Colorful tales behind Buena Vista Winery of Sonoma

Few California winemakers boast a history as colorful as that of Buena Vista Winery of Sonoma. Theirs is a story that spans two centuries and brings together colorful European nobility, a veteran of the Russian Revolution and a top-ranked French wine producer.

Two hundred years ago in Hungary’s famed wine city of Tokaj, Agoston Haraszthy was born to a winemaking family of minor nobility. He learned to make wine by age 5. As an adult, frustrated by Hungarian social and commercial immobility, he came to the United States, and in 1849 took his family by wagon train to California.

He was enchanted by Sonoma County’s winemaking potential, and in 1857 built the state’s first progressive winery, with gravity-flow winemaking, California redwood barrels and a series of hand-dug aging caves. He imported thousands of top-quality European vines and dubbed himself “The Count of Buena Vista.”

Then tragedy struck. After his vines were attacked by the root louse phylloxera in the late 1860s, he traveled to Nicaragua to make rum, where he was killed by a crocodile while crossing a river. Buena Vista Winery went bankrupt.

Three-quarters of a century later, in 1943, a new family bought the winery, rebuilt it and replanted its grapes. And in a stroke of genius, it hired Andre Tchelistcheff as consulting winemaker.

Tchelistcheff was born in Russia, and, in the 1917 Revolution joined the White Russian Army opposing the Bolsheviks. After his side lost, he fled to Paris, where he studied wine, and later emigrated to California.

A series of ownership changes in the 1960s again hurt the winery’s image, but in 2011, new owners once again rode to the rescue. Jean-Charles Boisset of Boisset Family Estates, producers of fine wine in France’s vaunted Burgundy region, has renovated the old winery and planted new vines.

To mark the 200th anniversary of Haraszthy’s birth, the company is releasing a series of wine from Sonoma. Yet again, hopes are high.

Highly recommended

•  2010 Buena Vista Sonoma Merlot: spicy black cherry and black pepper aromas and flavors, full-bodied, smooth, long finish; $15.

•  2011 Buena Vista Sonoma Chardonnay: golden delicious apples and toast, medium body, long finish; $15.


•  2011 Buena Vista Sonoma Sauvignon Blanc: crisp and lively, with citrus and green apple flavors; $15.

•  2010 Buena Vista Sonoma Pinot Noir: aromas of camellias, flavors of red raspberries and espresso; $15.

•  2010 Buena Vista Sonoma Zinfandel: aromas and flavors of black plums and black pepper, spicy; $15.

•  2010 Buena Vista Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon: aromas and flavors of earth, cassis and spice, full and smooth; $15.

Fred Tasker has retired from The Miami Herald but is still writing about wine for the McClatchy News Service. He can be reached at

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