He was “the father of California wine,” and July 6 is the 140th anniversary of Agoston Haraszthy’s untimely demise.
Born to a noble Hungarian family in 1812, Haraszthy sailed for New York in 1840, in search of his future, and embarked upon a tour of America, which included a visit with President John Tyler “in my full Hungarian Guard dress uniform,” as he reported in his 1844 book, “Travels in North America.”
Hooked on the new country, Haraszthy settled in Wisconsin for a few years, but something lured him westward: the California sun and the future state’s golden allure, already being reported to the outside world. On Christmas Day, 1848, Haraszthy, his wife and their six kids set out for California, traveling along the Santa Fe Trail and reaching their destination nearly a year later. The family struck down its roots in San Diego, where an important event occurred: he was introduced to local grapegrowing and winemaking by the Spanish padres, who acquainted him with the Mission grape. “Haraszthy quickly noted its defects and became convinced that plantings of nobler varieties could be commercially viable,” writes a biographer, Robert Lawrence Balzer, adding, “He sensed that by planting vines brought directly from Europe, he could realize his old dream of producing wine of a quality that could complete with good Hungarian and other European wines.”
Haraszthy made good in San Diego, getting elected Sheriff and, following that, to the State Legislature, which at that time met in the city of Vallejo, just south of Napa Valley. That brought Haraszthy into contact with Northern California, which he realized was the best place to grow winegrapes. He purchased, in 1852, a plot of land in San Francisco’s Mission District and planted several hundred acres, but it wasn’t long before he discovered that San Francisco’s cool, foggy climate could never ripen grapes. One thing led to another, and in 1857, General Mariano Vallejo, the leading vintner in Sonoma County, invited Haraszthy to visit. “With his first glimpse of Sonoma Valley,” Balzer writes, “[Haraszthy] sensed instantly that his long search had ended.” Haraszthy bought 6,000 acres at the foothills of the Mayacamas Mountains and planted his estate, which he named Buena Vista.
It was, of course, Haraszthy’s 1862 book, “Grape Culture, Wines and Wine-Making,” which he wrote as a report to the Legislature, that made Haraszthy famous. That, and his importation to Buena Vista of hundreds of thousands of cuttings of 1,400 different varieties he gathered on his tour of the winemaking regions of Europe.
Haraszthy loved California and was the first great believer in its future as a world-class wine-producing region. “The California climate, with the exception of the sea-coast, is eminently adapted for the culture of grape-vines,” he wrote in his book. “…[T]here is no doubt in my mind that before long there will be localities discovered which will furnish as noble wines as Hungary, Spain, France, or Germany ever have produced.” Haraszthy was far ahead of his time; for all the talk about mountain vineyards and volcanic soils we hear today, one is amazed to hear Harasthy recommend that vintners “look for a soil which is made by volcanic eruptions, containing red clay and soft rocks…This kind of soil never cracks, and retains the moisture during the summer admirably.”
Haraszthy died in Nicaragua on July 6, 1869, reportedly eaten by crocodiles. I wish he could be around today to see how his hopes for California wine have been realized many times over. He is one of the giants of California wine, on a par with Robert Mondavi and Andre Tchelistcheff, the kind of person the wine industry produces only a few times a century.