Count Agoston Haraszthy
May or may not have been a genuine ‘Count’, a title he always used, but is famous as the ‘father of California viticulture’. He left Hungary as a political refugee in the 1840s and first settled in Wisconsin, where he tried to grow vines unsuccessfully, but he did grow hops and engaged in many enterprises. He moved to the west and in 1849 became the first sheriff of San Diego, where he also planted vines, before moving on to San Francisco, where he again set up in business. His sons married the two daughters of General Vellejo, owner of a wine estate called Lachryma Montis, whose products were apparently well regarded.
Haraszthy established the Buena Vista winery and its vineyards in 1857 and in the following year published a Reporton Grapesand Wines of California, in which he stated his belief that the region could make wines as fine as any. Following this, he toured the European vineyards, returning with many cuttings, some of which he planted in his own property, selling others, for by this time his activities had attracted the attention of other winemakers who began to make quality wines. Buena Vista was at this time thought to be the largest vineyard and winery in the world; its products were sold through offices throughout the U.S. And even exported to London. Unfortunately, the vines were attacked by the Phylloxera and the winery itself was almost destroyed by a fire. Unable to carry on for lack of funds, Hariszthy left California and went to Nicaragua, where he started a distilling operation, using sugar cane, having a government contract granted to him. However, in 1869 he disappeared – it is thought he fell into an alligator-infested river.
Haraszthy’s son, Arrad, who had been sent to study with Moet et Chandon at Epernay, was unable to make fine sparkling wine in California and eventually became a wine merchant in San Francisco, although he later bought another vineyard, the Orleans. The Buena Vista winery was virtually shaken apart by the San Francisco earthquake of 1906; but, as the site was not built on, it was found possible to revive the estate in 1943. Haraszthy’s influence may not have been as great as was, at one time, supposed. Undoubtedly others contributed substantially to the establishment of the first wineries and vineyards on a commercial scale in California. But he was an effective pioneer figure; and it was not only his picturesque ways that drew the attention of many people to California and its potential in wine – he was also a remarkably able wine man.