Keeping the legacy alive
Val Haraszthy ponders the past outside a reconstruction of the Pompeian villa erected by Count Haraszthy.
If your family’s in the wine business, and you grow up as a cellar rat, and wine is a part of everyday life, when
do you start drinking it?
Ask Val Haraszthy.
“When I was 12 or 13, my dad caught Paul Fairweather and me stealing from the wine cellar. We wanted to see what it’s like to get drunk. Dad said, ‘OK, then open it up and let’s see.’ Of course we couldn’t get it open…had no idea it was so complicated. You really had to be serious about getting
to the product.
“Dad got a corkscrew and showed us how to open a bottle of wine, then poured three glasses of Buena Vista burgundy. ‘Boys, tell me the second you notice when you feel a little different. But first, look at it. Smell it. Does it smell bad?’
“We told him no, it didn’t. It smelled pretty good. He pointed out the meniscus (the curve at the top surface of the wine in a glass) and talked about aging. ‘Now you can taste it. Now we’re going to do some drinking.’ He got out some soda crackers and cheese.
“Hey, Dad, I’m kinda getting it, I think.”
“How do you feel?”
“I feel great, but it’s not like I thought it would be.”
“If you go on and get drunk, that’s OK. But you’re not going to feel any better than you do right at this minute.”
“And that,” says Vallejo Haraszthy, the direct descendant of the two biggest names in the history of Sonoma, “is how I learned to drink wine. Sure, I’ve been ‘drunk’ since then, but he was right: it doesn’t get any better than that moment.”
Val Haraszthy’s great-great grandfathers were General Mariano Vallejo and Agoston Haraszthy. General Vallejo founded Sonoma in 1834, and Haraszthy, a Hungarian nobleman, established Buena Vista Winery and launched the state’s commercial wine business.
Val has worked in every aspect of that business, coming full circle to create
Haraszthy Family Cellars. A nicer guy in the Valley is hard to find, and no one is more enthusiastic about zinfandel.
“It’s the universal wine for food. It’s versatile and goes with everything, with a perfect balance of cherry and blackberry.”
Most people, Val Haraszthy knows, can’t get past the initial romance. They see the vineyard and a bottle and a couple of barrels and think, “How cool is it that you’re a winemaker!” They don’t see the long hours, the competition, the challenge of getting the wine from the vineyard to the table. So he trots out the old joke: “How do you make a small fortune in the wine business? Start with a big one.”
But that doesn’t stop Haraszthy from living and working his belief—passed down from the men whose names he carries, that “wine is the most artful expression of agriculture.”
Pick up a bottle of his wine and the first thing that strikes you is the imposing creature on the Haraszthy Family Cellars label.
“I went through the Wines and Vines directory: nothing appealed to us. We knew we didn’t want a creek, ridge, or a vineyard beauty shot. We knew exactly what we didn’t want. We did want a look that
attracted people who make wine a part of their everyday lives—like Generation X-ers and others—and I knew I’d know it was right when I saw it.”
One day he glimpsed an illustration of a dragon on his son Kyle’s skateboard. It was beyond the usual ‘critter’ drawing. It was fierce and wild. So he tracked down the artist.
“Have you ever done a wine label?” Val Haraszthy asked.
“Ooooooh! Not yet!” said J.J. Rudisill, a Brooklyn artist and illustrator whose fame has since grown. Rudisill nailed the perfect image of Haraszthy Family Cellars, an enormous grizzly bear with an air of superior sophistication delicately holding a zinfandel grape between first and thumb claw.
Curious kids may still sneak into Haraszthy’s cellar, but they’ll have to contend with a fierce bruin when they do.
From the 2012 Fall issue of SONOMA