Agoston Haraszthy – Father of the California wine industry
The self-proclaimed “Count of Buena Vista,” Agoston Haraszthy, was a vivacious and eccentric pioneer with deep and unending commitment to California wine.
Born into a wealthy, land-owning family in Hungary, The Count grew up amidst famed vineyards and orchards that had been in his family for centuries. Surrounded by his own tales of intrigue and political exile, he emigrated in 1840 in pursuit of opportunity and freedom in the burgeoning American West. Following the ‘49ers in search of gold in the hills of Northern California, Haraszthy sought “purple gold” — the perfect grapes for exceptional wine. He ultimately settled in Sonoma, birthplace of California and capital of the short-lived California Republic, where he founded Buena Vista Winery in 1857.
A committed farmer, an experimental innovator and vintner, a respected author, a shrewd businessman-and a brilliant and incredibly zealous promoter, The Count is considered California’s most acclaimed and flamboyant vinicultural pioneer and evangelist – the father of the California wine industry.
Despite his abrupt death in 1869 (in an alligator-infested river in the jungles of Nicaragua) and following the challenges of the depression, prohibition, and phylloxera-infestation, his beloved Buena Vista Winery has not only endured but also prospered. It is now owned by Boisset Family Estates, which is passionately committed to continue the imaginative vision and unrivaled legacy first created by The Count 150 years ago.
Catching up with The Count
The Fourth of July Parade celebrates the 200th birthday of Count Agoston Haraszthy, who, portrayed by Sonoma actor and historical performer George Webber, will be among the Grand Marshall participants.
SUN: Count, you look great — what’s your secret?
COUNT HARASZTHY: The amazing restorative powers of red wine, of course!
What brought you to Sonoma way back when?
CH: I met General Vallejo when I served one term in the California Legislature as the first representative from San Diego County. The legislature was held in Vallejo that year, and the General invited me to visit him in Sonoma. I knew immediately that Sonoma was the perfect wine-land on earth; a belief furthered when I tasted some of the General’s delicious wine.
‘Father of the California Wine Industry’…. wow. Did you see that coming?
CH: Yes, I am much like the person who now inhabits my personality—-not a modest man. I did more than any other to create the framework and structure of a modern viticultural industry in California, and thus eminently deserve the title.
How has Sonoma changed over the years?
The Plaza is remarkably similar, albeit with more trees. Many of the buildings still stand that I recall: the Mission, the Barracks, the Swiss Hotel, the El Dorado Hotel, the Leese-Fitch adobe. All of these were here when I lived in Sonoma from 1856 to 1868.
Those parties at the Vallejo place — pretty crazy, right?
The General was a generous and expansive host. His younger brother, Salvador, was an excellent guitar player and singer. We would sit around a fire at night and listen as other players joined in with fiddle, bass, sometimes a horn. The sun would set, and the perfect Sonoma air was filled with the scent of the General’s thousands of fruit trees and flower gardens surrounding Lachryma Montis.
Things you miss most about the old days…
Time. We had lots of it. These modern devices have made us more efficient, but not happier.
Things you’re glad are long gone…
CH: Debtor prisons.
What are you up to these days?
I am fortunate to have been brought back to life by Jean-Charles Boisset, the new owner of Buena Vista Winery. I now travel the country telling the story of my extraordinary life while drinking delicious Buena Vista wine.
Parade and party
The Fourth of July Parade and Celebration on the Sonoma Plaza always celebrates a noted citizen or local hero. This year, it’s Count Agoston Haraszthy – at 200, perhaps the oldest honoree on record.
Continuing the Count’s legacy, several living descendants will serve as this year’s parade Grand Marshals, and Buena Vista Winery, founded by the Count in 1857, is the officia wine sponsor of the celebration.
The full-day celebration kicks off with the parade at 10 a.m. and continues until 5 p.m. with a party in the plaza. As the parade winds down, a patriotic ceremony on the North West plaza lawn will feature local dignitaries and music by the Sonoma Hometown Band, as Buena Vista Winery’s one-hour variety show in the amphitheatre offers an entertaining history of the life and times of Count Haraszthy.
Local non-profits will raise funds throughout the day by hosting old-fashioned carnival food booths and games for all ages. Sonoma Community Center will raise funds by selling beer from Olde Sonoma Public House and wine from Buena Vista Winery, as well as t-shirts with original artwork by Surya Burdick-O’Shea.
“We think ours is the most beloved July Fourth celebration in the county,” said Kathy Swett, executive director of the Sonoma Community Center, which produces the event.
Your Fourth of July
• 10 a.m. – Parade begins
• 10:30 a.m. – Wine and beer sales open
• 11:45 a.m. – Patriotic Ceremony in the Plaza
• Noon – Count Haraszthy celebration and show
• 1 p.m. – Music by the Don Giovannis
• 3 p.m. – Music by the Saddle Cats
• 5 p.m. – Plaza celebration ends
• After dusk (about 9 p.m.) – Fireworks begin
The Don Giovannis
1 p.m. The eight-piece band presents modern Italian popular music, adaptations of operatic arias, and traditional Italian songs. .
The Saddle Cats
3 p.m. Western Swing from a high-sprited quartet that dips into cowboy ballads, blues, honky-tonk, polka and more.