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Tom Pattantyus: A true immigrant entrepreneur

Right Here, Right Now

Posted: March 4, 2010 10:55 p.m.
Updated: March 5, 2010 4:55 a.m.
In the June 19, 1969, Congressional Record we can read a message by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan: "Colonel Ágoston Haraszthy can well be called the father of the wine industry in California. ... Ever since that time, from the 300 varieties he brought to California and planted, the wine industry in our Golden State has been improving until in the last few decades California wines have become renowned around the world as second to none."

Ágoston Haraszthy, was born in Pest (Hungary) in 1812 and died in Nicaragua on July 6, 1869. He was the son of a highly educated nobleman, served as an officer in the Imperial Royal Guard in Vienna (hence the colonel rank), married on Jan. 6, 1833 and had six children with his wife Eleonora Dedinsky: Géza, Attila, Árpád, Ida, Béla and Otelia. The three younger children were born in America. He cultivated vineyards with his father in Hungary. In 1840 he emigrated to America as one of the earliest Hungarians to make the great journey. In 1842, he went back to Hungary to bring over his parents, wife and three children.

After a number of different enterprises in Wisconsin he came with his family to San Diego. After attempts to establish vineyards in San Diego and San Francisco in 1857, General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo invited him to Sonoma to taste his wines.

Agoston was very impressed with the climate and the land in Sonoma and he purchased 560 acres near the town of Sonoma from Mariano's brother, Salvadore Vallejo.

The Vallejo family had planted the so-called Mission Grape, which had first been introduced into California by the Franciscan missionaries in the 18th century. In 1857 Haraszthy imported 165 different vine varieties from Europe, and over the years he built a winery - which he named Buena Vista - and dug six cellars out of the sandstone hill.

In 1859 Agoston's wines won first place at the State Fair, supplanting the previously triumphant wines of the Vallejo family. Though rivals in wine, the two families remained the best of friends and in 1863 Agoston's two oldest sons married the twin Vallejo daughters in a double ceremony that attracted notable guests from all over the state.

Buena Vista was the first significant winery in Northern California and in 1861, the state Legislature commissioned Haraszthy to travel to Europe in order to purchase grapevines of every possible variety.

He visited France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Switzerland, where he interviewed many winegrowers, took notes, consulted foreign literature and accumulated a library of reference material. He returned to the United States with 100,000 cuttings from 300 different vine varieties.

He was never reimbursed for his expenses of $12,000, though the cuttings alone, purchased to be distributed among other Californian vintners, were worth three times that amount. The cuttings simply rotted away.

Haraszthy was not deterred: Within seven years Buena Vista was expanded to 6,000 acres. He divided some of his acreage into smaller plots, inducing prominent Californians to come to Sonoma, where he planted vineyards for them. In doing so, he completely changed the Californian viticulture, transferring the focus of attention from the south of the state to the north.

Agoston Haraszthy founded the California Viticultural Society, was elected as president of the California State Agricultural Society and authored the book "Grape Culture, Wines and Wine-Making."

Following the initial success, he suffered several setbacks and in 1867 filed for bankruptcy. Buena Vista was devastated by phylloxera and most of the European imports were destroyed.

On July 6, 1869, Agoston Haraszthy set out alone on a mule to discuss the construction progress of a new sawmill. He never returned home and no trace of him was ever found.

Haraszthy has been called "The Father of California Wine." Perhaps an exaggeration, but he did more than any other to establish the California wine industry.

Tom Pattantyus is a retired electronic engineer and can be reached at His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal. "Right Here, Right Now" appears Fridays in The Signal and rotates among local Republican writers.


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