Meet Vallejo Haraszthy
By SUZIE RODRIGUEZ / Sonoma Valley Correspondent
If you live in Sonoma, know a thing or two about local history, and meet a man named Vallejo Haraszthy, you can’t help but wonder: “Is he related to one of them?”
He’s actually related to both.
Called “Val” by his friends, Haraszthy is the great-great grandson of General Mariano Vallejo, who founded Sonoma in 1834 as Mexico’s northernmost military outpost, and Count Agoston Haraszthy, whose 1857 establishment of Buena Vista Winery marked the beginning of California’s commercial wine industry.
To be precise, he’s a direct descendant of the 1863 marriage between General Vallejo’s daughter, Natalia, and Count Haraszthy’s son, Attila. The couple tied the knot in a double wedding, with Natalia’s sister, Jovita, marrying Attila’s brother, Arpad.
General Vallejo and Agoston Haraszthy were friends and fellow winemakers, and the double marriage between their children united Sonoma’s two most famous families.
As a wedding gift, General Vallejo gave Natalia and Attila 122 acres adjoining his own home, Lachryma Montis. He built a handsome Victorian home on the site for the newlyweds, calling it Willows Wild (today’s Estate Restaurant).
“My grandfather was born in that house,” Haraszthy said recently. “His name was Agoston, but everybody called him Gus. My dad’s sister was born there, too. But by the time dad was born the family had moved to the San Fernando Valley, where my grandfather was in the real estate business.”
In the 1940s, Val’s father, Jan, was stationed at Hamilton Field in Novato. Having never met any of his Sonoma relatives, one day he decided to make a visit. He called on two of the General’s daughters who were still living in Lachryma Montis (Val isn’t sure, but thinks they were Maria and Louisa).
“Dad couldn’t believe it,” he said. “He described it as stepping back in time. The women wore mantillas, the whole Castilian Spanish thing.”
Growing up in Los Angeles, young Val Haraszthy often heard stories of his famous great-great-grandfathers and their roles in California history.
“I understood that my family had this unique history,” he said. “We were part of the founding of both California and the state’s wine business. But I was a kid. It didn’t mean much. As time went on, though, the significance of it began to hit me. I began to cherish my family history. I thought, ‘Wow. This is kind of cool.’”
Another way in which family history had an affect on Haraszthy was with winemaking.
“We’ve been doing it for five generations,” he said. “Dad was in the wine business. It was just part of our lifestyle. As a teenager I was lucky enough to be allowed to drink wine; it was just the culture I grew up in. And I soaked up a lot of knowledge. At some point I thought, hey, this is what I’d like to do. I want a piece of this.”
In 1972, when he was 24, Haraszthy came very close to his roots by taking a cellar rat job at Buena Vista Winery.
“I was so lucky,” he said. “They made wine in the old school way. They used no stainless steel, no refrigeration. They did everything by hand, really making hand-crafted wines. I really took to it. And standing in those historic stone cellars, right where my family had been making wine so many years before, I couldn’t help but feel a certain amount of pride.
“It was awesome. We were the last people to make wine in that old cellar, too. It was closed down after that for safety reasons.”
In 1974, Val’s father moved to Sonoma from Los Angeles to take a job managing Buena Vista Winery (then owned by Young’s Market, one of the nation’s largest wine and liquor wholesalers).
“When he retired in 1978,” Val said, “he and I started a winery in Glen Ellen called Haraszthy & Son. We were making wine in the old Charles Pagani place on Arnold Drive. We closed it down in 1981, when I went to work for the Benzigers.”
Until recently Haraszthy had stuck to the sales and marketing end of wine, which he thoroughly enjoyed. But in the back of his mind he began nurturing the desire to create wines of his own again, and in 2008 he founded Haraszthy Family Cellars. The company sources grapes and custom crushes to produce one varietal only: Zinfandel.
“Zin is a chameleon,” Haraszthy said. “It changes with terroir and other conditions. We’ve got Zin from Lodi, Amador, Sonoma, Howell Mountain, Stag’s Leap… They’re all Zins, but the taste is different. Each has a different spice rack driven by clonal selection and the site itself—the soil, the sun, the wind and dirt. Even a wine novice can pick it up. It’s right in your face.”
Just last month, the 2008 Haraszthy Sonoma County Zinfandel won a Silver Medal at the Sonoma County Harvest Fair; earlier this year the wine received 89 points from Wine Spectator, which also named it a “California Value” wine.
Haraszthy lives in Sonoma with his wife, Vicki. They have three sons, Sean, Kyle, and Evan—the sixth generation descended from The General and The Count. Two of them are also involved in the wine industry.
“It’s a very good feeling to continue in the family wine tradition and enjoy it as much as I do,” Haraszthy said. “With some families the legacy stops because one generation says ‘I don’t want to be a sixth generation umbrella maker, this just isn’t me.’ But that’s not the case with me.
“I feel so lucky to have had this kind of family heritage to follow. My father never pushed me into it. I found it fascinating as a young man and went for it, and it’s what I’m doing and love to do. There will definitely be a wine glass on top of my grave—and it will be empty.”