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Buena Vista Carneros: A Remarkable Saga

“California can produce as noble and generous a wine as any in Europe” These were the words of Agoston Haraszthy (Ah-gus-tun Harris-tee), first published in 1862 in his historic report to the Senate and Assembly of the State of California, titled Grape Culture, Wines, and Wine-Making. Haraszthy had been given the title of “Commissioner on the Improvement and Growth of Grape-vine in California,” and sent to Europe to examine the different varietals planted there, to study the viticulture of the time, to examine the various methods employed in making wine, and to purchase vines to bring back to California for propagation and planting. Some of his observations on this trip were truly visionary for the time. He noted, “Frequent consultations with many eminent men in Europe, assured me that the quality of the grape governs in a great measure, the quality of the wine.” In addition, he remarked that, “Various examinations confirmed my previous conviction that California is superior in all of the conditions of soil, climate, and other natural advantage, to the most favored wineproducing districts of Europe. All this State requires to produce a generous and noble wine is the varieties of grapes from which the most celebrated wines are made, and the same care and science in its manufacture.” His was the first book to announce to the United States that California had the potential to grow and produce fine wine, and it became a major reference for students of enology and viticulture for many years.

Over the years, this Hungarian immigrant’s legend grew to storybook proportions, in part because Haraszthy was a clever self-promoter. He became known as the “Father of California Viticulture,” and “Father of Winemaking in California.” James Beard called him “The great name in California wine history.” Fortunately, Brian McGinty, Haraszthy’s greatgreat- grandson researched Haraszthy’s biography for years to find the details of his life in Hungary, Wisconsin, California and Nicaragua. In 1998, he published, Strong Wine. The Life and Legend of Agoston Haraszthy, the definitive history of this remarkable man’s life. McGinty’s approach to documenting Haraszthy’s life is commendable, for he tries to clarify many issues that separate truth from legend. I have excerpted much of my information in this feature from this excellent book and any wine aficionado would find it a fascinating read. In addition, Haraszthy’s Grape Culture, Wines and Winemaking is in publication. This book has a concise summary of Haraszthy’s life and influence written by Dr. Stephen Krebs. The text itself is of great interest only to dedicated wine historians.

Over time, Haraszthy’s legend has grown in stature. McGinty writes about him, “Bold, flamboyant, extravagant, devious, visionary, Agoston Haraszthy (1812-1869) is one of the most fascinating - and elusive - figures in the history of American agriculture.”

Much of what has been said and written about Haraszthy can be divided into Truths and Legend:

Truths:

* He was the first Hungarian immigrant to settle permanently in the United States.

* He was the second Hungarian to write a book about the United States in his native language, titled Travels in North America.

* He was the first operator of a steamboat on the upper Mississippi River.

* He was the first Town Marshal and County Sheriff of San Diego, California. He built the first city jail in California while in San Diego.

* He was the first assayer of the United States Mint.

* He built the first hillside caves in California.

* He planted more than 1,000 acres of vineyards.

* He introduced more than 300 varieties of European grapes to California.

* He was the author of the first book on wine written by a Californian.

* He was the first commercial wine producer who recognized the potential for a world-class wine industry in California.

* For a few years in the 1860s, the Buena Vista Estate was the largest vineyard in the world. His “wine estate in Sonoma was a commercial failure, but he was the first to plan and attempt such a grand scheme.

* He was the first to instruct winemakers in the best ways of planting, cultivating, and harvesting grapes.

Legend:

* He claimed to be a Hungarian count, but he wasn’t - he was a Hungarian nobleman from one of the oldest families in Hungary.

* He was not a member of the Royal Hungarian Bodyguard.

* He was never imprisoned in his native land.

* He was called “Colonel” in California and Nicaragua but the source of this title has never been adequately explained. He probably had some service in the Hungarian army, but the title was more likely just a courtesy one.

* He did not come to the United States as a political refugee. He did not flee to the United States after aiding the escape of a Hungarian separatist who had been jailed by the government.

* He was not the first to import grapes into California.

* He was not the first to grow grapes and make wine in California.

* There is no evidence that he was the first to bring in and plant Zinfandel and Pinot Noir.

Despite the legend that has developed and the inaccuracies therein, the accomplishments of this man can not be discounted. The best way to review his life and the origins of Buena Vista Carneros, is through the perspective of a timeline which follows.

The Life & Times of Agoston Haraszthy and the History of Buena Vista Carneros

1812 Agoston Haraszthy de Mokesa (Haraszthy) was born to an aristocratic Hungarian family.

1840 Haraszthy arrived in Wisconsin as a 27-year-old and founded the city of Harasztopolis. Here he is credited with the importation of hops plants and the introduction of sheep. He authored his book on America here. He married a noble woman from Poland on a trip to Hungary and had three sons born to him in Wisconsin.

1849 Haraszthy traveled to Southern California by wagon train, probably because the California wine industry was centered here at the time.

1850 Haraszthy purchased land in the Mission Valley area of San Diego and planted fruit trees and grapevines. The grapes were the Mission variety sourced locally, and Vitis vinfera which he brought in from the East Coast.

1851 Haraszthy became involved in politics and as a State Assemblyman traveled frequently to Sacramento.

1852 Haraszthy purchased 50 acres 2 miles south of the city of San Francisco and later an additional 160 acres. He named the ranch Las Flores. The area proved to be unsuitable for growing wine grapes.

1853 Haraszthy bought land in the hilly peninsula south of San Francisco called Crystal Springs. He managed 640 acres and planted about 30 acres of grapevines. By 1854, he had 500 rooted vine cuttings, both Mission and European varieties. The first planting of Zinfandel in California may have occurred here, but this cannot be substantiated. Again, the vineyard failed. He traveled to Sonoma Valley and became convinced that this was the ideal location for producing wine.

1856 Haraszthy bought land northeast of the town of Sonoma and named it Buena Vista Farm. Buena Vista means “Beautiful View” in Spanish. The views of the Sonoma Valley and San Pablo Bay were spectacular. The property consisted of 1,000 acres of valley land and 4,000 acres of hillsides. He transported vines from Crystal Springs to the vineyards of Buena Vista.

1857 Haraszthy relocated to Sonoma. He planted 16,850 vines, both Mission and European vinifera and had a nursery with 300,000 rooted native vines and 30,000 foreign vines. The total collection of vines in the vineyard and nursery was reported to consist of 165 different varieties. He made 6,500 gallons of wine and 120 gallons of brandy using redwood barrels with resins removed.

1858 An additional 40,000 rooted vines (60 acres) were planted at Buena Vista. His total plantings were 100 acres, a large vineyard for California at the time. The vineyard was among the two or three largest, and maybe the largest in the state. He ultimately wanted to plant 1,000 acres. He used Chinese laborers from 1857-1862 to excavate hillside cave cellars, possibly the first in California. These stone hillside cellars were damaged by the San Francisco earthquake in 1906 and were restored in later years by Frank H. Bartholomew. In 1858 he wrote the definitive manual on viticulture and winemaking, Report on Grapes and Wines in California. In this manual he emphasized a scientific approach to growing grapes.

1859 Haraszthy entered wines in the State Fair in Sacramento and won six awards including a silver cup for best first-class wine among all entered in the fair. He sold land to Charles Krug (35 acres for $1,000). Krug eventually sold his Sonoma vineyard and moved to the town of St. Helena in 1860. Hereszthy sold blocks of land in Sonoma to others including Jacob Gundlach and Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo. This same year, John Pritchett built the first stone winery in the Napa Valley

1860 Haraszthy won first place award for best white wine and brandy at the Sonoma County Fair. He produced California tokay, port, champagne, brandy, and still wine using a blend of Mission and European grapes.

1861 Haraszthy embarked on a fact-finding trip to the wine regions of Europe on June 10, 1961. His trip included visits to Dijon, Gevrey-Chambertin, and Beaune in Burgundy, and other regions of France, in addition to Germany, Switzerland, and Italy. He was to remark about Burgundy, “Industry and science have in modern times elevated the Bordeaux ... but, nevertheless, the Burgundy is sought for by all nations, and the extensive district planted with its vines cannot supply the wants of the trade.” He referred to Pinot Noir grapes as “Pineau” and “Noirere.” Regarding pigeage, he said, “When they have remained in this (fermenting) tank from 24 to 40 hours, the fermentation will send the stems and seeds to the top of the vessel, forming a hard mass. Then according to the size of the tank, from 4 to 10 men, stripped of all of their clothes, step into the vessel, and begin to tread down on the floating mass, working it also with their hands.” (Now we know why pre-phylloxera Burgundy tasted so great.)

1862 Haraszthy presented the account of his European trip to the State Legislature in Sacramento, Grape Culture, Wines and Wine-Making. This contained an updated version of his 1858 Report on Grapes and Wine of California and the official report given to Governor Stanford. The Legislature voted not to reimburse Haraszthy for his expenses including the cost of his vines, and rebuked his offer to provide instruction on winemaking and viticulture. He had built a stock of 300,000 rooted vines ready for distribution consisting of about 350 varieties such as Cabernet, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Chardonnay, Merlot, Gewurztraminer, Muscat, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Sylvaner, Carignane, and Furmint. Some of the varieties were already in California at the time, but some were completely new to the state. It was his intention to sell and distribute the varieties throughout the state. As President of the California State Agricultural Society, he wanted to establish a state-sponsored horticultural garden where grape varieties could be tested, propagated and made freely available. Unfortunately, without state support, his aspirations were doomed to failure.

1863 At this time, the wine industry experienced a severe economic depression and Haraszthy also encountered financial problems. He had formed a partnership with investors headed by banker William Chapman Ralston hoping to save his operation. Named the Buena Vista Viticultural Society, this infusion of money allowed him to expand his vineyard to 6,000 acres including an additional 85 acres of European vinifera grapes. He tried to enter the Champagne market at this time but the attempt failed. In the 1860s, phylloxera began to appear in Califonia vineyards. In fact, Buena Vista may have been the first vineyard in the state infested by the root louse. Phylloxera could have been brought into California by Haraszthy in the European vines he imported. Since Old World vines had no resistance to phylloxera, the pest destroyed a majority of California vineyards during the 1870s and 1880s.

1864 Haraszthy traveled to the East Coast and spoke to the American Institute in New York. He emphasized that “the quality of the soil makes a vast difference in the quality of wine,” and recommended Pinot Noir as the preferred grape for making red wine in the style of Burgundy. The reporters at the event were subsequently to refer to Pinot Noir as “Noiree,” “Pignon,” “Noriai,” and “Pinio.”

1865 Haraszthy layered the vineyards at Buena Vista to increase production.

1866 Haraszthy suffered a near-fatal fall at Buena Vista. He was forced out of the Buena Vista Viticultural Society.

1867 Haraszthy left Buena Vista at age 54, essentially bankrupt. Those who followed him at Buena Vista thought phylloxera was due to close spacing of the vines and tragically, they plowed under every other row in the vineyards, most of which were vinifera varieties.

1868 Haraszthy traveled to Nicaragua by boat. Here he began making distilled spirits from sugar cane for export at Hacienda San Antonio. His sons, Arpad and Attila, continued to make wine in Sonoma at the estate of General Williams.

1869 Haraszthy was granted bankruptcy in California. He mysteriously died at the age of 56 in Nicaragua. Theories abound, but it would seem that he either went out into a stream and was devoured by a shark or alligator, or drowned, or was the victim of foul play. The alligator theory seems to take precedent in most written accounts.

1876 Buena Vista Viticultural Society was liquidated.

1880 Robert and Kate Johnson purchased the Buena Vista property and built a mansion on the site called “The Castle.”

1906 The earthquake and phylloxera put an end to winegrowing at Buena Vista and the property was left to the Catholic Church which in turn sold it to the State of California.

1920 The State converted the property including “The Castle” into the State Farm for Delinquent Women. In time, the castle structure burned to the ground.

1943 The property was neglected over time and used for cattle grazing until the land and the Buena Vista Winery was purchased by Frank H. Bartholomew, Vice President of United Press. While on a trip to San Francisco that year, he saw an auction sale of 435 acres and a building in Sonoma for only $17,050 ($39 an acre). He bid and won the property rights sight unseen, and didn’t visit the Buena Vista property until after WW II. He restored the property and its vine yards, replanted, refurbished the winery and made wines by 1947. Andre Tchelistcheff was the consulting winemaker. The winery became profitable under Bartholomew’s direction. Bartholomew knew little about the wine business, yet he had a tremendous impact on the future of Sonoma Valley winegrowing.

1955 Bartholomew was promoted to President of United Press.

1968 Young’s Market Co, LLC, bought the Buena Vista label and winery from Bartholomew who retained most of the vineyard acreage. Bartholomew subsequently started a second winery project in Sonoma called Hacienda.

1976 A state-of-the-art winery was built at Buena Vista in Carneros.

1979 Buena Vista was sold to A. Racke Gmbtt & Co. of Germany, a family-owned wine and spirits business, founded in 1855. E & J Gallo and a company in Australia were also in the bidding. Marcus Moller-Racke directed the project and Anne Moller-Racke became vineyard manager.

1983 Bartholomew penned a book, Bartholomew: His Memoirs, which was illustrated by Jan Haraszthy.

1989 Bartholomew’s widow, Antonia, directed the building of a reproduction of Haraszthy’s columned villa based on surviving photographs. This villa was opened in 1990 and has become part of a 500-acre park owned by the Frank H. Barholomew Trust Foundation. Gundlach-Bundschu took over Hacienda, and operates it on behalf of the Trust Foundation as Bartholomew Park Winery as part of the park at 1000 Vineyard Lane in the town of Sonoma. There is a museum associated with the winery featuring memorabilia from Frank H. Bartholomew.

2001 Buena Vista sold to Allied Domecq PLC. The purchase included 718 acres of vineyards, the largest vineyard holdings in the Carneros appellation, and the historic winery and tasting room in Sonoma ($85.5 million). The Racke family split off 250 acres to farm as The Donum Estate and grow grapes for the Robert Stemmler label. Ann Moller-Racke became director of the wine-growing program at The Donum Estate.

2003 Winemaking team headed by Jeff Stewart (formerly La Crema) arrives. 2004 Two new lines of wines are introduced by the winemaking team at what is now known as Buena Vista Carneros.

2005 Beam Wine Estates purchased Buena Vista and most of the management and winemaking team is retained. Replanting and redevelopment of the 1,000 acre Ramal Vineyard which straddles both Napa and Sonoma Carneros is begun. Production output is significantly reduced, and a new era of commitment to ultra-premium wine production is begun.

And there you have it - 150 years of winegrowing tradition - making Buena Vista Carneros the oldest premium winery still operating in California. It is a true saga that features a “Count” from Hungary who was a viticultural hero to many, and a self-promoting scoundrel to others. It is a tale of the tribulations of a crafty immigrant who was driven to succeed and had an unrelenting passion for wine. He may have unknowingly brought phylloxera into California, but it was his teachings that set the stage for the dramatic successes in California wine production that followed in the 20th century. Then there was a journalist, Bartholomew, who, like Haraszthy, was largely uneducated about enology and viticulture at the beginning. Despite this, he was able to make Buena Vista a successful financial operation. Another immigrant surfaces in this saga, namely Andre Tchelistcheff, the Russian who, if he must defer to Agoston Haraszthy as the “Father of California Winemaking,” should at least be thought of as a legend in his own right. From start to finish, the history of Buena Vista is a remarkable tale. Could another wine movie find its inspiration here?

Agoston Haraszthy was inducted in March of this year as part of the inaugural class of “founders” in the Vintners Hall of Fame in St. Helena, California. Other founders inductees include Brother Timothy (1910-2004), Charles Krug (1825-1892), and Georges da Latour (1856-1940).

As an interesting side note, Dr Krebs, a noted viticulturalist, in his introduction to the reprint of Agoston Haraszthy classic work, notes that early explorers brought Vitis vinifera to the Americas from Europe. Colombus was thought to bring vines on his voyages and some of the vines grew vigorously in Haiti. Lord Delaware brought the first European grapevines to North America in 1619. The vines could not be successfully grown, presumably because of phylloxera and other diseases. Only North American species could be cultivated. The first European vinifera were brought into California by Spanish Padres from Mexico in 1767. The grape first planted was thought to be the Mission grape or Criolla. The initial plantings were at Mission San Diego and then spread northward as the chain of missions was established in California from San Diego to Sonoma from 1767 to 1833. Jean-Louis Vignes is credited with planting California’s first documented imported European grapevines in 1833. A large number of European varieties were brought into California in the 1850s and 1860s and were successfully grown here.

Bibliography

Agoston Haraszthy. Grape Culture, Wines, and Wine-Making (with Notes upon Agriculture and Horticulture), James Stevenson Publisher, Fairfield, CA, reprinted 2003, 126 pp.

Brian McGinty. Strong Wine. The Life and Legend of Agoston Haraszthy, Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA, 1998, 476pp. Gerald Hill. Historical Column on the History of Winegrowing in Sonoma Valley, Sonoma Valley Sun, May 4, 2006.

Haraszthy Villa, Sonoma
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