Buena Vista Winery bubble lounge by Scott Chebegia (7)

Winery of the Week: Buena Vista Winery

By 1857, Agoston Haraszthy de Mokesa opened Sonoma’s first-ever winery: Buena Vista. The Hungarian poured every drop of knowledge and creativity into his vineyard, building grand stone structures on property as well as some of Sonoma’s first wine caves.

Astute readers to this column will remember that when sharing the wonders of Sonoma Valley, we mentioned one of its pioneers was eaten by a crocodile. They will also remember that in that column, available here, we promised to share that wild story later.

That time is now.

Rewind to the 1840s. Agoston Haraszthy de Mokesa, a Hungarian native, traveled to the United States to see what all the fuss was about. He would eventually settle in the states, but chose Wisconsin at first, going so far as to plant grapes there with hopes of a vineyard operation despite the harsh winters. Believe it or not, that land where he planted is today the Lake Wisconsin AVA, though it was not quite as successful for him at the onset. By 1849, he was ready for a change and made the move out west along with the thousands of others, but he was more interested in building infrastructure for the gold miners than digging for it himself. After traveling across the Santa Fe Trail, he ended up in San Diego. There, he planted yet another vineyard and even spent time as the region’s sheriff.

Finally, as a member of the State legislature, Haraszthy made his way to Northern California in 1852. Once planted in the region, he spent some time assessing gold from miners who arrived in San Francisco after successful pursuits (and dealt with some scandalous charges of missing gold under his care) before setting off to find what he called “purple gold” in Sonoma County.

Thankfully for all of us, he found it.

By 1857, Haraszthy opened Sonoma’s first-ever winery: Buena Vista.

Others, including friend Charles Krug, would soon follow, and vineyards popped up quickly across both Sonoma and Napa counties. Haraszthy poured every drop of knowledge and creativity into his vineyard, building grand stone structures on property as well as some of Sonoma’s first wine caves. He even tried his hand as using California Redwoods as his barrels. Once established, Haraszthy insisted on a pilgrimage to Europe’s finest wine regions to bring back nearly 500 samples of proper vines and wines, helping the entire California wine industry up its game, and authored Grape Culture: Wines, and Wine-making, with Notes Upon Agriculture and Horticulture, which became a handbook of sorts for anyone looking to grow in California. At one point, he was even elected president of the California State Agricultural Society.

While already regarded as Father of California Wine, he secured his place in viticulture lore when, in 1862, his two sons married the two daughters of General Vallejo – the founder of Sonoma – in a double ceremony at Buena Vista, uniting two of early California’s most prominent families.

Sadly, just five years later, investors tired of Haraszthy’s big ideas (which had even bigger price tags) and in 1867 replaced him as head of the winery. While he went to work for his wife’s winery nearby, the defeat was a painful one, so just a year later, he left California for Nicaragua to begin working in rum. Tragically, on July 6, 1869, he disappeared in a river. The wide belief is that he was dragged under water and eaten by a crocodile.

As you probably guessed, Buena Vista’s story does not end with its initial hero. In fact, it only gets better. The property survived horrid fires and even Prohibition, continuing in loving hands of various owners until 2011 when colorful wine magnate, Jean-Charles Boisset, purchased Buena Vista and made it part of his lucrative Boisset collection of wineries. The story goes that his purchasing of the property was in the works well before 2011, however, because as a child he visited the property with his grandparents and told his sister one day he would make wine there.  

Under Boisset, both the property’s history and present are celebrated in big, bold ways. As such, do not visit Buena Vista if you simply wish to grab a glass of wine or quick tasting flight. Instead, plan at least two to three hours for your visit, and book back-to-back experiences (I promise, you will not be sorry). You must book the barrel tasting and winery tour for $50 and the grand reserve tasting for $75. It is well worth the combined $125 price tag.

Here is why: The party starts on the walk up from the parking lot.

Before even approaching the winery, you will find yourself walking down a path next to a rolling hill. Along it is a massive art installation called “History Hill,” featuring stand-ups of famed figures throughout history welcoming you down the path. There are founding fathers, inventors and even a stand-up of Father Junipero Serra, who is credited with bringing grapes to California for mission vineyards. Oh, they also have the ancient gods of wine, which is a kick. Next comes an outdoor maze that shares some of the highlights from the founder’s biggest moments.

Adjacent to the maze is the first tasting room. Inside, it is pretty hard to miss the stuffed crocodile on the ceiling, racks of jewels and wines with everything from gemstones to sheriff’s badges affixed on them. It is a trip!

If you were smart and booked the double experience, your journey will begin in that tasting room when a booming gentleman dressed as if he was in HBO’s “The Gilded Age” appears with wine in one hand and a cane in another. This is your host. He is part actor, part winery expert, part Buena Vista historian and 100 percent intended to make you feel as if in the room with Haraszthy. Over the course of 90 minutes, you will journey into secret passageways, secret party rooms, an opulent hidden Champagne suite and even barrel rooms while hearing a more detailed history of the property. Insider tip: do not miss the smelling wall or the texture wall (you’re welcome). Of course, there is a tasting along the route as well.

After the tour, if you booked the grand reserve tasting, you will then enjoy a private seated indoor tasting experience (within your own historic cave, no less) with small bites paired with an exclusive Buena Vista library and ultra-premium imported wines.

Speaking of wines, there are so many from which to choose here. I mean, there are more than 40 labels! If you can only choose a few, here are the ones I think are extra-special:

2019 Revenge Blend: meant to avenge the original founder’s untimely death at the hands of a crocodile, this red blend with notes of black plum, blackberry, coffee, toasted almond and black cherry has a massive 3D golden crocodile on what appears to be an emerald leash. It is bold, also in honor of Haraszthy. $150

2019 Sherriff of Buena Vista: another homage to Haraszthy, this bottle boasts what appears to be a real sheriff’s badge on it to honor the founder’s election to sheriff of San Diego County in 1850, a position that eventually helped him find his way to Sonoma. The wine itself is expressive and fragrant with notes of currants, dark fruits and brambly herbs. Some even taste a hint of chocolate cake. $50

2017 Private Reserve Pinot Noir: this is one of the treats you might get to taste during the reserve experience. The medium-bodied red has balanced acidity and an epic explosion of juicy cherries, raspberries and cranberries in every sip. $70

To learn more, visit buenavistawinery.com.

Photo credit: Scott Chebegia

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