Haraszthy: The man, the legend
GEORGE WEBBER is chair of the Sonoma-Tokaj Sister City Committee and also portrays Count Agoston Haraszthy at the Buena Vista Winery.
The year is 1842. The man waiting to be announced to President James Tyler stands in the foyer, his shoulders back and his chin high, a man of supreme confidence and noble bearing.
He wears tight pantaloons tucked into ankle boots, a long frock coat with military collar over a finely stitched shirt, a froth of gold lace at his throat. A second fur-lined coat hangs loosely over his shoulders. But the eye is drawn to the curved Turkish sword hanging from his waist and the glittering jeweled brooch fastening a feather to his tall fur hat.
Count Agoston Haraszthy oozes charm. He is a dreamer, addicted to optimism. But he is also a man of intellect and wit and few escape his charismatic spell, including the President of the United States.
Tyler receives him and invites him to a soiree, knowing this tall, handsome Hungarian will delight the ladies of Washington, D.C.
But this is a visit to pay his respects before returning home to the wife and children he hasn’t seen for two years. Haraszthy is a slave to his own restless spirit and sense of adventure, a man always in search of the next project, the next deal, the next accomplishment. Ambition has taken him to America, and it will take him back, where he will build a city, test his courage, and establish a signature industry that will define California in the years to come.
Agoston Haraszthy was born Aug. 30, 1812, in the city of Pest. His father, while untitled, was of noble birth, tracing his ancestry to the Magyars. The family moved to Bacsa, near the famous grape-growing region of Tokaj-Hegaljin. Wine was as much a part of Agoston’s heritage as paprika, and it is likely he had early training in growing grapes and making wine. In 1833, he married Eleanora Dedinsky, who was both beautiful and cultured, and whose life would change dramatically with the alliance.
Influenced by progressive thinkers of his day, Agoston had no use for the life of an idle gentleman farmer. He wanted to see and do, and so at the age of 27, he left his pregnant wife and two young sons in search of adventure.
First visiting Europe and the British Isles, his ultimate destination was America, the land of opportunity, the place where ideas flourished and work was valued. Traveling in the summer, he made his way to Sauk Prairie, Wisc., and was enchanted by it.
“In truth, the view was more beautiful than anything I had seen in all my travels in Europe and America. I was firmly convinced that nowhere in the world could there be a more enchanting place,” he wrote.
He promptly bought 640 acres along the Wisconsin River and convinced a handful of settlers a great city could be built there. Agoston had boundless imagination and infectious enthusiasm. He did not have unlimited funds, but his charisma and optimism easily attracted investors.
It was in Wisconsin he first used the title “Count,” an exaggeration, more than a fabrication.
“Agoston’s self-assumed title was to alternately puzzle and fascinate historians for generations,” writes Brian McGinty, his biographer and descendant. “One Hungarian historian described it as a ‘courtesy title’ of the sort that was customary in America, and suggested that Agoston’s ‘commanding presence, suave manners and great executive ability’ lent it an air of authenticity.”
He returned to Hungary in 1842, packed up his belongings and his family and went back to America, his adopted country, to settle.
In Haraszthy Town (now Sauk City), he resumed his entrepreneurial activities. He and investors laid out streets, built a schoolhouse, hotel, mill, store – they even purchased a steamboat. Says McGinty, “The plat of Haraszthy Town reveals that Agoston had already adopted the characteristic business style that was to typify his financial activities for the rest of his life: to draw a number of investors into a venture and distribute shares among them according to their financial contributions, while personally retaining only a small financial interest, but a commanding voice in the project’s management. He appears at all times to have been the dominant force in Haraszthy Town, although on paper he owned little or none of the land on which the town was built.”
Agoston, still a farmer at heart, also planted grapes, but they were native varietals, not European ones. He wore his “count” uniform everywhere and made friends easily. But his restless spirit was stirring again, and when news arrived about the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in far-off California, Agoston joined the gold rush. His purpose, in his own words, was “to settle, not for the gold, and to plant a vineyard near San Diego because California’s climate was more suited for grape production.”
“He was a man’s man,” says George Webber, who now portrays Haraszthy for the renovated and restored Buena Vista Winery and will appear in a Haraszthy play performed on the Plaza on Friday. “He liked to hunt and wrestle pigs. He loved challenges and being the center of attention.”
Trekking across the plains was a test of courage and resourcefulness, two things Agoston had in abundance. In April 1849, Agoston, Eleanora, and five of their now six children left for San Diego. Agoston, who was elected to be in charge of the wagon train, selected the southern route to Santa Fe, which joined the Gila trail. It was 2,500 miles from St. Joseph, Mo., to California, but he felt it was safer. The trip was long and dangerous. They arrived at Warner Hot Springs nine months later, where the group split off. Some headed north. Agoston went west to San Diego. He took up residence in the vacant buildings of Mission San Luis Rey, where gardens and grapes already existed.
In true Agoston fashion, he made friends quickly and even organized a relief effort for people enduring hardships on the trail. Opportunities abounded in the fledgling city. He formed a land syndicate and went into the development business. The town fathers assured him they had no money to build the grand city he envisioned for them, but they liked the Hungarian colonel. “Count” had disappeared somewhere on the trail. Agoston decided “Colonel” was a more fitting title.
The political bug bit him in San Diego where he ran for sheriff in 1850 and was elected. As the first sheriff of San Diego County, he was responsible for keeping the peace and collecting taxes in a 37,000-acre territory. His term was short. In 1851 he was elected to represent San Diego in the fledgling state legislature, where he aligned with the Democratic wing that wanted to divide California into North and South. Agoston believed southern agricultural counties were unfairly taxed by northern mining interests. But in this, he was to fail. California remained united.
Historians give him high marks as a legislator. But his real interests were in agriculture. In 1852, he left San Diego and settled in San Francisco, a thriving city that fascinated him because of its business opportunities. He bought 200 acres near the Mission, and more land at a place south of town at Crystal Springs. It was here he planted more than 2,000 acres, with fruit trees and vines imported from Europe.
Always eager to learn new skills, a chance meeting with a group of Hungarian metallurgists sent him in yet another direction. He learned to refine gold and when the new San Francisco Mint opened in 1854, President Millard Fillmore appointed him to the post of Assayer, a title with a great deal of prestige. But the mint was small and slow. Agoston and investors opened their own refinery, where raw gold was turned into bars that could be taken to the mint to be turned into coins.
The arrangement was not sanctioned by the government and Agoston was forced to leave his private business if he was to work at the Mint. He may have regretted his decision when, after an audit, he was charged with embezzlement. While the imperfect smelting process allowed for a 3 percent discrepancy, it was discovered that there was a 5 percent difference – totaling nearly $150,000. Scandal sheets blasted him and he had to defend himself in court. In addition to errors made by others, chimney walls and neighboring rooftops were dusted in gold carried by the smelter’s smoke – enough to account for the difference. Agoston was exonerated, but his reputation and pocketbook suffered.
But not his optimism. He sold property to pay legal debts and moved on to the next, and perhaps greatest, of his adventures – the founding of the vineyard at Buena Vista, which would become the largest vineyard in the world.
Sonoma had inferior mission grapes in abundance, but the character of the wine interested him. He bought a piece of Rancho Lac in 1856, and moved into its small house with his family in 1857. But Agoston’s dream was to make great European wine on California soil, so he transplanted his rooted European vines from Crystal Springs.
In February of 1857, 16,000 vines were planted, growing his production to 450,000 native vines and 26,000 foreign ones, with another 300,000 for sale in nursery stock. By 1858, more than 100 acres were planted with the help of Chinese laborers, with cellars, a press house and, in 1859, a villa for the family was under construction. It was the largest estate devoted to grape cultivation in California.
But Agoston had not come to Sonoma only to establish a great vineyard; he was a visionary who believed wine, as an industry, was California’s future. He couldn’t do it alone. To get others interested, he wrote, “Report on Grapes and Wine in California,” an early “how to” on planting and caring for vines, harvesting grapes, and making wine.
“He believed in blending,” said Webber. “He had a favorite saying, ‘Carrots will make a vegetable soup, but it will be a poor one; but take carrots, turnips, celery, parsley, cabbage, potatoes, onions and you will have a superior vegetable soup. So with grapes: take the proper variety of them and you will make a splendid wine.’”
In Sonoma, Agoston seems almost driven. By 1860, 200 acres were in cultivation. He also had a tasting room, encouraging visitors to tour the estate and taste the wines, especially when he started winning wine competitions.
“He thought Sonoma could be not just the seat of California’s greatest vineyard,” writes McGinty, “but a community of vineyards, a place where farmers could come together to till the land, share information and, by their mutual efforts, improve the economy of the county and the state.”
Brimming with ideas, he convinced locals to invest in a horticultural garden on acreage near Sonoma Creek, a mile west of the Plaza. In addition to grapes were corn, almonds, walnuts, and peach seedlings. But he needed capital to do what he wanted, so he sold off portions of his land, complete with vines and home sites, and continued to get others to plant. He wrote, “It is generally admitted that vine growing in this State will before long, exceed in value the amount of gold exported.” By 1860, the community of Sonoma’s vineyardists had planted 790,000 vines on 1,100 acres.
Not stopping there, he had long believed the state should support the industry. He convinced the state legislature to appoint him Special Commissioner to travel to Europe to investigate different processes of winemaking and to purchase and collect specimens of each variety of grapevine. He left in June 1861 and returned in January of 1862 with 350 varieties (100,000 cuttings, all in good shape).
But the Civil War caused political turmoil in the state, where pro-free advocates were in power. Agoston, who had once aligned himself with a Democratic faction that turned out to be pro-slave, asked for reimbursement of his $12,000 in expenses. The state refused. Worse, they refused to distribute the vines, which had been the purpose of Agoston’s trip.
Stuck with the vines, he developed a catalog and sold them himself, even offering to teach farmers the art of viticulture. And he wrote a book of his travels which included his “how to” done earlier.
Agoston still had many friends, the most prominent being the Vallejos. In spring of 1863, two of his sons, Attila and Arpad, married Vallejo’s daughters, Natalya and Jovita, in a double wedding at the Vallejo home, Lachryma Montis, cementing the two families.
Agoston continued to make improvements to Buena Vista, but was over-extended in his borrowings. He turned to what he knew best. He formed a corporation, with investors getting a piece of Buena Vista, depending on how much they contributed. He called the corporation the Buena Vista Vinicultural Society. That ended his sole proprietorship, but allowed him to continue to expand and, in 1864, another 100 acres were planted, a small railroad system was built to get grapes from the fields to the press, and a new champagne house was constructed with the first production at 9,000 bottles.
But troubles continued. The champagne failed, the year was dry, tax difficulties emerged, debts mounted, and the corporation was not meeting its investment prospectus. Agoston grew restless again, and began to look for other opportunities. By 1866, his sons, who had remained in the wine business, were involved in their own enterprises away from Buena Vista.
Charged with neglect of duties at Sonoma because of long trips away, lack of profits, mortgages that had grown, and planting practices that nobody understood, it was hard for Agoston to remain positive. But the ultimate disaster was looming. Plants began to die and no one knew why. It was phylloxera, a disease unknown then. Agoston Haraszthy, who had put his life into Buena Vista, was blamed – and fired.
At age 54, with creditors crowding him and no one to lend him money, he filed bankruptcy.
The eternal optimist didn’t look back. He straightened his shoulders and moved on. There were opportunities to explore in South America and Agoston had heard money was to be made in sugar plantations in Nicaragua. He was 55 when he and his wife, father, and two of his children moved on. In high spirits, witty, charming as ever – he wrote glowing letters to newspapers back home – the old Agoston was back.
Nicaragua was not to be the place where new cities were built or new industries were to be founded. Eleanora soon died of yellow fever, and then Agoston went missing and was presumed dead, leaving six children and four grandchildren.
“His family found his horse tied to a tree next to a river crossing,” said Webber. “Nothing was missing. It was a swift river infested with alligators. He tried to cross the river, holding on to a tree branch which broke off. He was a good swimmer, but alligators, capable of eating cows, could also eat a man. His body was never found.”
The life of Agoston Haraszthy is stranger than fiction, and complicated by erroneous information that has come to be known as “the Haraszthy legend.” But his real story is much bigger than his legend. It is the story of a man too bold to be ignored, whose vision for California was finally realized long after his death, a man who deserves the title, “Father of the California wine industry.”