Who do you need him to be now?
Count Agoston Haraszthy is sweating. Woolen topcoats are not optimal garments for summer heat. His hair has lost its lift, and the moustache is drooping. He’s loosened his cravat and cast off the overcoat, but still, he’s too warm and it shows. To be fair, it is mid-July. It’s tough to rock a three-piece suit and leather boots when the mercury’s pushing triple digits.
Haraszthy is the Father of California Viticulture, and he’s just had a big birthday. He was 200 years old August 30. Everywhere he’s gone, all summer long, he’s been The Man. Women clamor, children flock, dogs beg for belly rubs and frankly, it’s a lot. Haraszthy grips his cane and takes a seat.
“I am a member of the Hungarian nobility,” he begins, his voice wheezy and yet still faintly arch, delivered in the cadence of a man who’s seen much. He seems winded, wound out, like he’s been talking for too long. Yet even in this heat at the end of a long day, there is something regal about the count. His head tips back as if to look down at his audience, his languorous pauses keep the listener waiting. “I learned to read and write in Magyar—the Hungarian language—English, Spanish, Latin, French, German, Russian. I have always had an ability for languages,” Haraszthy says bumptiously. He boasts of fine horses and exotic travels, of inventing this and spearheading that. If you’d let him, Count Haraszthy would trumpet his accomplishments all afternoon, but he surrenders the stage so that George Webber, the middle-aged man currently inhabiting his skin, can list his.
Let’s back up.
George Webber spent 20 years as a runner on the options floor in the open outcry system of the Pacific Stock Exchange. Picture white guys in dark suits shouting a cacophony of complicated numbers back and forth in the exchange’s jurassic period, before computers. Are you seeing it? Well, that was George. “It was a very lucrative job,” Webber says bluntly. “All I had to do was be perfect, that’s all.”
He grins slyly, like a predator at its prey. There’s a long pause as he waits out his punch line. “And I was perfect. I was as good as it got.”
Webber watches his audience absorb this pronouncement, then a bright happy grin spreads wide on his face. Leaning in like an intimate, he maintains steady eye contact. “I am not a modest man,” Webber confesses. He will make this admission again and again.
When computers took over, Webber cashed out. He moved to Sonoma to follow his bliss. “I was an actor as a child, but I’m not crazy. I never thought I could make a profession of acting. I loved acting, and I’m really good. My dream was to combine my love of acting, my love of history and my love of wine into historical wine tourism.”
It was his wife, actually, who gave him the nudge needed when she recommended he try staging historical walking tours for out-of-town visitors. “It felt like a grenade detonated inside my head,” Webber says of that moment. “I spent a year researching, reading and writing.” When Webber debuted the concept in 2001, he’d taken her idea one league further. He escorted his tourists around town dressed in authentic period costumes, delivering Sonoma’s history in the appropriated voices of his characters, his own persona subsumed. There was General Vallejo, of course, the mutton-chopped secularist sent to scour Sonoma’s mission of religion. And there was Mark Twain, too, his untidy moustache a sharp counterpoint to the famed razor-wit.
In time there were others: Wild West Willie, Professor Vine, Luigi the singing chef, and Fred, the “ultimate step-on guide.” And lastly, there was the count: viticulturist, linguist, man about town. Webber called himself “Sonoma’s Professional Multiple Personality Artiste” and was a fixture in the town square, wearing weird clothes and carrying on grandly for little knots of bemused tourists. It was a living, but just.
Then fate’s gnarled hand tapped George Webber’s shoulder, and on an ordinary June morning, he struck gold. It was 2011, and Weber’s walking tours were struggling to compete with the glut of Wine Country options. What with the limousine tours and bike tours and cooking camps and film-art-music-wine combinations, his one-man shop was struggling. “I had just given the General Vallejo walking tour to a group, and I was walking down First Street East toward the Basque. Now, a minute before, Jean-Charles—who had bought Buena Vista Winery a month before—was with Ryan Snow, a local commercial realtor. He had just said to Ryan Snow, ‘We’re making history the focal point of all the winery marketing. Tell me, is there a guy in this town who maybe has a walking tour, maybe is, like, a historian, maybe he’s an actor, maybe—if we’re lucky—he’s a wine guy...because I want to find someone who looks like the count to become the count, to be the brand ambassador and travel around the country being the count. Is there such a man?’ And Ryan Snow says, ‘There is a guy! His name is George Webber. He’s locally famous and...there he is!’ I walked up, looking like this,” Webber gestures to indicate the top hat, cravat, and cane, “ and he looked at me and said, ‘Oh my God! Can you be Count Haraszthy?’ and I said,”—Webber takes a deep inhale and a long, pregnant pause—“I already am.”
Just like that, George Webber’s fortunes turned. Today he is the face of the Buena Vista brand. In duster and top hat, he strolls the winery grounds. He travels the country as Count Haraszthy, delivering his well-rehearsed rap to distributors and buyers. He walks into shops wearing Victorian couture, buttonholes the buyer and holds court. Do the shopkeepers like it? “They eat it up,” Webber says. Sure it’s fun to play dress-up, but Webber cares that it’s right. If acting is his love, history is his muse, and it’s important that he represent it with accuracy. “What sets me apart is, I’m a very impressive person,” he explains. “I’m an expert in California history, ask anyone. I’ve been wearing period clothing in public for 10 years now. If I’m not in period clothing, I feel weird.” The man in the heavy dark suit leans back and considers, and one senses that perhaps it’s not Webber’s own reel that is running, but the count’s. Spending so much time immersed in the peculiarities of others can make a man lose hold of himself.
“I’m very passionate about hospitality. You can have a meaningful experience with people from elsewhere. You can be a helpful person, you can make their life better. You can make your life better too. I’ve had a lot of fun talking to people. Some people think I am difficult,” he admits. “But I’m only difficult to get along with if you’re stupid.” And—poof!—ambiguity about who he is channeling dissipates like smoke. That’s George Webber for sure: He is not a modest man.
From the 2012 Fall issue of SONOMA