The Hungarian Aristocrat & The Mexican General: Wine+Friendship in The Bear Republic

Upon my second foray in this friendly competition, I have experienced a wine blogger community that is a knowledgeable and encouraging group of bon vivants. I have been fortunate to personally engage with several influential and talented wine writers and I am grateful for the acquaintance. I see the camaraderie and overall good will amongst these colleagues and I hope one day to be friends with all of them. Kudos to @Dracaenawines for last month’s well earned win and for providing a great theme for this month’s challenge – a theme that describes a virtue they have afforded me – friendship!

Nothing is more heartfelt than a friendship that endures through the highs and lows of life. May sound trite, but it is truly when you know who is really a friend. Prior to this challenge, I became intrigued by a historic friendship that embodies this principle. This is a friendship of legend that is rooted in rebellion, revelry, wine and phylloxera.

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I came across this story (the research was inspired by @Fiery01Red review of Wolfersheim’s Wisconsin wine) while thumbing through a tourist guide on the history of Sonoma, CA at a local bookstore – remember those places? During my perusal, I learned more about the friendship between General Mariano Vallejo, one of the founding fathers of California and Count Agoston Haraszthy, the father of California Viticulture (many scholars have challenged this claim but let’s go with the romance of the Haraszthy legend.) Although not much is written about this friendship other than the eventual melding of the families, I can only imagine as neighbors, land owners, pioneers, and winemakers these two men shared many interests in business, leisure and grooming.

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Both men where charismatic, courageous, and enterprising. If I had to contrast the noble Gen. Vallejo and the flamboyant Count Haraszthy you could characterize the General as a leader in every sense of the word and the Count as a visionary dreamer. Although both were powerful brilliant men, the contrast in their personas was stark. In a modern context you could compare them to the famous duos Ethel and Lucy, Mick and Keith, Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, Miles & Jack and so on…I have yet to find the perfect example, but you get my point. One pragmatic, the other audacious, both equally irrepressible.

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Gen. Vallejo was born and raised in California. The son of a Mexican army sergeant assigned to the presidio in Monterey, Vallejo was destined to follow his father’s military career. After completing an education provided by an English merchant who tutored and employed him, Vallejo was well educated and immediately recognized as a born leader. He rose through the ranks quickly becoming the Commandant General of Mexican California by the age of 29. Vallejo and his brother Salvador, an accomplished field officer, served together successfully in several campaigns against the indian tribes of Alta California. Mariano was a skillful military strategist and although he fought against the indians he was also able to engender trust with tribal leaders. His ability to build alliances with the indians proved successful in the constant fight against other waring tribes, illegal immigrants from the US and Russian colonists. Together they secured the territory for Mexico and were generously rewarded by the Mexican government. Thousands of acres in Sonoma and Napa were given to the brothers to farm and ranch.

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Vallejo’s Estate Lachryma Montis – “mountain tear” in Latin – is at the base of a hillside near an abundant stream. It still stands today as a CA state park.

Estrangement from the Federal Government of Mexico and the growing presence of US interests with the gold rush, Vallejo recognized the benefits of alignment with the United States. Vallejo used his political graces to persuade other wealthy Californios, ranchers, farmers and land holders of Mexican nationality, to support the US annexation. In June 1846, a month after the start of the Mexican-American war, US settlers in Sonoma concerned about the threat of deportation, captured General Vallejo in what is known as the Bear Flag Revolt. Vallejo was by this time sympathetic to the cause. He was a successful rancher and land owner, selling hundreds of acres to the very people who were in revolt. When the posse knocked on the door of the General’s Casa Grande, he invited the leaders in to discuss the confrontation. As hours passed, the circling crowd became concerned, only to find that Vallejo had opened his wine cellar to the rebels to help facilitate “negotiations.” Sadly, Vallejo was imprisoned but not for long as the US forces acknowledged his allegiance to the US and his role in a successful resolution to the Mexican-American war.

In addition to his other holdings, Vallejo had a vineyard that produced enough wine and grapes to amount to an annual income of $20,000. Many of his grapes were from the root stock of the padres who founded the missions in California wherein they planted “mission” grapes to make wine for their sacrament.  These same vines provided the first cuttings to start the Napa vineyards of George Yount, who Vallejo employed as a carpenter.

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In 1840, Angoston Haraszthy [AG-goo-stawn HAH-rahs-th’ee] came to the United States and was the first person of Hungarian descent to settle in the US. A flamboyant character who came from European nobility, references to him would vacillate between Count or Colonel Haraszthy. I suspect his title was a matter of convenience – when out East, an air of European aristocracy was to his benefit but when out West, the pioneers took more kindly to someone of military rank vs. class ascension. Regardless, America was the land of opportunity and this fueled the Count/Colonel’s enterprising ambitions. His accomplishments were quite industrious. Upon coming to the new world, he first landed in Wisconsin where he planted a vineyard that is still in existence today called Wollersheim Winery. He also owned and operated a passenger steam boat that traversed the Mississippi.

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Health issues and word of the gold rush drove Haraszthy and his family to leave Wisconsin and set out for California. Most Western pioneers dreamt of gold, Haraszthy dreamt of establishing a vineyard and benefitting from the surrounding economic boom. He and his family settled in San Diego where he planted fruit orchards, operated a livery stable, a stagecoach line, opened a butcher shop, organized a syndicate to subdivide a large section of the San Diego Bay shore into streets, parks, and building lots, imported grape vines by mail, planted a vineyard, was elected sheriff, served as city marshal and as a private contractor, he built a jail for the city of San Diego, which was completed in 1851 – but not with out controversy over the jail’s effectiveness to contain its inmates (for a juicy tid-bit click here.)

Upon being elected to the California State Assembly as a representative of San Diego, Haraszthy was drawn to the San Francisco Bay Area. He purchased land and tried to plant grapes on the peninsula, but it was too foggy and the crops were unsuccessful. While representing San Diego in the state legislature in 1852, he met General Vallejo who was a state senator. Vallejo invited Haraszthy to visit him in Sonoma and with that, the legendary friendship began. In 1856 Haraszthy purchased property from Vallejo’s brother Salvador in Sonoma and named the land Buena Vista (The Buena Vista Winery and the Bartholomew Park Winery have beautifully preserved this land and continued to produce fine wines.) Upon arrival to Sonoma, Agoston and General Vallejo soon became very good friends. They were both brilliant, accomplished men passionate about family and wine. They had a friendly competition and both won awards for their wines in the agricultural fairs of the time.

Not only did these two men get on famously, so did their children. On June 1st in 1863, Attilla Haraszthy, 28, and Natalia Vallejo, 25, as well as Arpad Haraszthy, 23 and Jovita Vallejo, 19 were married in a double wedding. (Buena Vista Winery recreated the event upon the 150th wedding anniversary and @CulinaryGadbout was an attendee. Click here to read her account of it)

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Haraszthy, always enterprising, soon became acquainted with a group of Hungarian metallurgist lured by the gold rush. Together they started the Eureka Gold and Silver Refinery. He was soon the first California assayer for a branch of the US Mint in San Francisco. All was going well until $150,000 of gold went missing and between 1857 and 1861 Haraszthy battled a criminal and civil case that he was ultimately exonerated of all charges as they were able to prove that shrinkage occurs during the refining process – the missing gold had gone up in smoke.

I’m certain Haraszthy sought peace in the vineyards from the issues that plagued him. I can imagine that the kindly and wise Vallejo was a good friend, confidant and drinking buddy. Throughout this ordeal, Haraszthy was able to start the Buena Vista Vinicultural Society and focus on building a stone winery with cave cellars like the ones he knew well in Europe. Built mostly by Chinese laborers, the cave cellars were carved into the hillside and the surrounding buildings built with the stones that were quarried. (Sadly the Chinese didn’t stick around to contribute to the Asian cuisine of the immediate area.) He hired Charles Krug to be his winemaker and voila, the start of the California wine industry! The facility he built can still be visited today at the Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma. At the time, it was proclaimed to be the largest commercial winery in the US.

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In 1858 Haraszthy wrote the “Report on Grapes and Wine of California,”  which is considered the first treatise on traditional European winemaking practices in the United States. In 1861 Haraszthy was appointed by the California Governor to be a commissioner on the agricultural advancements of grape growing. Under this charge, he decided to make a fateful trip to Europe to investigate the best European vine-planting and winemaking practices. He traveled through France, Germany, Switzerland, and Spain and upon his return in December 1861, Haraszthy had more than 100,000 cuttings of over 350 different varieties of vines.

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Haraszthy intentions to sell the cuttings to the state were dashed when the state refused to purchase them. He was left with the cuttings and all the expenses that were incurred. What to do? He started to distribute the cutting throughout the Sonoma and Napa Valleys. He promoted and implemented the agricultural practice of layering wherein an existing vine develops root stock from one of it’s attached branches. It allows faster propagation of new vines but can leave a crop more vulnerable to infection.

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Haraszthy’s home on his property Buena Vista was inspired by the villas of Pompeii. Although the original home is gone, you can visit a stunning replica on the Bartholomew Park Winery grounds.

Haraszthy’s management of the Buena Vista Vinicultural Society was both visionary and cavalier. He borrowed heavily against the property to continue it’s expansion. Shareholders were critical about his business practices. There was a scandal about the misappropriation of funds and the importation of molasses to make brandy. As controversy again swirled, he was able to keep the plates spinning in the air until phylloxera hit.

Mid 1860’s, the vines at Buena Vista were growing brown. Haraszthy’s critics believed this was due to layering, but in fact it was the first infestation of phylloxera ever known in California. This nasty root louse was non-existent before making an appearance in Sonoma. In subsequent years, phylloxera nearly destroyed all the vineyards in California. It even crossed the Atlantic to Europe, where it also devastated crops in France.

Various indiscretions, misfortune and now infestation of his vines led to intense struggles for Haraszthy that continued until he had to claim bankruptcy and was forced from his beloved Buena Vista. His son Arpad remained in the industry and continued to grow grapes, but soon his entire crop but one surviving vine was gone as well.

Another controversy, another frontier. Seeking to rebuild his fortunes, Haraszthy went to Nicaragua in 1868 to plant sugar cane and make rum. On July 6, 1869 it is suspected that while crossing a crocodile-infested river via a tree used as a bridge, he slipped and fell into the water, and as the legend concludes, he was consumed by a crocodile.

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Harasthy’s body was never found. The only record is a letter from his daughter who 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.”

Vallejo, died in his 80’s peacefully on his estate, Lachmyra Montis, in Sonoma with his family around him. He too faced some serious financial set-backs leaving his finances a pittance to the wealth he enjoyed throughout his life. But I believe a life well loved is a life well led and by all accounts these two friends, through their conquests and failings, made the most significant US contributions to the wine culture we enjoy today.

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A very adoring scene of a beloved father, his daughters and a good natured poodle

March 2007, the Culinary Institute of America inducted Angoston Haraszthy into the Vintners Hall of Fame. Seventy wine journalists cast ballots honoring him for his contribution to the development of the California wine industry. The award was accepted with honor by his great-great grandson, Vallejo Haraszthy.

Stay curious!

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For more reading pleasure I must credit and provide links to the following sources:

Pinney, Thomas. A History of Wine in America: From the Beginnings to Prohibition. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1989 1989. http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft967nb63q/

Californians and the Military The Vallejo Family: A Military History of Early California

by Lieutenant Colonel Ira Lee Plummer http://www.militarymuseum.org/Vallejo.html

INTERVIEW: Martha Ann Francisca Vallejo-McGettigan, Descendant of General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo

McGinty, Brian. Strong Wine: The Life and Legend of Agoston Haraszthy Stanford University Press, c1998 http://www.sup.org/book.cgi?id=1074

Sonoma Valley Visitor’s Bureau, Sonoma Valley History http://www.sonomavalley.com/sonoma-recent-history.html

Historic California Posts: Sonoma Barracks (Including El Presidio de Sonoma, El Cuartel de Sonoma, Camp Sonoma, Sonoma Post) by Colonel Herbert M. Hart, USMC (retired)

Executive Director, Council on America’s Military Past http://www.militarymuseum.org/SonomaBks.html

Vallejo: the man who shaped California history by Nancy Dingler Published April 19, 2003 in the Fairfield Daily Republic

A conversation with Count Agoston Haraszthy Thursday, August 23rd, 2012 | Posted by Suzie Rodriguez, The Press Democrat

Meet Vallejo Haraszthy Thursday, October 13th, 2011 | Posted by Suzie Rodriguez, The Press Democrat

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13 thoughts on “The Hungarian Aristocrat & The Mexican General: Wine+Friendship in The Bear Republic

  1. Pingback: #MWWC11 Time to vote! | the drunken cyclist

  2. Pingback: #MWWC11 Reminder to Vote! | the drunken cyclist

    • Thank you so much! Glad you enjoyed it. The work going into this post was brutal with the research and fact checking sources. I will admit I was overly ambitious. I thought it was a great idea when I started, but it was merciless once I was in it. I submitted it at 11:58pm barely making the deadline. Hearing that even ONE person enjoyed it makes it all worth the effort. Huge fan of you guys as well. Cheers! xoxo

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