Last Updated on April 14, 2023
“Our future is our past.” This couldn’t be a more fitting mantra for the grand dame of California’s wine industry. Located in the heart of the magnificent Sonoma Valley, Buena Vista Winery is a designated Historic California Landmark. It’s much more than that. Visiting Buena Vista wineries takes guest on an eclectic journey through the annuls of California’s winemaking.
Count Agoston Haraszthy
Sonoma Valley, just a 45-minute drive from San Francisco, is the birthplace of California’s wine industry. In 1812, Russian colonists began planting grapes along the coast. Blessed with rich soil and warm, sunny days, carefully selected vines and quality farming techniques soon put this ‘golden land’ on the map.
In 1857, the Buena Vista wineries were founded by Hungarian immigrant, Agoston Haraszthy, known as the “Count of Buena Vista.”
Winemaking was in the Count’s blood with his family achieving unparalleled success in the pursuit in their native land. At a time when the California Gold Rush was attracting thousands of miners hoping to strike it rich, Haraszthy, a farmer, innovator and shrewd businessman, found his “purple gold” in the ideal terroir of the Sonoma Valley.
Haraszthy, a San Diego County sheriff before heading north to the Sonoma Valley, introduced innovative winegrowing techniques and became a champion of vine quality. He was also a tireless promoter of California wines.
The flambouyant Count was highly respected as a vinicultural pioneer earning another title: “Father of the California Wine Industry.”
Despite innumerable setbacks throughout the years, the spirit of the winery managed to persevere.
Haraszthy suffered an untimely death in 1869 in a crocodile-infested river in Nicaragua. Years of prohibition, long periods of abandonment, a phylloxera epidemic and a major earthquake in 1989 all took a toll on this historic property.
Perhaps this is why there has reportedly been a host of paranormal encounters at the winery. According to Buena Vista wineries staff, they have witnessed unexplained noises and strange sightings, even of the Count himself reaching out from the afterlife.
This only serves to make the winery even more intriguing.
In 2011, Buena Vista became part of the Boisset Family Estates, led by a charismatic French-born Burgundian, Jean-Charles Boisset. He is the modern-day version of the eccentric Count.
Boisset believed the vision for the winery lay in its colorfully fascinating past. The winery’s philosophy is to understand the past to better understand the present, and plan for the future.
My husband and my journey through this history began on our scenic approach to the winery where tasteful placards along the way illustrated the story of California winemaking and the Buena Vista Vineyard. An 1857 stone bridge over a tumbling stream at the edge of the property leads to the ruins of Haraszthy’s original homestead.
One of the owner’s first missions was to strengthen and retrofit the massive historic Press House and Champagne Cellar previously damaged by earthquakes. The towering structure hosts a spectacular tasting room.
Both the upstairs loft and lower level showcase a treasure-trove of winery artifacts and photos.
Each and every one of Boisset’s renovations and enhancements pays loving homage to the estate’s legacy and rich heritage. He brought his signature flare for the dramatic to create the Buena Vista Bubble Room, an underground crystal-chandeliered, winetasting room reminiscent of the Great Gatsby era.
Nestled on a steep, wooded hillside, the winery houses a labyrinth of underground passages leading to even more mysterious and unusual rooms. Each invites its intrigued guests to sit and sip while surrounded by the past.
Built directly into the ancient rocks of the Mayacamas Mountain Range, the winery’s impressive barrel room cave is the oldest in California. Centered at the far end is the Count’s massive hand-carved redwood barrel dating back to 1889. It was here we sampled Pinot Noir syphoned directly from that historic barrel.
Other secret passages lead to more amazing tasting rooms. The most intriguing is perhaps the red-velvet themed bizarre “Cave of the Curiosities” that could have jumped right from the pages of a Jules Verne novel.
Buena Vista Vineyard
Though immersed in weird and wacky history, make no mistake that Buena Vista wineries produce amazing wines.
When Jean-Charles Boisset purchased the property, he re-invigorated the winery and enhanced Buena Vista’s reputation by producing premium award-winning champagnes and wine varietals.
Its vineyards are in the heart of one of the most celebrated appellations in the world. Warm winters, cooling breezes from the bay, varied elevations, and lots of sunshine produce top quality grapes. Winemaker Brian Maloney then uses his skills to turn these fruits of the vine into liquid gold and ruby magic.
Champagnes here are refined and excellent. From its magnificent La Victoire Brut and Rosé to its fascinating, sparkling Blanc de Noir, these bubbly libations are some of the finest we’ve tasted in California.
Many wines pay homage to the Count and his family members in honor of their past contributions to the winery of today.
Thanks to the numerous locations Buena Vista grapes are planted and the creative combinations of varietals, their impressive winetasting list features award-winning varietals among their Roussanne, Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs, Zinfandel, Syrah, and Petit Verdots.
In addition, Private Reserve labels include a Chardonnay, Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon.
A Visit to the Wine Tool Museum
The intriguing Wine Tool Museum located high atop the Champagne Cellars features a remarkable repository of antique viticulture tools brought from France by Boisset.
These implements, ranging from medieval equipment, plows and pruning tools, to grape harvest baskets and a winepress, are showcased along the walls in artistic patterns. Displays are accompanied by film, narrative lights and movement relating the story of early winemaking.
Lifelike mannequins of the Count’s family dressed in period attire welcome guests to their table to experience a historic theatrical spectacle while sipping their wines. It’s a literal immersion in winemaking history, albeit bizarre.
Galileo once said, “Wine is sunlight, held together by water.”
The Buena Vista wineries reverently celebrate their colorful past in a beguiling and unusual manner making for an unforgettable Sonoma Valley wine experience.