Western Trips

Western Trips

Friday, November 18, 2011

Best Wineries in Sonoma / Buena Vista Winery

Sonoma and Napa Counties in California's famous wine region are must stops anytime your California vacation takes you to the San Francisco Bay area. Whether it's a day trip or a full California vacation, the wine region of northern California promises to be a great addition to your trip planner. Whether you're on a Sonoma wine tasting tour or visiting the wineries on your own, you'll have a fun and informative time. A Sonoma wine tour is an excellent companion trip to San Francisco.

Wine Makings Long History

The history of wine making in the United States and in particular in Sonoma wine country is a very interesting story. It goes back centuries. Sonoma California is where California's commercial wine industry had it's start.

buena vista wineryWine making in earnest can be traced back to Spain after the reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula by the Catholic Kings.

Wine was an essential need for religious rituals and a quantity was made for distribution to travelers and local residents who happened to live near or travel by the monasteries. Throughout many centuries wine had been a part of regular European diets. The fact that it could be sold was a side benefit.

In California, wine making can first be attributed to the Franciscan friars who built the California mission system. The Spanish friars planted the first vineyards in California to produce wine for masses. The vineyards were planted at each mission with vines originating from Mexico. The first mission was built in San Diego in 1769 and the last in Sonoma California in 1823. All along the way, from south to north the friars planted their vineyards which produced what came to be known as the Mission Grape.

Wine fortunately had a lasting presence in California. The Spanish mission system as it was known faded away to a large degree after the Mexican Revolution supplanted the Spaniards from North America. The United States then took official possession of California after the Mexican American War in 1848 and two big events soon occurred that pretty much solidified wine's place in California history. The California Gold Rush in 1849 meant that thousands upon thousands of mining prospectors would flood the region and in 1850 California gained it's statehood. The thousands of people arriving in the gold regions made a ready market for wine sales and most of them had the money to pay for it.

Sonoma's Historic Buena Vista Winery

buena vista winery buildingNot long after the gold rush, the Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma California began it's operations in 1857.

In that year  a man named Count Agoston Haraszthy planted 80,000 vines on 118 acres. One of the European vine cuttings planted on the Buena Vista Winery was the Zinfandel which is considered the most planted grape today in California. This was a time before there was a Napa and Sonoma Valley wine district. This was before Sonoma County was what we now know it to be today, a world famous wine producing area.

Buena Vista's founder, Count Agoston Haraszthy,  was of Hungarian heritage. Count Agoston also had quite an active life prior to his founding of Buena Vista Winery. Although he long had a special interest in growing grapes, the Count had been Sheriff of San Diego California,  had founded a town in Wisconsin and was a member of the Hungarian Royal Guard. A Royal Guard is many times a ceremonial group of individuals who work closely with the king and provide security. They essentially are mostly noblemen.

Count Haraszthy became well acquainted with the Mission Grape which flourished throughout California. The Mission Grape came to California from Europe via Mexico. He first planted vines from Europe near San Diego but was not satisfied with the quality. He came to believe that the San Diego climate wasn't ideal for what he wanted. This took the Count on a journey to San Francisco where he purchased land near the San Francisco mission for his plantings. Again, the weather caused him concern and he soon decided that the area was way too foggy. He tried again near present day San Mateo, just south of San Francisco, and this too proved too foggy.

buena vista winery barrelIn the meantime, Haraszthy started a business, with a few Hungarian partners, supplying the new San Francisco Mint.

The business was called the Eureka Gold and Silver Refinery which began in 1854 about the same time as the Mint. Things didn't go too well with the new business. The Count was indicted for the embezzlement of $151,550 in gold. The investigation lasted quite a long time and fortunately for Haraszthy the federal charges were eventually dropped in 1861.

While the investigation was proceeding the Count had opened up the Buena Vista Winery. It should be noted that all during the time of the refinery business and the ensuing investigation, the Count had kept on collecting and studying the various grape varieties from Europe.

How the Count Settled on Sonoma

How did Count Haraszthy find his Sonoma location?

During the federal embezzlement investigation the Count had relocated north to Sonoma where he bought a small vineyard just a short distance northeast of the town. This would become the site of where tourists today visit the Buena Vista Winery. Haraszthy dug tunnels into the mountainsides and constructed stone cellars. These were California's first stone wine cellars. The Count added additional land over time and eventually ended up with about 5,000 acres. His land included both mountains and valleys and he was known to be a strong proponent of hillside vineyards without the normal irrigation of a valley. You will see plenty of these hillside vineyards today as you drive through Sonoma County.

The Counts Prominence 

 buena vista winery grounds
Count Agoston became an authority within the California wine growing industry. He authored a treatise regarding practical advice on growing grapes. His writings were eventually  recognized as the first treatise on wine making published in California.

In essence, his well received report was the first which detailed European wine making processes as they apply to the California region. The Count also was a supporter of wine making throughout the state, not just in Sonoma and Napa.

 In many ways, Count Agoston Haraszthy could be called the Father of California wine making. In the year 1864, Harper's Magazine (sometimes referred to as Harper's Weekly) wrote a story proclaiming the Count's Buena Vista Winery as being the largest in the world. Quite an endorsement from a popular publication of it's day and even now over 150 years later this Sonoma winery remains one of the most popular for tourists.

 Historically, it's interesting to note that when the Count first arrived in Sonoma he became acquainted with ex-General Mariano Vallejo. Vallejo was the former head of the northern Mexican troops who earlier barracked in Sonoma. Vallejo was already a small vintner thanks to his earlier association with the friars from Mission San Francisco Solano.

Visit Sonoma County California

buena vista winery sonomaYou'll find several good Sonoma wine country tours available. Sonoma wine tours are offered for a variety of itineraries. Some tours last longer than others.

The first thing I'd advise if you're heading out alone is get a good map showing where each winery is located. These are readily available at the Sonoma Chamber of Commerce.

There are a a large number of wineries in Sonoma County and you'll need more than a day if you want to visit all. This is another good reason why a trip to the Sonoma wineries makes a perfect weekend or three day trip. Your Sonoma wine country tour will also include great drives on scenic country roads and more than enough photo opportunities.

Another good stop on your trip to Sonoma California and the Buena Vista Winery is the villa constructed by Count Haraszthy in 1857 upon his relocation to the area. The site is a California Historical Landmark and is a reconstruction of the villa built by the Count. It's located on Castle Road about 3 miles noutheast of Sonoma, near the winery. Of special note is that the villa was the site of California's first vintage celebration in October 1864. General Vallejo and his wife were special guests at this historic event.

The Wine Industry Over the Years

The American wine making industry was very prosperous except for one event. That event was the questionable prohibition law passed in 1920.

There were a variety of reasons why this law came about and the proponents were active for years, but for the California wine industry, the Volstead Act in 1920 was a disaster. The law permitted some limited home wine making which shot up the price of grapes and additionally there was a shortage of railroad refrigerator cars. The only alternative left for the growers was to replant for juice varieties of grapes.

russian river sonoma county
Sonoma County's Russian River at Pacific Coast
The number of organizations demanding repeal of the law grew with each passing year. In 1932 Franklin Roosevelt ran for President promising to repeal federal Prohibition laws. By 1932 it was estimated that three quarters of American voters, and about forty-six states, favored repeal of the law. After the repeal of the Volstead Act there was a huge surplus of lower quality grapes that had been planted during the 13 year prohibition period. This lasted until the early 1970's after which quality vines became the norm in the Sonoma and Napa region.

A tour of the Sonoma wine country is a great trip I've had the opportunity to take several times. I hope you too have a chance to enjoy this scenic and historic part of northern California that ushered in the commercial wine making industry.

(Article and photos copyright Western Trips)


  1. I love California wines. Seeing some of their wineries makes me appreciate their wines even more.

  2. BTW, check this wine cellar manufacturer I found http://www.winecellarspec.com/custom-wine-cellars-dallas-texas-howell/. They do very beautiful wine cellars and wine racks.


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