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New Life for California’s Oldest Winery

What does an eccentric Hungarian Count born 200 years ago and a charismatic modern-day Frenchman have in common? Oddly enough, a passion for making wine… in Sonoma. Last year, Jean-Charles Boisset of Boisset Family Estates, a negociant wine company based in Burgundy, purchased the oldest winery in California — Buena Vista, just outside the town square in Sonoma — and has set about painstakingly restoring the historic cellars. Last week, grapes arrived (from old vines believed to be Carignan) and fermentation began again, just as it had for the first time in 1857 when Count Agoston Haraszthy made his first 6,500 gallons of wine.  

Boisset, who himself is seen as larger than life, has met his match with the legend of Haraszthy. Often referred to as the “father of viticulture” in California, the wealthy Hungarian brought cuttings of vitis vinifera grapevines over from Europe (most of which later died of phylloxera) and planted them in Sonoma soil. He also founded the Buena Vista Viniculture Society, an organization which later fired him (blaming him for the death of the vines) and it is rumored that he was eaten by alligators in a Nicaraguan swamp while investing in the rum business years later.

Like everything he does, Boisset is having fun with the project. He has hired a local actor to portray the Count at weekly shows (held each Saturday through October in the Buena Vista courtyard) and will be making a super ripe Zinfadel-based wine in the Count’s honor. Looking back to the Count’s Hungarian roots, Boisset plans to import Tokaji (a sweet dessert wine) under the Buena Vista label and has hired San Francisco designer Joshua Rowland to design the interior spaces (one of which will serve as the meeting place for the revived Viniculture Society). Asked if it will be anything like Raymond Estate (where Rowland designed the Red and Gold rooms), Rowland says it will be different but promises there “will be surprises.”