Count Agoston Haraszthy: Wine-Making Pioneer
Born in Hungary, Count Agoston Haraszthy—though of his native land's aristocracy, his noble title was self-awarded—arrived in Sonoma in 1857 and set out to make fine wine commercially. He planted European vinifera varietals rather than mission grapes (varietals brought to the Americas by Spanish missionaries) and founded Buena Vista Winery the year he arrived. Bucking custom, Haraszthy grew grapes on dry hillsides instead of in the wetter lowlands, his accomplishment demonstrating that Sonoma's climate was sufficiently moist to sustain vines without irrigation.
Despite producing inferior wines, the prolific mission grapes were preferred by California growers over better varieties of French, German, and Italian vinifera grapes through the 1860s and into the 1870s. But Haraszthy's success had begun to make an impression. A new red-wine grape, Zinfandel, was becoming popular, both because it made excellent Claret (as good red wine was then called) and because it had adapted to the area's climate.
By this time, however, Haraszthy had disappeared, literally, from the scene. After a business setback during the 1860s, the count lost control of Buena Vista and ventured to Nicaragua to restore his fortune in the sugar and rum industries. While crossing a stream infested with alligators, the count lost his balance and plunged into the water below. The body of modern California wine making's first promoter and pioneer was never recovered.