It’s all about the grape. That’s what Count Agoston Haraszthy would tell you if he were still puttering among his vines in Sonoma, California. An immigrant from Hungary, Haraszthy ended up in this northern California locale almost by accident. He had already made his journey west from Missouri during the first days of the California gold rush. San Francisco was Haraszthy’s base, along with General Mariano Vallejo, another prominent Californian who served in the State Legislature. General Vallejo invited the Count to visit his home in Sonoma. The rest, as they say, is wine history.
The Russians and Fort Ross
The Russians were the first immigrants to settle in what is now Sonoma County. Fort Ross, today a California Historic State Park, was set up as a hunting outpost and supply depot for Alaska, then was passed to Russian hands. Sometime in the early 1800s these settlers planted the first grapes in Sonoma, using varieties brought from South and Central America. The wine produced was of a lesser quality than what is found in today’s Sonoma vineyards. It was the arrival of Count Agoston Haraszthy that helped put Sonoma County on the wine connoisseur’s map.
Purple Gold Struck in Sonoma
Haraszthy’s visit to Sonoma in 1856 was the beginning of a life-long love affair with the fertile soils that he instinctively knew would produce superb grapes.
He called his grapes “purple gold” and they were every bit as valuable as the gold sought after in mines and streams.Buying 800 acres on the outskirts of town, Haraszthy built Buena Vista, meaning “beautiful view” in Spanish. He built his family a lovely home and a winery crafted of stone. Today both are listed as California State Historical Landmarks.
But it was the land that commanded most of Haraszthy’s attention. The soil was rich and well drained. The hills were bathed in sunshine, thanks to the Sonoma Mountains blocking out the bulk of the rain and fog. Yet a finger of breeze made its way north from San Pablo Bay at night, cooling the landscape. By 1860, more than a third of Haraszthy’s acres were covered with vines.
The Revamping of the Sonoma Valley Wine Industry
Count Haraszthy avidly experimented with different planting and winemaking methods. He was a proponent of dry-farming on his hillsides and placing vines close together. This resulted in fewer grapes, but those that were produced had a higher concentration of sugar and flavor. That flavor in turn produced superior wines.
As far as his winemaking techniques, Haraszthy would experiment with blending grape varieties. He also aged his wine in caves he had hollowed out in the Sonoma Hills, a method used in his native Hungary. Barrels made of redwood were used for the aging process, another innovation introduced by the Count.
Promotion was Haraszthy’s middle name. Every chance he got, the Count would give speeches, write papers, sell cuttings and even give wine growing “lessons” to anyone that would listen. He traveled throughout the United States, visiting local and state fairs to promote California’s Sonoma Valley.
Friends and neighbors became interested in the art of winemaking, including Charles Krug,who bought acreage from Haraszthy and started a winery that is still going strong today. The Charles Krug Winery is now owned by the Mondavi family, another well-known Sonoma Valley name.
In 1861 Haraszthy’s wine promotion odyssey extended to Europe. He traveled far and wide, soaking up information on wine making techniques from places like France, Italy and Spain. The Count also came back to Sonoma with a collection of vines and samples for nearly 500 varieties of grapes. His Buena Vista property was soon covered with these European imports which would further increase the quality of Sonoma wines.
A Vintner’s Legacy
After writing a successful book in 1862 called “Grape Culture: Wines, and Wine-making, with Notes on Agriculture and Horticulture” Haraszthy formed the Buena Vista Vinicultural Society (BVVS) the following year. This society, along with the help of a legislative amendment, allowed vintners in Sonoma County to expand their holdings beyond the 1,444 acres per corporation allowed by state law.
The society did well in its first year, but that success proved to be the undoing of the Count. Production of California wines far exceeded the demand. Haraszthy was forced out of the society and his winery. The irascible Count set off for new adventures in Nicaragua, never to return to his beloved Buena Vista again.
After Haraszthy’s departure, the Buena Vista Winery was sold off by the BBVS. Unfortunately, the new owners had no interest in making wine. Then, in the 1920s, Prohibition became the law of the land. For the next decade, the few California vintners still operating were relegated to producing sacramental wines, along with some slated for medicinal use. In 1933 that law was repealed.
A decade later Buena Vista had new owners. In 1949, the first vintage was released, overseen by Andre Tchelistcheff, a noted European vintner. It was an instant hit. In 2011 Buena Vista changed hands again, this time to the Boisset Family Estates. Now Buena Vista was part of a company with holdings in Burgundy, France. In a way, the Count’s vision, as well as his beloved grapes, have come full circle.
A Winery Still in the Family
That vision is shared by Vallejo Haraszthy, owner of Haraszthy Family Cellars in Sonoma. Vallejo is the great, great grandson of the famed winemaker. Count Haraszthy and General Vallejo were not only friends; they were brother-in-laws, twice over. The sons of Haraszthy married the daughters of Vallejo in a double wedding ceremony. Vallejo founded the town of Sonoma and Haraszthy is considered “The Father of California Viticulture.” An enviable match, wouldn’t you say?