Sonoma Valley and the Heritage of California Wine
Perfect rows of vineyards on a spring day in Sonoma Valley Wine Country

Located just 45 minutes north of San Francisco, Sonoma Valley is a picturesque wine region combining world-renowned wines with inviting country charm.  But it rarely receives the credit it deserves for its role in in establishing Northern California as a world class wine region - in large part because neighboring Napa Valley stepped into the international spotlight after besting French wines in the famous 1976 “Judgement of Paris.”

But a glimpse at the history of California wine reveals that Sonoma Valley is unmatched in its role as California’s pioneering region for premium winemaking.  Three notable Sonoma Valley wineries who trace their roots to the dawn of premium wines are Buena Vista, Gundlach Bundshu, and Sebastiani.   

Buena Vista, California’s first premium wine

In 1857, just 11 years after California became the 31st official state, Hungarian immigrant Agoston Haraszthy de Mokesa established Buena Vista as the first winery in Sonoma. Haraszthy had been searching for “purple gold” in California, farmland that was suitable for growing quality grapes. After unsuccessfully experimenting with grape growing in the cool, foggy cities of San Francisco and San Mateo, Haraszthy recognized the exceptional terrior in Sonoma, and successfully established his winery, titling himself, “The Count of Buena Vista.” Haraszthy wanted to make California wines as diverse as possible, using the most modern techniques in winemaking. He experimented extensively and studied European winemaking techniques.  Upon returning from an educational expedition to France, Spain, Italy, Switzerland and Germany, the Count brought back to Sonoma over 450 cuttings of varietals new to the area and planted them at Buena Vista. The Count is largely credited with influencing the wide variety of grapes now grown in California. Today, all of the historic buildings are in use at Buena Vista, including the first wine caves ever created in Sonoma.


Gundlach Bundschu, a sixth generation family legacy

Sonoma Valley is home to Gundlach Bundschu, founded in 1858 by Jacob Gundlach. Gundlach’s business partner was Charles Bundschu, who later married into the family.  “GunBun” as it is commonly known, is the oldest consistently family-owned and operated winery, now in its sixth generation with the family completely involved in all aspects of daily operations. Three times in the course of its history, the Gundlach Bundschu family winery had to start over: initially when its Bryant Street facilities in San Francisco were lost in the great earthquake of 1906, then in 1919 when Prohibition stopped all wine production and the family was forced to turned to pear farming and raising livestock, and most recently in the early 1970’s when Jim and Towle Bundschu modernized the farm, replanted the vineyards, and rebuilt the wine production facilities.


Sebastiani Winery, a history worthy of knighthood

A stonemason by trade, Samuele Sebastiani emigrated from Tuscany in 1895 and quarry-mined the hills around Sonoma, producing cobblestones to build the streets of San Francisco.  Nine years later, in 1094, he started Sebastiani Winery in Sonoma.  After the U.S. enacted the Eighteenth Amendment in 1920, establishing Prohibition, Sebastiani was the only winery in Sonoma County to continue operations - by producing small quantities of sacramental and “medicinal” wines.  Samuele and subsequent Sebastiani generations played a vital role in building the Sonoma wine region.  The family built a church, hotel, apartments, skating rink, and a theater that is now an historic landmark on the Sonoma Plaza.  And recent generations have expanded the Sebastiani clan’s influence on the world of wine, founding three additional Sonoma wine brands: Viansa, Don Sebastiani and Sons, and Chertosa.  In 2003, the President of Italy bestowed knighthood on Sam Sebastiani, Samuele’s grandson, in recognition of his contribution to Italy’s winemaking heritage in America.


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~ Kay Syrah

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