Introducing ‘Colonel’ Ágoston Haraszthy, The ‘Father’ of California Wine

  • 26 Jun 2023 8:10 AM
Introducing ‘Colonel’ Ágoston Haraszthy, The ‘Father’ of California Wine
By Miklós Molnár, founder of Fungarian: The best lesson I had with my American students back at Rutgers University was the wine tasting class where I was supposed to teach them about Hungarian culture. Blindfolded, they had to guess which wine was Californian and which was Hungarian.

They kept guessing until the last drop. In the end everyone turned out to be a winner, which was, naturally, a big blow to the American competitive spirit.

The correct answer was either, since – as I explained – Californian wine was also Hungarian as well, thanks to a man called Ágoston Haraszty. With this little trick I managed to put Hungary on their mental map.

Agoston Haraszty became a legend in the States, especially in California. In 1969, at the centennial of Haraszty’s death Ronald Reagan, then Governor of California, praised him by saying, "Colonel Ágoston Haraszthy can well be called the father of the wine industry in California. ...”

But the problem with legendary figures is that there is always a counter-legend. It can’t be truer in this case. He was neither a colonel, nor the father of California wine.

True, he joined the Royal Hungarian Guard of Francis I in 1830 at the age of 18 but after two years’ of service he went back to the family estate in Futak, in the south of Hungary (now Serbia).  Only a year later he married Eleonora Dedinszky, a noble of Polish descent who bore him six children in less than a decade.

Though he served in Hungarian Diet representing his region, his dedication to the national reformist movement lead by Széchenyi and later Kossuth was superseded by his keen interest in America.

In 1840 he set out on a well-planned trip to explore America. The most important outcome of this adventure was a travelogue entitled Utazások Éjszakamerikában (Travels in North America), published in Pest in 1844.

Still an enjoyable read, it was only the second of its kind about America to reach the Hungarian public, following Bölöni-Farkas’s work under a similar title published in 1833.

Mesmerized by the beauty of the landscape he bought land west of Madison, Wisconsin where he moved his family and parents after selling his properties in Hungary in 1842.

True to his pioneering spirit he embarked on a multitude of activities.  He planned and built a city which he named Széptáj (meaning: beautiful landscape, now called Sauk City), built a saw mill, raised hops, set up a brickyard, operated a ferry and steamboat on the Wisconsin River and for the first time he experimented with grapevines he brought from Hungary. The latter turned out to be a failure due to winter frosts.

Elected captain of a wagon train, his adventurous spirit drove him to pack up his family in 1849 and head for California via the Santa Fe Trail. 

He chose to settle in San Diego which had a population of a mere 650 people. In no time he plunged into town planning and numerous business enterprises and planted a vineyard. Little wonder he was soon elected sheriff of San Diego County and in 1851 he was sent to the California State Assembly.  

His career in the legislature did not stop him from engaging in various business activities including starting the Eureka Gold and Silver Refinery and relentless experimentation with cultivating wine grapes.

After repeated failures he finally found fertile ground in Sonoma north of San Francisco where he bought a vineyard and named it Buena Vista, the Spanish version of Széptáj back in Wisconsin.

By 1861, less than five years after the purchase, he turned his estate into the most prosperous vineyard in California by importing thousands of vines of more than a hundred varieties.

His flamboyant lifestyle and inexhaustible energy to meet challenges brought him as many friends as enemies. The latter, especially those interested in wine production, kept accusing him of building up his own legend.

Nevertheless, the success story came to a sudden end in 1866 when Haraszty was forced to resign from the management of the Viticultural Society he founded due to lack of profits caused by an outbreak of phylloxera infestation.

Like a phoenix rising he started again in 1868 at the age of 56. After selling his remaining property he went to Nicaragua and set up a sugar plantation to make rum and sell it to the American markets. However, this last plan remained unfinished.

His wife died of yellow fever soon after their arrival and in the following year he met his death by being dragged down by an alligator when he tried to cross a river near his plantation.

In the long line of Hungarian travelers, adventurers and explorers Ágoston Haraszty takes a distinguished place as an archetypal figure of entrepreneurial spirit against all odds.


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