870’s and 1880’s, one of his sons claimed that his father was the first to bring Zin into the state in 1852. Because this son was a well known sparkling wine producer in San Francisco and the president of the state board of agricultural commissioners, his claim was widely believed. Despite some challenges over the years, truth or legend, Haraszthy is still considered to be the founder of the California wine business. His title as the “Count” is a tribute to his accomplishments and legacy.
Today, Buena Vista Carneros Winery, its new formal name, makes a wine to honor their founder called “The Count.” Of course it is. It is a blend of grapes from Sonoma vineyards, each fermented separately, aged in American, French and Hungarian oak as needed and then blended into the finished wine. The grapes in it are Merlot, Syrah and, yes, Zinfandel. And it definitely delivers as the tribute it is meant to be. The bouquet is rich and opulent with black currant, cherries and hints of espresso. The flavors are those plus more – plum, blackberry, baking spices like cinnamon and cardamom. And the texture? Big, full, juicy, silky smooth. There is a subtle power to this wine the comes across in all its layers. As you go through your first glass, every sip is your new best friend. Truly amazing, and for $17.99. How often do we get to have a glass with a Count? Now we can have “The “Count,” by the glass or the bottle. Makes us all royalty, for a bit at least. Enjoy!