Illustration by Michael Schwab
High on a hill above Sonoma Valley is a memorial to the founding father of California winemaking. There are other claimants, but Agoston Haraszthy earns points for the sheer drama of his life. And death. Born in Hungary in 1812, Haraszthy arrived in the state during the Gold Rush. In the 1850s, California wines were syrupy products produced from Mission grapes. Haraszthy knew the state could do better. He bought a dormant vineyard, dubbed it Buena Vista, and built a house inspired by the villas of Pompeii. In 1861 he spent months in Europe, gathering vines to ship home, among them Cabernet Sauvignon and other varieties that anchor California’s wine industry today. His showy success made his fall all the more brutal. After losing Buena Vista to unscrupulous partners, he launched a new project: a sugar plantation in Nicaragua. And there, in 1869, he vanished into an alligator-infested river. Today Haraszthy’s legacy endures. Outside the tasting room of Buena Vista (18000 Old Winery Road, Sonoma; 800/926-1266; buenavistacarneros.com) is a monument to Haraszthy. Nearby, Bartholomew Park Winery (1000 Vineyard Lane, Sonoma; 707/935-9511; bartholomewparkwinery.com) has a museum devoted to his career. Down the hill is a replica of the villa. Trails run into the vineyards and a picnic area offers sweeping views of the valley, a good place to toast wine, drama, and life.