A toast to Sonoma, and to the man behind the grapes

I’ve made the trip four times now, so I can tell you precisely what you see from the hill. A chalk white house. The steep hillside patterned by grapevines. Beyond, the Sonoma Valley, looking like something edible, the season’s last sweet fruit. It has a good view, the kingdom of Agoston Haraszthy, where California’s Wine Country began.

To answer the first question, you say “HAIR-is-tee.” Or, if you find that taxing, try Agoston. “He was constantly developing new ideas,” Brian McGinty says. As Agoston’s great-great-grandson and his biographer, McGinty is a fan. But even he may understate his ancestor’s energies.

A PowerPoint presentation of Agoston’s life would leave you breathless. Born in 1812 to an aristocratic Hungarian family; emigrates to America; drags his family to the wilds of Wisconsin and founds a town (Sauk City, still there); drags his family to Gold Rush California; becomes San Diego County’s first sheriff, then its assemblyman; moves north to refine gold at the San Francisco Mint. And all of this was accomplished before he came to the Sonoma Valley and embraced his true destiny. This was wine.

In an era when even California preschoolers know a promising Mourvèdre from a mediocre Merlot, it’s difficult to comprehend that the state did not always produce wine. Or at least not good wine ― just syrupy vintages from the Mission grapes Spanish friars brought over in the 18th century. Agoston suspected California could do better. He bought a fledgling vineyard on the outskirts of Sonoma, dubbed it Buena Vista, and built a house inspired by the villas of Pompeii. His wines earned awards, but he was not satisfied. In 1861 he spent months in Europe, gathering vines to ship back home ― hundreds of vines, among them Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, and other varieties that form California’s wine industry today.

The showy success made his fall all the more brutal. He overextended himself financially, he lost Buena Vista to unscrupulous partners. Agoston launched a new project, a sugar plantation in Nicaragua. And here, in 1869, he vanished. Footprints in mud, a broken tree branch over an alligator-infested river: That was all that was found. His daughter wrote, “We must conclude that Father tried to cross the river by the tree and that losing his balance he fell grasping the limb and then the alligator must have drawn him forever down.”

It’s a gripping finale to a gripping life. You think that life should inspire an opera, or a line of wines: Côtes du Croc, maybe. These things have not happened. But Agoston’s story does have a happy afterlife. In 1943, Buena Vista was purchased by a San Francisco newspaperman, Frank Bartholomew, and his wife, Antonia, who revived it. Intrigued by Agoston’s tale, they built a replica of his villa and started another winery nearby, which is now Bartholomew Park Winery. Today Buena Vista is thriving, and Bartholomew Park has a fine little museum devoted to the vineyard’s history. The surrounding land is owned by the Frank H. Bartholomew Foundation, which has set out picnic sites and trails among the vineyards and opens up the villa on weekends.

Sometimes it’s hard to say why a place delights you. But I know exactly why I came back to this hillside four times within two months. “I think I would have been very entertained by him,” Brian McGinty says of Agoston. That’s putting it mildly. A good Sonoma Zinfandel has notes of chocolate and spice; a good life story has triumph, adventure, and tragedy. You’d give anything to hear Agoston tell his tale himself. That’s impossible, so instead you sit on his hillside, open a bottle of wine, and raise your glass. Here’s to you, Agoston. May your wines be good, your legend lasting, and all alligators absent.

Info: Bartholomew Park Winery (1000 Vineyard Lane, Sonoma; 707/935-9511); Bartholomew Park hiking trails (through Dec 31) and villa (noon-3 p.m. Sat-Sun; 707/938-2244). Strong Wine: The Life and Legend of Agoston Haraszthy (Stanford University Press, 1998; $30).

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