Many Americans feel a slight inferiority that comes from the fact that our nation is a young one. Naturally, we don't have structures that have survived for millennia, we don't have heroes dating back to the Punic Wars, and we don't have wines written up in Samuel Pepys' diary. We do, however, have a very special vineyard, a model of California wine history that now celebrates its 150th anniversary. This is Buena Vista.
I'm not sure if Auguston Haraszthy (1812-1869) intended to make history 150 years ago, but I wouldn't doubt it. This Hungarian immigrant made waves wherever he went and whatever he did. He spoke an astounding 16 languages; worked in chemistry, medicine and metallurgy; married and sired six children—all before the age of 27! Less than a year after arriving in America in 1840, he founded Haraszthy Town, Wis., and operated the first steamboat on the upper Mississippi. Within the next year he had visited the entire country east of the Mississippi, ending in Washington, D.C., with a visit to our 10th president, John Tyler.
He returned to Hungary, gathering up his family to become part of his new American dream. He tried to grow grapes in Wisconsin but the climate was not conducive, so he switched to hops, and thus provided raw material for that state's nascent beer industry. In time, asthma emerged as a chronic problem and doctors recommended that he move to California. With the lure of the emerging gold rush, he did so in 1849. He planted his first vineyards in San Diego while serving in just about every civil and mercantile capacity in the region—sheriff, butcher and tax collector among them. (An Indian riot ensued over his aggressive collecting techniques!) Is this not all too preposterous and great fodder for a Mel Gibson film?
He later moved to San Francisco, bought extensive vineyard land and was thought enough of by 14th president Franklin Pierce to be named first assayer of the newly opened San Francisco Mint. (Remember his metallurgic training.) In 1861, he was exonerated of embezzling $150,000 from the Mint, but during this same period found a way to unload his previous vineyard holdings and, in 1857, buy a new estate in Sonoma County that he called Buena Vista. This was California's first winery to produce wines in quantity—the grandmother of them all. With this purchase, Haraszthy doubled the existing wine acreage of this vertiginous region. What instinct told him this was a perfect vineyard site?
Unimpressed with the local plantings of native mission grapes, Haraszthy went back to Europe, obtained 10,000 vineyard cuttings and planted them at Buena Vista. Unbeknownst to him, or anyone else for that matter, the European root stocks made a delicious meal for the lethal Phylloxera louse—an especially hungry critter, since America's native vines are unaffected by the voracious insect. Imagine Haraszthy's perplexed heartbreak as the vines shriveled and died, one by one. By 1867 his grand experiment in viticulture ended in bankruptcy.
It should come as no surprise that Haraszthy found another outlet for his boundless energy and started what soon became the largest sugar plantation, and producer of rum, in Nicaragua. In 1869 he disappeared from his plantation; his daughter said he was inspecting a new boat landing on the property, fell into the river and was eaten by an alligator. (Others suggest foul play at the hands of the locals.)
This restless, indefatigable pioneer paved the way for California's wine success. He founded the California Viticultural Society, and in 1862 published a book entitled Grapes, Cultures, Wines and Wine Making, with Note upon Agriculture and Horticulture. This teaching tool was visited by generation after generation of future viticulturalists. His genius and P.T. Barnum touch for the vine have led him to be hailed as "The Father of California Wine Making."
Haraszthy's vineyard holdings were acquired by the wealthy, eccentric Johnson family, who produced wines until the late 1800s. Heiress Kate Johnson housed 200 Angora cats alongside her vines! Another bout of Phylloxera and, later, the devastating San Francisco earthquake of 1906 destroyed the winery's underground cellars and all of its wine inventory. Ms. Johnson willed the estate to the Catholic Church—which promptly sold it back to the state.
As a result of Prohibition, grape growing ceased. But part of Sonoma's booming population still spent time at Buena Vista, now called the State Farm for Delinquent Women. Here were housed prostitutes, drug abusers, homeless itinerants and "wild women." Another questionable accident burned the unpopular Farm to the ground, but it was soon replaced by the Home for the Feeble Minded and, still later, Sonoma Valley Hospital.
In 1940, the original intent of the locale was reinstated by new owner Frank Bartholomew. A legend of journalism and president of United Press International, he unwittingly bought the property as a home site and only later realized it had been a vineyard. After Leon Adams, this country's greatest wine historian, gave him the details of Haraszthy's venture, Bartholomew decided to replant. With the aid of famed Napa wine genius Andre Tchelistcheff (he of Beaulieu Vineyards), the property was restored and again began commercial production in 1947. This love affair with the vine lasted decades, well into Bartholomew's retirement.
In 1979, the estate was purchased by the Moller-Racke family of Germany. Under their stewardship the estate expanded into the Carneros District, where now emanate today's fine bottlings. The consortium Allied Domecq bought the winery in 2001 and brought in winemaker Jeff Stewart (formerly of La Crema Winery) to begin a replanting effort, tooling down Buena Vista from a 375,000-case large-scale workhorse into a lean, 45,000-case operation specializing in Carneros District wines. In these days of quick corporate turnover, Buena Vista and its owner were swallowed up by Beam Estate Wines in 2005, yet Stewart continues the revamping of the newly named Buena Vista Carneros, following the maverick spirit of its founder.
The following are the best examples that I tasted:
2005 Chardonnay, Carneros $19
Breezy, grassy field of wildflower bouquet. Wind in your face freshness. Crisp and tangy mouth feel with a core of ripe, fulsome fruit. 88
2004 Chardonnay, Ramal Vineyard, Dijon Clones $32
Creamy, expansive with butterscotch, elegance and persistence. Clean, integrated fruit. Wildly refreshing yet substantial. A terrific wine in a blowsy, showy style. 92
2005 Syrah, Carneros $19
Pleasing with juicy blackberry, iodine, licorice and a briary, charcoal-like backdrop. Balanced and substantial with a fresh, lively mouth texture. A solid effort, much better than the 2004 vintage. 86
2005 Pinot Noir, Carneros $2
Ripe, lean but fragrant nose. Pure, penetrating excellent middle weight with the elusive pinot bouquet. Brisk, alive, generous but lithe mouth texture. Reminiscent of an excellent Santenay. 88
2004 Pinot Noir, Ramal Vineyard, Dijon Clones $37
Broad, brooding, plummy with terrific dark fruit overtones. Sumptuous flavors combined with a bracing acid kick on the finish. Will improve over two to three years. 90
2004 Pinot Noir, Ramal Vineyard $37
Full and chocolaty with warm oak cask underpinning. Smells like old fashioned pinot—earthy with the great French pinot funk and fascination. A richly rewarding flavor profile. Smooth, elegant and ready to enjoy. A splendid achievement that will wildly appeal to all pinot junkies. 92
The pause that refreshes
Once upon a time, wine was a refreshing beverage that enhanced a meal while improving one's spirit and digestion. Sipping between bites was an essential part of the overall dining experience. The traditional marriage of wine and food seems to have been put asunder by wine writer Robert Parker, whose opinions emerged in the early 1980s. Almost single-handedly, Parker turned wine from food's partner into food's rival. In the lunatic post-Parker era, the wines have become overweight, obscenely filling and, perversely, not refreshing at all!
Years before ubiquitous exporting, certain everyday wines were considered "headachy" because of their heft and high alcohol content. Yes, the locals enjoyed their Rhone (think Chateauneuf du Pape) and southern Italian (think Ciro Rosso) reds, but it was not uncommon to cut these bruisers with a little water, to give them a bit of lift and lightness. Today, the alcohol level of these two wines, around 14 percent, is considered by many to be normal, and wines from other places now easily match and gleefully exceed their thickness.
Some say global warming is partly to blame. Areas that once boasted moderate climatic conditions are now many degrees hotter. Even wines in Germany and England, once reliable producers of lower-alcohol offerings, are now at formerly inconceivable levels. If the trend continues it will rob the Napa Valley of the reputation it established in the 1970s for balanced, moderate alcohol level wines.
It used to be that 13 percent alcohol was generally considered the upper limit for a well-balanced, generous-bodied yet refreshing wine. Now I see bottle after bottle of Australian Shiraz, Napa Valley Zinfandel and Spanish Priorato that boasts of up to 17 percent alcohol. These wines seek only to impress the taster, for as alcohol levels rise, acidity—and with it, refreshment—disappears. They often remind me of blubbery, beached whales; I'm tired of seeing their top scores from Parker and other wannabees, tired of their overstuffed style, and tired of drinking them.
The responsibility for this sorry state can, in my opinion, be laid squarely at the feet of that forever anonymous someone who started the practice of tasting wines on their own without food. What an ignoble and dubious accomplishment! Some so-called "experts" say that food, especially cheese, will automatically make wines taste better. To this I say, Hogwash! How many of us drink glasses of wine without any food at all?
Personally, I always eat something when I am doing a wine tasting. It is the surest and fairest way to see if a wine will even allow food to come through the often impenetrable curtain of fruit and tannin. If a wine obliterates food, then it's no wine for me. It's a Hummer, a Gurkha Beast cigar or the Queen Mary II—all status, all braggadocio; a massive paeon to what can be achieved in the mad scientist role of concocting the biggest, baddest wine in town. Include me out!
Best little food house in Carolina
Think Durham is among the best "small" towns when it comes to culinary excellence? So does Food & Wine magazine. This terrific publication on the joys of eating has chosen Durham as one of five finalists for this honor. No wonder! Most of us take for granted the extraordinary range of delights from which to choose: from Nana's, Magnolia Grill, Four Square and Cafe Parizade to Dillard's Bar-B-Que, Guglhupf Bakery and Francesca's Dessert Caffe. We are used to this excellence, but the rest of the nation isn't.
That's why it's imperative that you go to foodandwine.com, look for the "Food & Wine Across America" heading on the left, and cast your vote for our town. I've been around the block and I'm always very proud when I mention Durham to other food and wine writers across the nation. Our restaurants are in all of their memory banks. Until the recent lacrosse disaster, this is the way Durham was best known among those who care about food and its culture. So please vote! Don't let Texas bamboozle us again—hell, they don't even put vinegar in their 'cue. I'll let you know the final results once they're in.
Arturo's Wine Beat column appears the second Wednesday of the month. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org for comments, suggestions, kudos or complaints.