AWG Correspondent

Tom Riley

Buena Vista Winery Photos

Buena Vista Winery Review

Regions: Sonoma County, Sonoma Valley AVA, Moon Mountain AVA, California

Reviewed: July 3, 2013 by Tom Riley
Published: July 24, 2013

The best place to start, it has been said, is at the beginning. If you want to learn about the history of wine in California, the best place to start is at Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma. Founded by Agoston Haraszthy in 1857, Buena Vista is the state’s first premier winery, and Haraszthy, a century and a half later, is revered as the father of the California wine industry.

Arriving in California from Hungary (via Wisconsin) in the wake of the Gold Rush, Haraszthy, known eventually as the Count of Buena Vista, was determined that the real gold to be found in this burgeoning region would be purple. In 1860 he planted what was then the largest vineyard in the world, and a year later scoured Europe for plantings that gave birth to the fourth largest wine-producing region on the planet. Buena Vista is where it all began.

Since its early days, BVW has been owned and operated, held and sold by many parties, with its viticultural fortunes rising and falling with the times. In 2011 Jean-Charles Boisset of Boisset Family Estates, France’s third largest wine group, which also owns several other California properties including Raymond and DeLoach, purchased the estate. Jean-Charles Boisset is committed, he has said many times, to restoring Buena Vista to its former glory.

When you arrive at Buena Vista, which sits, appropriately, at the end of Old Winery Road, you are directed to park at some distance from the winery, and then walk several hundred yards along the "Pioneers Promenade" to the heart of the historic estate. Along the shaded path towards the tasting room, framed canvases tell the story of the winery from the mid-19th century to today. Picnic areas dot the walk and fill a generous area of wooded terrain across from the main winery buildings. Echoes of the Sonoma winery’s founding dot the landscape, from the "California Heritage Garden" to the "Welcome Courtyard," which is overseen by statues clothed in period costume.

Buena Vista’s tasting room is housed in the Press House, which was named, along with entire winery, a California Registered Landmark in 1980. Entering the impressive, cut-stone building is to take a step back in time. Staff members, like the courtyard statues, are dressed in 19th century garb, and look completely at home in a room that seems not to have changed since it was built. Exposed wooden beams, rough stone walls, and wrought iron chandeliers help visitors imagine what the winery looked like when Haraszthy was still in charge.

Boisset’s commitment to the rejuvenation of Buena Vista is most noticeable in the wines themselves. For several decades, as BVW was passed from one owner to the next, the wines were inconsistent and received little critical acclaim. Now, with access to some of Sonoma’s finest fruit (Boisset is married to Gina Gallo, who owns a few rows here and there; Gallo is the second largest wine company in the world), and the historical vineyards getting the attentive management they deserve, Buena Vista is certainly putting its money where your mouth is.

The day I tasted I was happily surprised by the wines that were being poured. All playfully named for members of Haraszthy’s family, the five wines on the list that day – 2012 Count’s Selection Pinot Gris, 2009 Elenora’s Selection Chardonnay, 2009 Bela’s Selection Pinot Noir, 2011 Ida’s Selection Pinot Noir, and 2011 Karoly’s Zinfandel – were aromatic, complex, and well structured, each showing great varietal typicity. I was particularly impressed with the pinot noirs and the zinfandel. The pinots offered a wonderful balance between fruit and earth tones, with excellent acid structure. The zinfandel was elegant and restrained, with elements of spice highlighted by soft, mouth-coating tannins.

I had been hoping to taste the winery’s sparkling wine, which has been one of their bread-and-butter productions since the early days, but that was not to be. Still, one of the tasting room staff spoke so highly of it that I made sure to bring one home to enjoy.

All in all, my visit was delightful, as I learned quite a bit about California’s wine history and became acquainted with some delicious wines that are as easy on the wallet as they are on the taste buds. But, sadly, the day was far from a complete success. For the first time in many, many months, I received stunningly poor service in a tasting room. When I arrived, just before noon, the tasting room was virtually empty. Except for a young family in a far corner enjoying some of the winery’s historical artifacts, there was only me and two staff members, a young woman and an older man. I said hello as I entered, and the young woman responded in kind, with a friendly smile. The other staff member simply looked at me. I smiled and asked if he minded if I took some photos. His response? "I don’t care what you do." I was taken aback but said nothing.

When it came time to taste I instinctively approached the woman’s side of the bar, wanting nothing to do with her colleague. But, he inexplicably sent her off to some chore and took charge of my tasting. Thank goodness the wines were worthwhile. His patter was delivered in an overly rehearsed manner, never making eye contact with me but staring off to the side into space.

I decided that I wanted more engaged hospitality and so began to ask as many questions as I could. My interest in all things Buena Vista eventually warmed him up, but it was an effort on my part. An effort that no guest should ever have to make. I left, a few bottles of wine in hand, but disappointed not only by the cool, perfunctory service, but because I knew that I’d be hard pressed to recommend Buena Vista to friends if this was the sort of service they might receive.

Buena Vista Winery is one of California’s flagships, and the renewed commitment to excellence is obvious in its wines and facilities. It is an important winery worth visiting. Let’s just hope, however, that the Boisset Family’s push to restore the winery’s glory is understood and embraced by ALL staff members. The sooner the better.

Address & Contact Information: 18000 Old Winery Rd. Sonoma, California 95476. Telephone: 707-938-1266, website: Tasting Hours: 10:00-5:00.

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