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Early Wine Research

Aug 22, 2008
When the Agricultural Society recognized the need of serious research and supervision for the entire wine industry in 1861, Col. Haraszthy had already solved the problem that faced them. New varieties were needed with experimental, supervised planting in various sections of the State.

In 1861 Governor Downey appointed Col. Haraszthy to head a commission to go to Europe for the purchase of selected varieties to be planted in different parts of the State. He went abroad carrying letters from the Secretary of State, visiting principal vineyards and wineries in Spain, France, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland. With practical knowledge of soil and climate conditions at home in California, he selected the leading species of vines, had them tagged, bundled, and shipped to America. He spent $12,000 of his own money for 100,000 vines of 1,400 different varieties.

On his return he prepared an elaborate report of his trip, accounting in detail for all the monies expended, and described the methods of all the famous wineries he had visited. His book, "Grape Culture, Wines and Wine-Making," is a collector's item today. It reads as lightly and amusingly as a best-selling travelogue. However, when the report was presented to the California legislature for approval and personal reimbursement, it was wholly rejected!

Civil War was by then raging between the North and South. A five-man Senate Committee on Agriculture voted three to two not to accept the report, or the vines, or to pay the bill. The three nays were Northern Republicans who suspected the Colonel of Confederate leanings!

Col. Haraszthy held the vines for a year, hoping the legislature would reconsider his report. They refused again. Disgusted and disappointed, he returned from the State Capitol and looked at his priceless stock of vine cuttings. His desire to be of further service to the California wine industry came to an end. To realize something from his investment he offered the vines for sale. In lots of twenty, fifty, or one hundred they were distributed, indiscriminately, all over the State. Identifying tags, so carefully attached in each country, were lost, smudged, or ignored by the new owners.

This partisan stupidity of the legislature dealt the industry a crushing blow from which it has never fully recovered. The task of identifying grape species still goes on today; vintners sometimes quarrel with experts over certain types, such as Trebbiano. The finest species, which would have been accorded special care under the Colonel's supervision, were discarded by most vineyardists of that time because they gave a small yield. The precious blood of these grapes is only now becoming fully appreciated.

In the late sixties, after conveying his Sonoma vineyard to a cooperative association, Col. Haraszthy left California to begin a new life in Central America. Wines and vines had given him a thoroughly disappointing life, and with some degree of vindictive determination he turned to raising sugar cane on a large scale. After only a few months of this new life he missed his footing while crossing a tropical stream, fell into the swirling waters and was devoured by alligators.

Col Haraszthy's career was a personal tragedy of heroic proportions. Like the central figure in a noble drama of Aristotelian conception he perished because of his virtue. However, his spectacular career as an ardent wine enthusiast established the basis of the modern wine industry, particularly when it comes to Chardonnay. The vines he selected, even at random planting, raised the standard quality of California wine to such an extent that the industry enjoyed considerable expansion in the years immediately following.
About the Author
Sarah Martin is a freelance marketing writer based out of San Diego, CA. She specializes in fine wines, the history of vineyards, and interesting varietals, such as Trebbiano . For an incredible selection of fine wines, please visit http://www.wineaccess.com.
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