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Father of California Wine Enjoyed a Vintage Lifestyle

Photo courtesy of sonomauncroked.com
Photo courtesy of sonomauncroked.com

Agoston Haraszthy, the father of California wine, was born the son of a winemaker in Hungary. His plan in emigrating to America was to make the United States, with its rich land and good climate, the world’s foremost wine-producer.  But his vineyards failed, first in Wisconsin and then in southern California, the former because the climate was to cold and the latter because it was to hot.

In 1852, he gave up his job as the first sheriff of San Diego County to pursue the tremendous wealth of the 1849 gold rush in northern California. The new wealth of the miners was mingled with the already opulent lifestyle  of the powerful Spanish grandees who owned most of the best land. Far from the Mexican government and its control, the high-living, free-wheeling land barons of old California held lavish fiestas for hundreds of guests that lasted for weeks at a time.

Life on their semi-feudal estates was apparently much like that portrayed in old Zorro movies. To Haraszthy, who had adopted the tide Count while in Wisconsin, those scenes of elegant rowdiness no doubt had great appeal.  And he also saw a better climate and a tremendous market for wines among both the old grandees and the newly rich miners.

He planted a large vineyard of some 200 acres south of San Francisco, and again it failed, this time due to the great fogs in the area, which kept the grapes from getting enough sun.  As he had everywhere else when his vineyards failed, Haraszthy went into business, this time building a gold refinery. If alive today he’d no doubt be making oil rigs or computer chips to finance his winemaking. His refining skills, coupled his even more developed political skills, procured for him the post of Assayer of San Francisco Mint. There he supervised the processing of more than $100 million in gold from 1855 to 1857. He built an elaborate Italian mansion and adopted a lifestyle that was lavish – and suspect – even for that era.

In 1857, he was indicted by a federal grand jury for embezzlement of more than $100,000 in gold from the mint.  Four years later, after a lengthy Treasury Department investigation, during which the smokestacks of his refineries were thoroughly scraped, the indictment was dismissed because the missing $100,000 in gold was all found in soot stuck to the insides of the refineries‘ chimneys.

Rich again and relatively free of scandal, Haraszthy found the perfect land and climate for the only project he was ever really interested in: winemaking.  He bought 6,000 acres in the foothills of the Mayacamas Mountains which separate Napa from Sonoma. The area was called the Valley of the Moon because of the way the moon appears and disappears repeatedly behind six different tiers of mountains. Mayacamas itself means “howl of the mountain lion,” which indicates this was not exactly suburbia at the time.

Grapes had been grown in the area commercially by the provincial commandant General Vallejo since at least 1834, but from poor quality mission grapes.  Haraszthy revolutionized the California wine industry forever by producing finer grape varieties and new methods. Instead of planting in the rich valleys, as the others have done, he planted his vines on the mineral-rich hillsides and made the vines struggle for water, producing less but finer juice.  One historian said his changes affected northern California much as the cotton gin did the South.

Haraszthy purchased his estate from the brother of General Vallejo, whose twin daughters married Haraszthy’s sons, Arpad and Attila whose name is a reminder of who put the “Hun” in Hungary.  The Haraszthy soon had 400 acres planted in fine varietals including Riesling.  In a single year, they planted more than 80,000 vines on 118 acres – by hand.  Anyone who has ever tired to plant or tend grapevines will realize the enormity of this accomplishment.  Of course $8-per-month Chinese labor helped.

The tenacious Chinese, with their legendary industry, working by moon-light on the hottest days, also dug eight enormous wine cellars, each 100 feet deep into the limestone of the mountain faces, and built two large stone wineries that are still in use.  Haraszthy named his new winery Buena Vista.  It still thrives today.

The vine which did the best at Buena Vista was something of a mystery. It had been sent to Haraszthy by a Hungarian friend in New York. Because of its origin, Haraszthy assumed it was also Hungarian, but it was puzzled because his family had been winemakers in Hungary for generations and he had never heard of the grape before he saw it written on the box: Zinfandel.  Today its origins are as disputed as ever, but it is undoubtedly California’s most distinctive grape and makes some of the state’s best wine.

John Hailman of Oxford is a regular contributor to HottyToddy.com on two subjects: Law and Wine. Now retired from both his “day job” as a federal prosecutor in Oxford after 33 years and his “night job” of 25 years as a nationally syndicated daily columnist in more than 100 daily papers on wine, food and travel for Gannett News Service and the Washington Post, Hailman will cover both topics under the titles of The Legal Eagle and Wine Tips of the Week. HottyToddy.com will also run periodic excerpts from Hailman’s upcoming book of humorous legal stories: From Midnight to Guntown: True Crime Stories From A Federal Prosecutor in Mississippi. Hailman now teaches Federal Trial Practice and Law and Literature at Ole Miss.

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