Notable for its title of oldest commercial winery in the state of California, the Buena Vista Winery boasts a long history of excellence. The winery was first established in 1857 by the distinguished Hungarian “Count” Agoston Haraszthy. The count had fallen in love with grape orchards while living in Hungary, eventually bringing his talents to Sonoma, Calif. Through continued viniculture experimentation, he was able to make great strides in wine production, even going so far as to construct the first gravity-flow winery in the state. Unfortunately, challenges regarding pricing in the wine industry forced the count to resign as superintendent. Further struggles came during the depression of 1873, and the winery was forced to file for bankruptcy.
Robert C. Johnson’s Castle
After all the assets related to the Buena Vista Winery were liquidated in the 1870s, the property transformed into the luxurious estate of Robert C. Johnson. Sadly, Johnson expressed little interest in maintaining the vineyard, instead taking the opportunity to build a glamorous mansion that soon came to be referred to as The Castle. Johnson and his wife’s interest mainly revolved around the world of fine art, which they used to adorn the walls of their home. Seeing some value in the sheer beauty of the press house and winery, they decided to maintain these structures. If not for their appreciation of architecture, the backbone of the winery would surely have faced immediate destruction.
The Phylloxera Disaster
After Robert C. Johnson passed away, his wife decided to donate The Castle to the local Catholic Church. Initial propositions called for the development of a charity hospital, but this plan never reached fruition. Instead, the winery eventually became the property of the state of California. This marked the beginning of a long period of neglect, with an outbreak of phylloxera only making the problem worse. A grape disease spread by aphid-like insects, phylloxera destroyed the vineyard in the days leading up to World War I. Of course, even had the disease failed to strike, chances of the re-establishment of wine production would have been slim, given the adoption of Prohibition. Still, the phylloxera epidemic was a huge blow, decimating what was left of the once glorious vineyard.
World War II Era Restoration Of The Buena Vista Winery
Despite the struggles of the Prohibition era, hope remained for the Buena Vista Winery. The property luckily fell into the right hands, a fortunate circumstance that eventually allowed for its revival. In 1943, Frank and Antonia Bartholomew purchased the winery, although, at the time, they had no idea that the property had once served as one of California’s greatest vineyards. Upon discovering Buena Vista’s distinctive history, the couple decided to begin the difficult but ultimately worthwhile task of restoring the winery. This process was briefly put on hold while Frank Bartholomew was overseas for World War II, but his wife continued to work hard at returning the property to its former glory.
After World War II ended, Bartholomew returned home with his good friend, Andre Tschelistcheff. Often referred to as the “dean of American winemakers,” Tschelistcheff contributed greatly to several important mid-20th century advancements in wine production. With the help of Frank and Antonia Bartholomew, he was able to transform the stagnant Buena Vista Winery, ultimately releasing the vineyard’s first post-Prohibition wine in 1949.
The Glory Days Of Andre Tschelistcheff
Under Andre Tschelistcheff’s leadership, the Buena Vista Winery quickly achieved a reputation as a leader in the industry. Tschelistcheff’s wine innovations included the introduction of cold fermentation in the state of California, as well as major contributions to the knowledge of vineyard frost protection. These changes paved the way for a boom in the moribund California wine industry. In the midst of these developments, the Buena Vista Winery changed hands multiple times, fortunately retaining its status as vineyard all the while.
The Beginnings Of The Boisset Era
Buena Vista Winery has continued its status as a prominent vineyard, even in the midst of continued transition between owners. The most recent changing of hands may finally mark the beginning of a period of stability for the winery. In 2011, Jean-Charles Boisset recognized a great opportunity resting in the beautiful vineyards of the Buena Vista Winery, and elected to add the property to his rapidly growing Boisset Family Estates. With roots in France and a long history of excellence in wine, this family holds a deep respect for the rich history of wine in California — and that includes the legacy of the count. The Boisset family has effectively demonstrated this commitment through the recent promotion of “The Count of Buena Vista,” a performance in which local actor George Webber portrays the count to great effect.
Jean-Charles Boisset is dedicated to ensuring the continued success of the Buena Vista Winery, adeptly maintaining a fine line between recognition of the property’s history and commitment to new innovations in wine production. Perhaps this reality accounts for Buena Vista’s distinctive California Travel Association Winery of the Year victory in 2013. Clearly, the vineyard’s future rests in good hands.