The Count of Buena Vista
After 200 years, Agoston Haraszthy makes a comeback
The Count depicted planting a vine as worshipful Sonomans gather in grateful appreciation. Artist unknown.
If Count Agoston Haraszthy could have been present at the 200th anniversary of his birth—surviving somehow the ravages of time and the jaws of the Nicaraguan
alligator that allegedly ate him—he would no doubt have been a very happy man.
Now deservedly, and unreservedly, proclaimed the “father of the wine industry in California,” he would have been honored in grand style, especially by another foreign winemaking visionary, Jean-Charles Boisset, the new owner and consummate restorer of Haraszthy’s original Buena Vista Winery.
If he were still among the living, Agoston would have donned his finely stitched shirt with the front of gold lace, his tight pantaloons, and his frock coat with the military collar, and presided with dignity and charm over the Sonoma festivities. A second fur-lined coat would be loosely draped over his shoulders, and a fur hat with a feather fastened by a jeweled brooch would set off his handsome features. But the eye would be drawn to his waist where he wore a curved Turkish sword, the symbol of his nobility.
Agoston was not a count, but the title was more an exaggeration than a fabrication. A nobleman, who traced his lineage to the Magyars, he oozed charm and drew people like bees to an open flower. Not unlike Boisset, now guardian of his legend, Haraszthy’s energy, charisma and Old World manners made him a popular guest wherever he landed. His ambition was boundless and his incredible drive was fueled by his need to be the center of attention. He was a man of intelligence and wit, a man’s man who was as comfortable sticking grapevine cuttings into the ground and slaughtering pigs with his bare hands, as he was holding a teacup in the drawing room of James Tyler, president of the United States.
Haraszthy’s biography—the one done by serious researcher and descendant
Brian McGinty—reads like the exploits of a 19th-century Forrest Gump. Agoston despised the idle rich of his own country, Hungary, and longed for a place where hard work turned into opportunity and recognition. Where could he meet these needs? In a new country called the land of opportunity—America.
Born August 30, 1812, Agoston grew up in Bacsa in the famous vineyard region of Tokaj-Hegaljin. An only child, he was raised to be a gentleman farmer, but most likely also had legal training. Restless and unsettled, he longed for adventure. In 1840, at the age of 27, he made a momentous decision. He left his pregnant wife and two small sons to travel, to discover his “calling” and perhaps, in modern terms, to “find himself.”
He traveled through Europe and on to New York. But instead of going to Florida, where he thought the climate might be suitable for growing grapes, he instead went to Wisconsin, a place he heard was ripe for investment. Arriving in summer, he found small groups of settlers on the banks of pretty streams with endless meadows and abundant game. The dreamer inside sprang to life and took hold. Calling himself “Count” for the first time, he easily found investors. He needed them because it takes money to build cities and he had very little of his own.
Returning to Hungary, he packed up his noble wife and now three children, and took them to the city he would found on Sauk Prairie, Haraszthy Town (now known as Sauk City). The Haraszthy legend leads us to believe he left Hungary the first time as a political exile. His biographer claims otherwise. He freely returned to move his family and his belongings to his new home.
The “legend” claims Agoston was a member of an elite royal military unit as a young man. While no record of this service exists, it was certainly possible and may
account for why, after Agoston left Wisconsin, he dropped the “Count” title and was known thereafter as Colonel Haraszthy—a courtesy title adopted by many in the Old West.
If seeking a new challenge was Agoston’s goal, he was a success. Leaving his new town, where he established industries, including viticulture, he was put in charge of a wagon train and headed West in 1849 with his family—his noble wife, his father, and five of his six children. The eldest son joined them on the trail. Most members of the group were off to seek their fortune in gold and when they made it to California, they headed north. Agoston went south. Mining was not his objective—he wanted to test the California climate and soil
His detractors claim he left Wisconsin to avoid debts. His biographer says he had creditors aplenty, but could have paid over time. He went to California to follow his dream, of finding a place where European varietals would grow successfully. Agoston knew good grapes and good wine—he had been raised in a world-class viticultural area and was confident he would eventually find the right location. It would not
be San Diego.
His need to achieve, always in his subconscious, temporarily distracted him from pursuing his goal. He charmed the citizens of San Diego with his dignity, his suave manners, his work ethic, and his compassion for others. He organized relief efforts to help those who struggled across the desert on their way to the goldfields. He
attracted investors to build a new town called Haraszthyville (now middle San Diego). And he dabbled in politics. He was elected the first sheriff of San Diego County, and later he was elected to the first California legislature.
While successful as a legislator, Agoston decided it was not his calling. He left Southern California after two years, settled in San Francisco, and learned a new skill—metallurgy. It was his ability to transform gold nuggets into gold bars that gave him his most prestigious title—assayer of the new San Francisco Mint. The post also gave him his most serious challenge, both personally and financially. He was charged with embezzlement and had to defend himself in court.
His detractors believed the charges, and he was flayed in the newspapers of the day. But Agoston had an answer, and when he got to court he proved “beyond the shadow of a doubt” that the missing gold was adhering in the form of dust to the walls of the chimneys in the smelter and on the rooftops of surrounding buildings.
He was acquitted, but legal fees had flattened his purse and damaged his reputation. He went back to what he knew best—grapes. In 1856, after selling properties and settling debts, he purchased acreage in Sonoma and soon moved his family onto the property. He named his vineyard Buena Vista Ranch.
With new optimism and a resurgent drive to succeed, he planted. He also wrote a “how to” book to encourage others to plant, with a section on making wine. The soil in Sonoma was richer and more apt to produce the character he was seeking in the wines he made. But his dream was to plant European varietals in California, and so he did.
By 1858 more than 100 acres were planted and in 1859 a villa was built. But he had even more grandiose ideas, and soon convinced the legislature to appoint him as a special envoy to travel Europe bringing back ideas and the best cuttings to be distributed throughout California. He did this in 1861, and when he returned he had over 100,000 cuttings, all in good condition. His dream of making California the premier wine producer was within reach.
But dreams fade and with reality came disappointment. The legislature did not honor the commitment they made, did not reimburse any expenses, and left him with his cuttings and debts. Not having a choice, he incorporated his holdings, calling it the Buena Vista Vinicultural Society, selling shares, but retaining the right to oversee operations. Cuttings were sold, he wrote a book about what he’d learned during his travels, and he worked—harder than ever—to make prize-winning wine.
The Haraszthy legend claims he had “the largest vineyard in the world,” and quite likely it was the truth. Harper’s Magazine claimed Buena Vista alone had 400 planted acres in 1864, its own rail system, and production buildings including a champagne house. Restless again, and having borrowed heavily from friends, Agoston cast his eyes in the Santa Barbara area, looking for new areas to plant.
The success and attention he craved
finally came to an end. Vines began to die—the result of phylloxera, a vineyard pest as yet undiscovered. Rain did not fall, taxes were high, and his investors
Agoston was fired, and with debts mounting and creditors lining up, he swallowed his pride and filed for bankruptcy.
The incredible, truth-is-stranger-than-fiction life of Agoston Haraszthy ended badly. Pursuing his final opportunity, a sugar plantation in Nicaragua, the “father of the wine industry” disappeared, presumably dragged into the water and eaten by an alligator as he napped under a tree next to a river.
Time has softened his transgressions and amplified his accomplishments. And whether you believe him to be a schemer, a snake charmer, and a fraud instead of a dreamer, a leader, and a visionary entrepreneur, it no longer matters. It took another century, but Agoston Haraszthy’s goal was finally achieved when California took its place as a producer of world-class wines. And as the industry he founded celebrates the 200th anniversary of his birth, if Agoston Haraszthy could see the meticulously
restored and expensively enhanced Buena Vista Winery, he might release an immortal sigh of satisfaction, secure in the knowledge of his ultimate success.
From the 2012 Fall issue of SONOMA