If you take a moment to ponder who deserves the title as Father of Californian wine, a few names may pop into mind. Limiting our scope to recent generations, Robert Mondavi might be the most obvious choice, as he helped to transition Napa Valley from its post-prohibition bulk wine doldrums to its rightful place among the greats of the modern wine producing regions.
Martini, Heitz, Jackson, and Gallo are also notable for expanding the market and name recognition of California wines. Reach back to the early 20th century and 19th century, and names like Beringer, Krug, Niebaum, de Latour and Schram were clearly innovators who created a legacy through enduring wineries and introducing winemaking techniques still employed today.
The title of “Father” though, suggests that one has to create an industry where previously there was none. As influential as those greats were, winemaking, and more importantly wine as commerce pre-dated their arrivals to the Napa/Sonoma region. It is difficult to argue when looking at the full picture that Agoston Haraszthy (pronounced “hair-is-tee”) truly deserves credit for bringing viable wine trade to the west coast.
By the time the ultra-mercurial Haraszthy settled in Sonoma in 1856/57, for a man of 44, he had already lived the equivalent of three lifetimes. Haraszthy was born into Hungarian nobility in 1812, and by eighteen served in the employ of Marie Antoinette's nephew, Francis I, as his royal bodyguard. Agoston's family worked in the wine trade, and influenced his later vocational calling. Later, while still in Hungary, Haraszthy worked as secretary to the Archduke and eventually legal magistrate.
Agoston then spent a few years traveling in America and wrote a two volume book about his experiences, released in Hungarian. His writing generated the capital he required to invest in what he saw as a burgeoning new economy on the west coast. After settling briefly in Wisconsin, where in a short time he managed to start a store, a steamship service, mills and develop farmland – and legendarily kill a wolf with his bare hands - Haraszthy moved on to San Diego around 1850.
Remarkably, again in a very short time, Haraszthy became the first sheriff, first town marshal, an assemblyman, and built the first city jail, while in his spare time planting vineyards with his family. After moving on for a few years to San Francisco where he worked at the new U.S. Mint and developed agricultural businesses, Haraszthy finally found his way to Sonoma, perhaps not coincidentally after being charged with embezzling from the new mint; he was later cleared.
As with much of the rest of his life, Haraszthy's next few years would have been viewed at the time as frenetic and bordering on failure; however with the benefit of hindsight we can see his accomplishments for what they were.
Agoston founded the Buena Vista winery in Sonoma in 1856/57 and implemented the first stone winery structures in California to go with the most current winemaking equipment available, along with an underground network of tunnels. The winery is still flourishing today. Haraszthy was a proponent of hillside planting, which stressed the vines and reduced water intake. This is a key component of generating flavor intensity in quality wines. He also separated the 500-600 acres into multiple plots or blocks and developed those smaller vineyards for others to manage.
Always a writer, in 1858 Haraszthy wrote the “Report on Grapes and Wine of California”, still recognized as the first treatise to specifically address the unique climate and challenges particular to Northern California. He was later commissioned by the Governor to travel to Europe to collect 10,000 cuttings of 350+ varietals, which he brought back and attempted with mixed success to sell and distribute to other winemakers after the government refused to reimburse him.
Unfortunately, while his work and vision was critical to the future of California wine, Haraszthy was having problems financially and in managing his own winery. The vines at Buena Vista were weakening, and for all his knowledge and experience, Haraszthy was not aware this this was a result of phylloxera, which spread throughout the region and destroyed most of the local vineyards. Because phylloxera is native to North America, only native plantings, and not European rootstock, was partially resistant. Haraszthy and most others were using European plantings for the grape quality.
Haraszthy, as President of the California State Agricultural Society, was largely blamed for failing to find a solution to the blight, and having incorporated Buena Vista a few years prior, he was replaced by shareholders in 1867 and his vines were all replaced. Haraszthy eventually declared bankruptcy, moving on to more travels in Nicaragua where he started a large sugar plantation. His wife died in 1868 and he followed in 1869.
True to his legend and mixed fortunes, Agoston is reported to have been attacked and killed by an alligator while working on his boat.
It is hard to imagine a more appropriate character to be credited with his respective title as Father of Californian wine than Agoston Haraszthy. Travel through Napa and Sonoma today, and you will see that the entire valley was developed by hard-working, visionary immigrants, with a good solid dose of eccentricity. Agoston was all that and then some.
For more information about Agoston Harasthy, I recommend Brian McGinty's book “Strong Wine: The Life and Legend of Agoston Haraszthy”. McGinty is Haraszthy's great-great-grandson. I also highly recommend perusing Haraszthy's “Report on Grapes and Wine of California” which is still available in printings.