Displayed artistically and presented theatrically with lights, movement, and a dramatic recorded narration, more-than-a-century-old handcrafted tools are the stars of the show at the new Wine Tool Museum at Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma.
Suspended from chains in neat rows and looking a great deal like medieval battle axes or torture devices, long-handled pomace cutters glide smoothly across the face of the ancient stone wall at the far end of the large hall. Each cutter is unique, crafted by a tool maker in the late 1800s to fit the needs of a particular winemaker or winery worker dealing with the solid remains of grapes (the pomace) left in the bottom of a wine press.
To the left of the wall of pomace cutters, an even longer wall holds picks, plow blades, pruning knives, shears, picking boxes and baskets, and small wine presses, effectively illustrating the tools and effort needed to take grapes from planting to harvesting and pressing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
On the long wall to the right of the pomace cutters, displays illustrate the labor-intensive barrel-making process with tools used to cut down trees, hand shape the staves, and form and toast the barrel. Next to that is an artful display of barrel spigots, some of which are reportedly gold plated.
"The exhibit is a performance — a dramatic dance of the tools, with lighting, special effects, and movement," said Buena Vista owner Jean-Charles Boisset. "It is designed for guests to discover and experience the world of wine and the rich history of California winemaking."
These rare and authentic 19th and 20th century viticulture tools are part of a larger collection housed in Burgundy, France. A few of the pieces are from the Boisset family, but most came from the collection of Phillippe Bérard, who accumulated thousands of antique tools from wine regions in France and throughout Europe.
The tools displayed in the museum represent state-of-the-art viticulture in Europe and the United States in the late 1800s, when Buena Vista Winery founder Count Argoston Haraszthy brought European grapes and wine techniques to California.
Housed on the third floor of Buena Vista's restored Champagne Cellars (and accessible via an elevator), the new Wine Tool Museum represents the latest step in Boisset's efforts revitalize the historic Buena Vista Winery. Founded by Hungarian immigrant Haraszthy in 1857, Buena Vista was California's first premium winery.
Since buying Buena Vista in 2011, Boisset has overseen extensive updating — including seismically retrofitting the winery's cellars and caves — with a goal toward preserving and presenting the historic facilities in an engaging and entertaining manner.
Walking up the winery's driveway from the parking lot, on the right you'll now find history hill, where signs describe the contributions of various historic figures that dot the sloping landscape. On the left is a maze of hedges, creating a circuitous path that leads to seating areas and signs that describe events in Count Haraszthy's life. The extensive work on the winery grounds also includes a heritage garden, highlighting four time periods in Sonoma's horticultural history: Native California, Spanish Missions and Mexican Ranchos, the Gold Rush, and early statehood.
Access to the Wine Tool Museum is available only through a guided tour and wine tasting, although museum-only tours are available. The tour starts with tastes of two wines in the tasting room. Guests are then led to the Champagne Cellar building. There's an elevator for handicapped access to the third-floor museum, but those who climb the stairs will be rewarded with views of Boisset's collection of antique glass wine decanters, ensconced in gorgeous lighted cabinets that stretch from the bottom of the first floor to the third-story ceiling.
The effect is dramatic as guests stroll into the large, stone-walled room that houses the tool museum. In addition to the striking tool displays along its walls, the center of the room holds a long banquet table with white tablecloths, candelabra, and mannequins posed to recall the "Wedding of the Century" in the Sonoma Valley, when two of Count Haraszthy's sons married two of Gen. Mariano Vallejo's daughters.
Tastes of a third wine are poured and, after a short discussion, the lights are dimmed and the show begins. The 20-minute audio-visual program guides visitors through the history of grape growing, winemaking, the Buena Vista, and Count Haraszthy, with the voice of actor George Webber as the count.
When the lights come up, tastes of the fourth wine are poured, allowing guests time to examine the tools while discussing the vintage. Then it's back to the tasting room for the last of the five wine tastings included with the tour.
Museum tours are offered daily by appointment at 11 a.m., 1 p.m., and 3 p.m. Other experiences available at the winery include a "Be the Count" wine-blending experience, private tastings, barrel tastings, winery tours, and beautiful picnic areas. Please call ahead to make a reservation: 800-926-1266.
And there's lots more of historic significance to see and do in the area. Count Haraszthy's legacy is also on display at Bartholomew Park Winery, (1000 Vineyard Lane, at the end of Castle Road, Sonoma, 707-935-9511), on property adjacent to the Buena Vista.
Originally the Buena Vista and Bartholomew Park lands were all one property, owned by Haraszthy. Today, a free, self-guided museum just off the Bartholomew Park tasting room provides fascinating insights into the property's intriguing past. Haraszthy built a villa for his family on the Bartholomew Park hillside, but years later it was destroyed by fire. A re-creation of the Haraszthy Villa was built in 1988, to preserve that early way of life, and is open as a museum on weekends from noon to 3 p.m.
Behind the Bartholomew Park Winery you'll find a fairly rigorous three-mile trail that passes a small lake and offers wonderful views from the top. And both the Buena Vista and Bartholomew Park wineries include beautiful picnic grounds where guests can relax and enjoy the countryside. Before you drive up to the wineries, you can pick up sandwiches, barbecue, and more at Vineburg Deli (997 Napa Road, Sonoma, 707-938-3306) or Broadway Market (20511 Broadway, Sonoma, 707-938-2685).
Written by Sonoma Insider Patricia Lynn Henley.
Photos from the Wine Tool Museum at Buena Vista Winery by Drew Kelly.