The Wine Palate | ParkRecord.com
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The Wine Palate

Zev Rovine, Record contributing writer

Every industry has its flamboyant characters.

The Barnum’s, the Bowies, the Dali’s all give their respective industries character by which an overall image is developed. In the case of the California wine industry, Agoston Harazathy was this character.

Harazathy was a Hungarian political exile that started a new life in America with a passion for wine and ambition to boot. I think that it is relatively safe to say that without Harazathy, the California wine industry would not be the way we know it today.

In 1842, Harazathy made his way across the Atlantic and settled in Wisconsin, of all places. Here he ran a steamboat company, saving up money to create his first winery. He named the town Harazathy and began making wine.

At this point he was still using the vitis labrusca strain of vines that were native to North America. The majority of vitis vinefera, or European vine experimentation that was grown in the U.S. up until this time, had been unsuccessful as there were no regions that were properly situated to grow these vines.

Vinefera vines also had issues east of the Rockies due to susceptibility to the phylloxera louse that attacks the more fragile rootstock of these wines, killing them in a few years. Harazathy ran into more issues in this venture when he traveled to Europe to find more hearty versions of vinefera vines and returned to find that his partner had sold his vineyard and all of its assets and the town’s name had been changed to Sauk City. These initial difficulties would not, however, stop Harazathy from finding his goals.

In 1849, he moved to San Diego. He was broke but managed to develop a farm on 160 acres producing fruits and vegetables. He then opened a butcher shop in Middleton where there is still today a street named in his honor.

In his spare time he started a construction business and was elected the first sheriff of San Diego and was later made a judge. As his true love for wine still called him, he began importing vine clippings from Europe, creating the first seriously successful use of vinefera vines in California.

In 1857, he created the Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma, which still exists today. His winery drew so much attention from this newly established state that he was commissioned to go to Europe and bring back as many quality vine clippings as he could. Harazathy spoke to thousand of winemakers in France, Italy, Spain, Germany, and Switzerland where he acquired over 100,000 clippings of more than 300 varieties. He also collected a serious library of oenological literature and notes.

Unfortunately, when he returned, Harazathy was not reimbursed by California for his $12,000 in expenses he was promised and almost went broke again.

Harazathy’s Buena Vista Winery had offices in San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, and London at the peak of its history.

But alas, Harazathy made a few mistakes on the stock exchange and lost all of his money again. He sold Buena Vista and decided to move to Nicaragua where he started to make rum. In 1869 he disappeared. They think it was an alligator that finally got him in the end. Who’d a thunk?

Zev Rovine is the sommelier and resident cheese monger at the Spotted Frog Bookstore Cafe and Wine Bar where he teaches weekly wine classes. His wine education comes from the American Sommelier Association in N.Y.C. and he tries his very best not to spill the Pinot on the bestseller section. If you have any wine queries or comments he is easily contacted via e-mail at zev@spottedfrogbooks.com .


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