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The Father of Modern Winemaking in California

Hungarian-born Agoston Haraszthy de Mokcsa lived a thousand lives in the 56 years he spent on this earth. It’s pretty impressive how much he accomplished; almost like his history is a part myth but everything is well documented. This man defined the “can do” mentality and succeeded in every possible way. Among his accomplishments, Agoston was a traveler, writer, nobleman, business owner, philanthropist, sheriff, and politician, but he will forever be known as the "Father of Modern Winemaking in California."

Born on August 30, 1812, in the city of Pest, he was the only child of a Hungarian noble family. Agoston received a formal education, and by age 18, he joined the Royal Hungarian Bodyguard as an officer for Francis I, father-in-law of Napoleon Bonaparte. Agoston owned an area known as Serbia when he married his wife Eleonora in 1833, whose father operated a large estate on the Danube that cultivated vines and produced wine. The couple would become the parents of six children.

Already accomplished, Agoston strongly desired to go to America “for one reason only–namely, to see this blessed country for myself.” Leaving behind his estate, wife, and children, Agoston and his cousin left Hungary in 1840. Traveling through Austria, Germany, and England, the duo crossed the Atlantic for America. Landing in New York, the companions traveled by land and water, up the Hudson River, through the Erie Canal, crossing the Great Lakes, and finally landed in his new home, Wisconsin. The cousins moved to an area near the Wisconsin River west of Madison. In this location, Agoston purchased a large property and laid out the town that he would call Széptaj (Hungarian for "beautiful place). In this new town, he built mills, farmed corn and grains, tended to sheep, pigs, and horses, kept a store, and opened a brickyard. Many of the oldest houses still standing in the town were built with bricks from Agoston’s brickyard. In this town, Agoston would give back to the community by donating 100 acres of land to make the first Roman Catholic Church and a school; the land was also sold to new immigrants at a discounted price. This town was later renamed Sauk City, one of Wisconsin's oldest incorporated villages.

After two years in America, Agoston returned to Hungary to get his parents, wife, and children and settle his estate so the entire family could return to Wisconsin and become American citizens. Agoston was the first Hungarian on record to settle permanently in America. While in Hungary, he would make arrangements to write a book about the United States. This two-volume book, published in 1844 called Travels in North America, praised American life and enterprise and was only the second book written in Hungarian about America. The book was so well received in his native country that it would contribute to Hungarians and other Central Europeans immigrating to America, especially Wisconsin.

Following his return to America, the small town he established was growing, as were his enterprises. He also wished to continue with the family tradition of making wine, and he found the perfect spot across the Wisconsin River in the town of Roxbury. Agoston owned and operated the first commercial steamboat on the upper Mississippi River, so why not establish a ferry that crossed the Wisconsin River to connect his beloved town to Roxbury? It would be there in Roxbury that Agoston planted grapes and dug wine cellars into hillside slopes above the river. The vineyard remains (Wollersheim) and is the second oldest winery in America, behind Brotherhood Winery in Washingtonville, New York. The grapes did not prosper as he had hoped. He did plant the first hops in Wisconsin, and that crop did very well.

In 1848 after hearing about the discovery of gold in California, Agoston packed up his family and left for the western state in March of the following year. Elected as the captain of a train of wagons, the family and others journeyed to California through the Santa Fe Trail. Most of the travelers were searching for gold; Agoston was searching for a vineyard to make wine. After nine months of travel, the family arrived in San Diego. In true Agoston style, he was the first town marshal and the first county sheriff in San Diego. He planted orchards, operated a stagecoach line, opened a butcher shop, and organized a syndicate to subdivide San Diego into streets, parks, and lots. His land was between what is now called Old Town and New San Diego; his area at the time was known as Haraszthyville but later changed to Middletown. It would be at this time that he started to import grape vines from Europe and locations in America. He planted a vineyard on a tract of land near the San Diego River, which was unsuccessful.

In 1852, Agoston was elected to the California State Assembly and would be exposed to Northern California. Agoston liquidated all his holdings in San Diego, bought real estate near Mission Dolores in San Francisco, and attempted to grow grapes, but the climate was far too wet and foggy. Committed to this dream, he purchased a large piece of land in the San Francisco Peninsula in San Mateo County and again planted grapes with the same unfortunate results. He continued to import a wide variety of grape vines from Europe and experimented with their planting and cultivation. By 1856, Agoston moved fifty miles north to a small Sonoma town. He purchased a small vineyard northeast of the town and named it Buena Vista. Land in Sonoma was inexpensive (at the time) and was the perfect climate for growing grapes. Agoston moved his entire inventory of grape vines from his other locations in Northern California to his new vineyard. He hired a young Prussian immigrant, Charles Krug, as his winemaker and began to expand his vineyard. Within a year, he constructed tunnels in the rocky hillsides to store his wine; he built the first stone cellars in California. He also made two large winery buildings and purchased the most modern wine-making equipment.

Agoston owned more than 5,000 acres of valley and hillside in the Sonoma area. He believed that vines should grow without irrigation; therefore, he planted on the hillsides where he could add stress to the vines and reduce the water intake, resulting in more flavorful wine. Like in Wisconsin, Agoston wanted the area to thrive, so he subdivided some of his acreages into smaller plots, planted vineyards using his modern techniques, and encouraged others to move to Sonoma to start wineries.

Within a few short years, which is especially impressive in winemaking, Agoston made a name for himself. So much so that in 1858 he wrote a 19-page essay entitled “Report on Grapes and Wine of California,” published by the California State Agricultural Society. His essay was filled with practical advice for growing vineyards and making wine, and encouraged planting grapes throughout the state to benefit from different growing regions. In time, this essay would be praised as the “first American explication of traditional European winemaking practices.“

At the request of California Governor John G. Downy, in 1861, Agoston would report on “ways and means best adapted to promote the improvement and growth of the grapevine in California.” Agoston and his son Arpad knew that the best way to understand winemaking was to return to Europe to conduct the research. While evaluating some of Europe’s best winemakers, he would collect cuttings of their vines. By the time he traveled through France, Germany, Switzerland, and Spain, Agoston would collect more than 100,000 cuttings of more than 350 varieties of vines. He had hoped that upon his return to California, he would convince the government to purchase the clippings to propagate the vines and sell them throughout the state. Unfortunately, the state legislature refused. Agoston would have to distribute the vines at his own expense, which left him financially strained, but he was committed to completing the task.

He continued to educate those interested in starting vineyards through newspaper articles and speeches. In 1862, he was elected president of the California State Agricultural Society. A year later, Agoston incorporated the Buena Vista Vinicultural Society; the first large corporation in California organized to engage in agriculture. With the support of investors, Agoston expanded his vineyards and winemaking in Sonoma and would ship his wine throughout the country. In 1864, an article in Harper’s Magazine proclaimed that Buena Vista was “the largest establishment of the kind in the world. Agoston finally succeeded in what he had tried so many times to do.

Perhaps one of his more controversial decisions was employing a planting technique called layering. The benefit of this technique was the quick propagation of vines, which exposed the plants to soil diseases. By the middle of the 1860s, the vines at Buena Vista were growing brown and weak, and his critics were quick to blame the layering technique. But that was not the case. The deteriorating vines were due to the first infestation of an insect that destroys grapevines, known as phylloxera. The first known case in California was the phylloxera that attacked Agoston’s grapevines. This pest would move beyond his vineyards and travel throughout the state in subsequent years. Since vine clippings were shared among growers, it was only a matter of time before they crossed the Atlantic and reached France, which caused devastation. This was, unfortunately, the beginning of the end for Agoston’s winemaking. Buena Vista winery suffered great financial hardship after the phylloxera, a pricey gamble on champagne making that had failed. Buena Vista could not pay much of their debts, including what he owed to the Vinicultural Society. The shareholders forced him out and replaced him with a new leader who immediately tore out all his layered vines. This would lead Agoston to bankruptcy.

By 1868, Agoston decided to try something new: grow sugar to make rum. He left California for the seaside port of Corinto, Nicaragua. With his partner, they developed the largest sugar plantation in Nicaragua. However, tragedy continued to follow him. His wife Eleonora would die that same year of yellow fever. Not even a year later, on July 6, 1869, Agoston would be declared dead. While working on his boat on the river, he fell into the water, and it is believed that alligators dragged him underwater. His body was never found.

Agoston left a legacy in the world of winemaking. Not only did he leave his winery in Wisconsin in good hands, but his beloved Buena Vista Winery is still flourishing today in Sonoma, California. Charles Krug, Agoston’s winemaker, would purchase his vineyard and create the Charles Krug Winery in St. Helena, California. And his growing techniques on resistant rootstock would help save the European vineyards after they experienced a devastating blight due to phylloxera.

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