Today is the birthday of Agoston Haraszthy, who was born on this day in 1812.
Haraszthy's family was Hungarian nobility. In 1840, he immigrated to the United States. Back home, Haraszthy had gotten hold of a book that reported the Wisconsin territory offered the finest land in America. So, he went there first. Since Haraszthy’s dream was to make European wine in America, he quickly discovered Wisconsin was not the place for that.
In short order, Haraszthy made his way to San Francisco with the gold rush. But San Francisco was not a fit with the grapes. It was foggy and cold. But then, Haraszthy found the Sonoma Valley in 1857. Sonoma Valley was called the "Valley of the Moon" by the writer Jack London, and it turned out that Sonoma was the perfect place to grow purple gold. After a dozen years of searching, Harazethy had found a place suitable for growing European grapes - which were more delicate and more finicky than North American wild grapes. Giddy and hopeful, Haraszethy built a white villa for his wife and six children on a property he named Buena Vista or Good View. Then he went to Europe and collected 100,000 cuttings of 300 varieties of grapes. There were the rare white grapes of the Pinot Chardonnay, the Hungarian green grape, the Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, and the white Riesling grapes of the Rhine and Moselle river region - just to name a few.
There is an old saying that the God of wine, Bacchus, loved the hills. Well, Haraszethy loved them, too. He was the first vinedresser to grow his grapes on the mountainsides in California. Haraszthy brought many European growing methods to his estate - which included growing the grape plants closer together. This was something other growers found unwise. But Haraszthy knew that growing grapes near stressed the vines, which in turn, made better-tasting grapes. Haraszthy also performed a green harvest - something no one had ever done before. Today the technique is known as dropping fruit, which means doing an initial harvest of some of the grapes; the fewer grapes on the vine - the better the flavor of the remaining grapes. That year Haraszthy also brought in a team of Chinese laborers, and they worked to dig out the first wine caves in the state. The most impressive accomplishment included a 100-feet-deep stone wine cellar built on the side of a hill.
In 1863, Haraszthy incorporated his vineyard as the Buena Vista Vinicultural Society. Thanks to investors, Haraszthy purchased an additional 4,000 acres making Buena Vista the second largest vineyard in the state.
In 1866, a vine disease swept through the area. Haraszthy and his unique growing methods were blamed for the small tasteless grapes and the brown, dying vines. The disease was Phylloxera - an aphid that attacks vine roots and causes grapes to harden on the vine. It wiped out Buena Vista. Haraszthy filed for bankruptcy.
With his vineyard and his reputation in tatters, Haraszthy went south to Nicaragua. He planted a large sugar plantation, and he planned to make and sell rum. But, on July 6, 1869, as he was reaching for a vine while crossing a river on his property. He lost his balance, fell into the river, and was eaten by an alligator.
Today, Haraszthy is considered the father of California Viticulture or Wine-Making. In 1946, a plaque to Haraszthy was dedicated to the plaza of Sonoma. In March 2007, Haraszthy was inducted into the Vintners Hall of Fame by the Culinary Institute of America.