Buena Vista Winery Reborn

Monica Parpal and Alastair Bland |
Beer, Wine, and Spirits

In 1980, a young tourist from Burgundy, vacationing in the Sonoma Valley with his family, visited Buena Vista Winery. The group bought several bottles, and, later at their hotel room, uncorked a Chardonnay. This, it would later turn out, marked the beginning of a new era in the history of the winery, and the Sonoma Valley itself. For this young traveler was none other than the great wine king Jean-Charles Boisset. He was just 11 at the time, yet already a Frenchman with taste, class, style, and a maturing appreciation of the grape. When his grandparents allowed Boisset a taste of that golden wine—the first Sonoma wine he tasted—its fruity, flowery flavors never left his palate. In 2011—more than 30 years later—Boisset returned to Buena Vista Winery, and he bought the place.

A year later, after a dramatic remodeling, visitors to Buena Vista Winery find that there is more to taste here than just wine, for the place is layered with history. After all, more than 150 grape harvests have come and gone since vintners first purpled their hands in the Sonoma Valley—and Buena Vista Winery has seen nearly every one of them. A regal castle-like estate ringed by gardens, vines, and giant oaks, it was founded by the Hungarian Count Agoston Haraszthy in the early dawn of California statehood in 1857. Grizzly bears still foraged for acorns in the Mayacamas Mountains in those days, and the best wine varietals of Europe were still just testing local soils while frontier farmers stood by, eagerly and uncertainly waiting.

But winemaking, of course, flourished in the North Bay—in the Sonoma Valley, the Carneros flatlands just to the south, the Russian River Valley just north, and the Napa Valley just a few miles east. By the 1870s, Buena Vista was winning international wine awards, and a century later, the region was becoming a major tourist destination. In buying the Buena Vista property, set on the northeast outskirts of the town of Sonoma, Boisset aimed to preserve both a piece of local history and a unique site of regional terroir. He also meant to deepen his own roots in the local culture. His family, in fact, already owned other local wine brands, including Raymond Winery in the Napa Valley, DeLoach Vineyards in the Russian River Valley, and JCB—Boisset’s own label that showcases unique wines in a metro-posh lounge and tasting room in downtown Healdsburg. Here, visitors may even meet Boisset himself—the dapper man with the polished shoes and the French bulldog at his side. Anything but a guard dog, Frenchie is the canine inspiration behind the doggie daycare center at Raymond Vineyards, where tourists traveling with their dogs can swirl and sip with their four-pawed companions by their side. The Boisset family’s presence in the region affirms a philosophy that Boisset himself has voiced at public events—that great oceans may keep the world’s people apart, while fine wines unite us.

In late 2011, Boisset launched a swift renovation to bring Buena Vista Winery up to modern earthquake-proof standards. Meanwhile, he preserved its priceless elements of history—like the ancient rafters that cross the ceilings, the walls of rough-edged stones cut by masons long gone, and the shadowy subterranean Champagne caves. Tours through these chambers may be arranged on request, allowing guests into wine cellars where no breeze has ever stirred the cool air, and where ancient barrels remain that once held some of the earliest vintages in California’s winemaking history.

At ground level, in the tasting room, elegance rules—with just a glimmering grin of Boisset’s vivacious style and his contagious joie de vivre. Chandeliers dangle overhead, dazzling if not quite chic. Sunlight glistens on the polished wood bar and beams. Scores of uncorked bottles bear the names of the Sonoma and Carneros valleys’ best vineyards. And the wines, well, they’re almost bottled poetry.

Speaking of Buena Vista's wines, there are a wealth to choose from—after touring the renovated estate, that is. Naturally, the newly revitalized Buena Vista Winery offers an array of wines reflective of the diversity and climate in and around Sonoma, but also of the Boisset quality of winemaking. Whether you try the top-tier Private Reserve or a sparkling white, you can practically taste the innovation from this well-sung vintner. Here are a few of the bottles that have made historic BV—and the legacy of Boisset—so rich indeed.

2008 The Count “Founder’s Red Wine”

Named for the pioneering founder of the winery, the Founder’s Red Wine is invigorating with bold aromas of berry and espresso, finishing with smooth flavors of plum and cardamom. $20

2009 Vinicultural Society “Sparking Brut”

From a collection of exclusive, small-production wines, this sparkling white wine blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes is crisp and refreshing, with layers of citrus, pear, and vanilla. $40

2009 Carneros “Pinot Noir”

Carneros wines are produced from hearty grapes grown in the windy, cold climates near the San Pablo Bay. These small-batch wines are characterized by vivid but balanced flavors; look for traits of black cherry and rose hips. $25