In 1850s, a Hungarian adventurer, a man of boundless ideas and enthusiasm, arrived in Sonoma, after a varied career that included creating a town in Wisconsin, serving as a sheriff in San Diego, and being charged with embezzling gold while working at the San Francisco Mint. (The charges were later dropped.)
At each stop along the way, the self-named “Count” Agoston Haraszthy, an ardent agronomist, planted wine grapes, but it was not until he came to Sonoma that he found the place where his dream of “purple gold” would thrive.
Haraszthy bought a dry-farmed vineyard, and in 1857 opened a stone winery named “Buena Vista — “beautiful view.” This, California’s first premium winery, was the expression of his passionate conviction that California could create exceptional wines.
According to Buena Vista’s “History of California Wine,” Haraszthy predicted that “wine-growing in this State will, before long, exceed in value the amount of gold exported.”
Relentlessly, he promoted the idea through work and research. He and his son, Arpad, who had studied in Champagne, brought back roots and vines from Europe, as many as 300 varietals, inspiring other winemakers. These were the glory days of Buena Vista.
Unfortunately, the history recounts, “his grand ambition for the future of the wine industry far exceeded the demand for California wine and Agoston Hazasthy de Mokea, the insatiable Count of Buena Vista, was ultimately forced out of his creation by his own investors.”
Harazthy went next to Nicaragua, where he disappeared after falling from a tree into an alligator infested river.
In subsequent years Buena Vista endured the rocky fate of an early California winery, trials that included phyloxxera, Prohibition, and a public whose tastes tended to beer and whiskey. Wine production ceased as Hazasthy’s mansion became the home of a wealthy couple who eschewed grapes for to raise more than 200 angora cats. Wine production resumed when when a journalist Frank Bartholomew and his wife Antonia bought the property in 1943. They brought to it their friend, Andrei Tchelistcheff, the Russian immigrant and European trained winemaker who lead California into a new era of winemaking. Nonetheless, the winery passed on to a series of owners, corporate and private.
A century after Harasthy's disappearance, a French schoolboy visiting California with his grandparents, came to Buena Vista. They were travelers from Burgundy, where the wine-making history goes back 2,000 years, yet as Jean-Charles Boisset describes it, "I thought this place was magic.
"We tasted the wine back in our hotel room," Boisset said. Returning and someday restoring the property, he said, “became an idée fixe.”
As the Boisset family wine interests grew from their Burgundy base into an international enterprise, Boisset returned to California, first as a student and then to manage their U.S. interests. He purchased Raymond Vineyards in St. Helena and DeLoach Vineyards in Sonoma, but had not forgotten Buena Vista.
“I was obsessed,” Boisset said. In 2011, he was finally able to purchase the old winery, and “working in partnership with the Count,” he said, he set out to rebuild and "continue the Count's vision.”
Buena Vista today
To find Buena Vista in its secluded setting against the eastern Sonoma hills, leave your car in the asphalt parking lot and stroll along a forested path, marked by banners that tell the winery’s history. Chronologically, they move from the present to the past, concluding with the Native Americans who first lived in this tranquil spot, and underscoring the eerie sense that you are moving back in time, even before the two simple old stone buildings that hold California’s history become visible. And then the Count himself appears.
OK, it is really George Webber, the engaging history buff who leads tours in Sonoma and Napa, but his elegant manners not to mention his top hat and cutaway coat, set the spell of Buena Vista to work on the imaginative: Has the ghost of the Haraszthy escaped the crocodiles of Nicaragua to hover over his beloved Buena Vista?
The Count is next joined by M. Boisset himself, in modern dress but nonetheless the perfect counterpart for a ebullient dreamer from another century.
“This beautiful lady was a bit faded,” Boisset said, gesturing to the Press House, that has become the tasting room. “The most important thing was to revive wine-making in the most historic wine building in California.”
For Boisset, this goal included making the historic Buena Vista wines, planting the furmint grapes, the most widely grown variety in the Count’s native Hungary, and bringing to life again the second Buena Vista building, the Champagne Cellar, which had been unused for decades.
Today, the Cellar is the center of winemaking, the deep cellars once again hold barrels of aging wine. To this Boisset has added one of his dazzling strokes of fancy: A “Bubble Lounge,” decorated in the Art Deco style of the 1920s and ‘30s, with oyster-colored furnishings, a gleaming white player piano and towers of glistening Champagne glasses.
“A little surprise,” Boisset said, pouring some of the Champagne he brings in from France. “We want to engage people in a fun but noble way, to provide a sense of history, and a sense of time, of timelessness. The future of Buena Vista is the past.”
In contrast to this speakeasy luxury, the tasting room in the old Press House suggests a more rugged, early California adventure. Here, a mannequin sheriff stands guard by a display of Buena Vista Legendary Badge, a robust red blend, the bottle of which is emblazoned with a gold badge honoring the Count’s days as a sheriff.
Other displays in the room include recount the history of Buena Vista; a preserved crocodile dangles from the ceiling, hat in teeth, a wordless reminder of the Count’s unfortunate finish.
“We need to be true to our history and to the quality of the wine for our children,” said Boisset, as he introduced the Buena Vista wines. Boisset is married to Gina Gallo of the Gallo wine-making family, and they have twin daughters.
Among the wines are a Private Reserve chardonnay and pinot noir; the Vinicultural Society collection of small-production wines that “honor the winery’s pioneering spirit and contribution to California wine-making”; the Heritage collection that includes an imported Hungarian Tokaji Aszú, a Cream Sherry, Port and the La Victoire Champagne; a Carneros Collection, and The Count,” the “Founders Red wine that honors Haraszthy’s “legacy and bold vision.”
Buena Vista wines now sold in 25 countries, Boisset noted, although many of the wines are available only at the winery.
Work is still underway on the restoration, Boisset said as he described plans to come, everything from a heritage garden to theater in the plaza.
On July 12, Buena Vista will host a Living History day, that will include a re-enactment of the Bear Flag Revolt, in which Boisset will play the part of Victor Proudhon. Visitors are encouraged to come in period costume of the 1860s and learn about the history of Buena Vista, said Boisset who has also commissioned a book, “Sonoma Wine and the Story of Buena Vista,” which was written by the noted local historian, Charles L. Sullivan.
From Aug. 7-24, the winery will present Shakespeare's "Taming of the Shrew.
Details for these and other winery events are available at the website, BuenaVistaWinery.com.
Is there an irony that it’s a Frenchman who is so enthusiastically introducing the legacy of California wine?
“It’s part of discovering America,” Boisset said. “I think people in the U.S. want to feel their identity, their history. We are here to engage people with this. We want people to come here to enjoy themselves, to take time to enjoy their time. ‘American’ is a phenomenal way of life.
“It’s fun to have dreams and to help people to dream,” Boisset added. “What is exciting is to help create the dream. Our dream -- the dream of the Count and I -- is really to bring (forward) the vision of history, music, art, food, the past.”
Sitting quietly beside him, “The Count” smiled.
If the ghost of the founder of Buena Vista is, indeed, anywhere in the vicinity, he is surely one happy spirit.