California’s grape varieties and wine business might be older than most realize. The region was a part of New Spain in 1779 when Franciscan missionaries planted the first sustained vineyard at Mission San Diego de Alcalá. French settler Jean-Louis Vignes was among the first to establish a non-mission vineyard and is credited with introducing a better strain of Vitis vinifera (cultivated European grapevines) to Mexican-governed California around 1833. Many winemakers still consider Vignes the “father of the California wine industry.”
Among the 300,000 people who joined the California Gold Rush were many Forty-Niners who never realized their dream of a golden fortune and turned to agriculture. At the time most California winemakers were still using the Franciscans’ strain of Mission grapes, which, according to 19th-century historian Lyman L. Palmer, produced “sour, unpalatable and dreggy stuff, yet it answered the purpose and was relished by those accustomed to its use from youth to old age.” But newcomers from the States and Europe demanded better, and by the 1850s vineyards had sprouted up in Sonoma, Napa, Sutter, Lake, Yuba, Butte, Trinity and El Dorado counties.
By the mid-1850s Sonoma had gained notice for its non-mission wine. On December 6, 1858, the Daily Alta California ran the headline Vine Culture in Sonoma and noted, “The wine of Sonoma is different from that of the southern portion of the state, being lighter and more like the French wines.” Early popular varieties, wrote historian Hubert Bancroft, were Zinfandel and Riesling from Central Europe. Notable winemakers included Agoston Haraszthy de Mokcsa and Charles Krug, founders of two of California’s oldest wineries still operating.
Born into Hungarian nobility in 1812, Haraszthy moved to Wisconsin in the early 1840s, where he planted hops for beer and grapes for wine, before joining the exodus to California in 1849. He first settled in San Diego, where he started several business and agricultural concerns, including a vineyard. By 1852 the self-proclaimed count was buying land around San Francisco, determined to find a better place to plant his vines. In preparation he imported from Hungary six choice rooted vines and 160 cuttings. Also in the shipment were two small bundles—one was Muscat of Alexandria, the other Zinfandel. In 1856 Haraszthy purchased an 800-acre Sonoma ranch, renaming it Buena Vista. The following year he excavated tunnels in a nearby mountain for storing and aging wine, and Buena Vista produced 6,500 gallons of its first vintage. By 1860 he had planted more than 250 acres of vines. Quite the innovator, the count created the first gravity-flow winery—in which the grapes fall gently into the fermentation tanks to minimize bruising—and is credited with championing dry-farming techniques and the use of redwood barrels to age wine.
In 1861 Haraszthy persuaded the state to sponsor him on a tour of Europe to study winemaking methods. He and son Arpad returned with cuttings representing more than 400 varieties of vines. This encouraged other California winemakers, like Charles Wetmore, to experiment with varieties. Haraszthy and Wetmore were among the first to plant mixed-field blends, with several varieties in one vineyard, to see which worked and which didn’t. In 1863 Haraszthy, with the help of investors, established the Buena Vista Vinicultural Society, a corporation dedicated to expanding and modernizing winemaking. While Haraszthy had a successful first year, his costly ambitions exceeded the early demand for California wine. Shareholders forced him out of the society in 1867, and the next year he headed for Nicaragua to look into the sugar and rum trade. In early July 1869 the flamboyant count reportedly fell into an alligator-infested stream on his property. His body never turned up.
Despite winning accolades for its wine in 1873 in London, Vienna, Australia, Chile, Japan and Paris, the Buena Vista Winery succumbed to financial pressures, and in 1878 the society auctioned off the estate. Arpad Haraszthy continued to make wine and in 1880 was appointed president of the California Board of State Viticultural Commissioners. In its 1888 annual report Haraszthy noted that the number of vineyards in the state had tripled since 1880, and that overall wine production in 1887 totaled 15 million gallons. But his father’s Buena Vista Winery laid dormant into the 1940s. In 2011 the French-based Boisset wine group purchased the winery [www.buenavistawinery.com], continuing the rich heritage Count Haraszthy began a century and a half ago.
Within months of purchasing Buena Vista in 1856, Agoston Haraszthy sold another parcel of land in Sonoma to friend and apprentice Charles Krug, who started his own winery. Krug, who was born in Prussia in 1825 and fought for independence from Germany in 1848, had arrived in San Francisco in 1852 with little money but plenty of determination and a willingness to work hard. He maintained his Sonoma vineyard for two years before selling it, borrowing an apple press and moving to Napa to make wine for pioneer John Patchett. On December 19, 1890, the San Francisco Star published an excerpt of Krug’s memoir. “When I first visited Napa County, I found less than a dozen small vineyards of so-called Mission vines,” he wrote. “In October 1858 I made the first lot of wine ever made in Napa County, at the place of John Patchett, Napa City. As a cellar he used an old pioneer adobe house built on the banks of Napa Creek. I said, ‘The first lot of wine ever made in Napa County.’ Allow me to correct this statement: They offered me in the fall of 1859, at each of the Bale and Yount ranchos, a tin cup full of ‘elegant’ claret, which had been fermented in large cowhides, tied to and spread out with lassos between four trees and filled with grapes crushed by Indians.”
In 1861 Krug founded his own winery, centered on a 14-foot-high by 20-footdeep cellar a mile north of St. Helena, and introduced the cider press for winemaking (the first of which remains on display at the winery). By 1872 he was the fourth largest grower in Napa and had expanded his cellar to hold nearly 300,000 gallons of wine. His vineyards grew Rieslings, Muscatel, Burger, Chasselas, Malaga, Black Malvoisie, Flame Tokay, Rose de Peru and Zinfandel. In 1874 a fire destroyed the winery, but that summer Krug built a new cellar of stone, concrete and wood. By fall 1880 he had more than doubled his capacity to 700,000 gallons. By 1892, after widespread damage from phylloxera, an invasive insect, the St. Helena winery had been reduced to 75 acres, of which only 35 were bearing fruit. Krug wanted to keep going. He planned to replant up to 10 acres to Riparia, 30 acres to Lenoir and five acres to Mondeuse, Cabernet Sauvignon, Burger, Cabernet Franc and other grafts, but he died that November before seeing it through.
After Krug’s death, James Moffitt held the winery in proprietorship through Prohibition, when grapes were often shipped east. In 1943 he sold it to Cesare Mondavi, an Italian immigrant with a passion for wine he passed down to sons Robert and Peter. Today the Peter Mondavi family manages the historic Charles Krug Winery [www.charleskrug.com], and California’s viniculture still celebrates the spirit and tenacity of Krug in Napa and Haraszthy in Sonoma.
Originally published in the June 2015 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.