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R.I.P. Agoston


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.

  1. Then there is the rest of the story….

    From “A History of Wine in America From the Beginnings to Prohibition” by Thomas Pinney, University of California Press 1989. Many pages on Haraszthy, the legend and the facts. To wit:

    “Agoston Haraszthy (1812-69), The Hungarian who developed the Buena Vista Vineyard in the late 1850s. He has been given credit as a pioneer of California winegrowing out of all proportion to his actual contributions.”

  2. Ray: I disagree!

  3. Thanks Steve! I think he’d be doubly proud of the quality of wines coming out of Buena Vista today.

  4. “He has been given credit as a pioneer of California winegrowing out of all proportion to his actual contributions.” This is the kind of statement you might expect from some ivory-tower professor of English who has also published scholarly work on George Eliot, Lord Macaulay, and Rudyard Kipling. Not exactly the most qualified person to pass that judgement, in my opinion.

    Haraszthy may have been something of a manic dilettante, and the fact that he was eaten by crocodiles in Nicaragua rather than dropping dead behind a mule in his vineyard seems to confirm this.

    As a body of work, Hilgard’s viticultural accomplishments in the 1880’s probably did far more to spread and establish winegrowing in the State. Nevertheless, Haraszthy was the first, and very likely some of the materials Hilgard planted in his 7 experimental vineyards came from Haraszthy’s plantings.

  5. Great blog Steve! If you venture to the Bartholomew Park Winery in Sonoma you will see a wooden replica of the Nicauraguan croc.

  6. Great report Steve – thanks! It is of special interest because I work with Julie and Philippe Coquard at the Wollersheim Winery in Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin. (

    Julie is (the late) Bob Wollersheim’s daughter and in the late 1970s Bob bought the property that was Haraszthy’s Vineyard and Winery. Bob and his wife JoAnn worked to restore it and Bob and Philippe (who came to America as an intern from a French wine-making family) have made Wollersheim Winery one of the most successful in the country. Bob – thanks to his successful efforts to produce great wine in the Midwest – is known now as “the Father of the Wisconsin Wine Industry”. Bob, Philippe and Julie – have proudly preserved Agoston’s original “wine cave” on the hillside behind the winery. People traveling through the area are welcome to visit, see the cave, enjoy spectacular views over theWisconsin River Valley and tour the winery. We look at it (proudly) as the birthplace of the California Wine Industry – and the Wisconsin Wine Industry!!

    Cheers -everyone is invited to stop in and enjoy .

  7. That was really nice, Steve. I’m sure he would be proud to see his vision coming to fruition. The comment about volcanic soils is uncanny.

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