Nestled on a hillside on the eastern edge of the historic town of Sonoma, Bartholomew Park Winery serves up a rich blend of fine vintages and colorful history.
Once the home and vineyards of Hungarian immigrant Agoston Haraszthy — often referred to as "the father of California viticulture" — the property has gone through a number of reincarnations since Haraszthy left in 1868.
Over the years this place has served as a Victorian family estate, a resort, a delinquent women's farm, a community hospital, and, once again, vineyards and a winery.
Today, the rolling hills and fields are owned by a nonprofit foundation that operates it as a 375-acre private park open for public use, with Bartholomew Park Winery leasing land and buildings at the heart of the property for its boutique operation hand-crafting organically-farmed, single-vineyards wines available only at the winery.
Heading up the long driveway to the winery, surrounded by vineyards and gardens, the first sight you'll see is a magnificent white Palladian-style villa, a replica of the mansion Haraszthy built for his family in 1857. The original structure burned around the turn of the last century, and this re-creation wasn't built until 1987, to physically preserve the early era and way of life.
The Haraszthy Villa museum is open to the public from noon to 3 p.m. on weekends.
From the villa, follow the driveway on the right to the Spanish-style building that houses Bartholomew Park Winery. Sample wines and browse the gifts in the charming tasting room, then check out the wall of photographs by noted photographer and teacher Ron Zak. In 1994, Zak captured distinctive images of the highly independent and individualistic grape growers in Sonoma Valley.
From there, head down the hallway to the museum presenting the story of the land on which the winery sits — the story of the California wine industry in microcosm. The winery offers a variety of private experiences, including library tastings in parlor-like seating areas inside the museum, offering a chance to enjoy both the wines and the informative displays.
Although there are a few gaps in the chronology here and there, the exhibits give a good overview of the history of this land and the people on it. Haraszthy bought the property in 1857, and named it Buena Vista. In 1862, as California's state agricultural commissioner, he brought back European vine cuttings and viticulture techniques. He created the Buena Vista Viticultural Society as an agricultural corporation, but control of it was wrested from him in 1868, after the vineyards were struck by the Phylloxera grape disease.
Haraszthy departed for Nicaragua in 1868, and the corporation sold the property to Robert and Kate Johnson, who built an imposing three-story Victorian mansion that became known as the castle. In the 1900s, after the Johnsons' deaths, the place was opened as a resort for several years, but then fell into disuse again.
In the 1920s the State of California acquired the property and opened an industrial farm for women, housing the inmates in the castle. Soon after the farm opened, the castle burned down and the state built a Spanish-style building to house the residents. A scrapbook in the museum contains local newspaper clippings detailing various incidents that occurred during the prison farm era.
The state abandoned the prison farm in the 1930s, and the land lay unoccupied and dormant until it was sold at auction in 1943. The buyers were Frank Bartholomew, a journalist then serving as a war correspondent in the Pacific, and his wife Antonia Bartholomew. In the nearly 50 years that they owned the property, they gradually restored the land and buildings.
From 1945 to 1957 the Spanish-style building built by the state housed the Sonoma Valley Community Hospital. In 1968 the Bartholomews sold the Buena Vista Winery with the lower 65 acres, and in the 1970s they started the successful Hacienda Cellars on their remaining property.
Dedicated to preserving and protecting their beloved "ranch," the Bartholomews made arrangements so that after their deaths a nonprofit foundation would preserve it as a park, fostering the area's beauty and tranquility, and showcasing its winemaking history.
Today the Bartholomew Park Foundation maintains and preserves the property and rents the Spanish-style building to the Bartholomew Park Winery.
Next to the winery building, picnic grounds overlook the hillside vineyards and the replica Haraszthy Villa. Other picnic areas are available at the villa and in a garden setting that is known as the property's Gazebo Park.
Bartholomew Park Winery,1000 Vineyard Lane, Sonoma, 707-935-9511, tasting room open daily 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
To continue your historical exploration, check out the Wine Tool Museum tour and tasting at the nearby Buena Vista Winery (18000 Old Winery Road, Sonoma, 800-926-1266). Or if a picnic appeals, before heading out to the winery 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).
And while you're in town, there are lots of places to explore California history in Sonoma, from General Vallejo's home to the Mission San Francisco Solano, the Sonoma Barracks, and other sites in the Sonoma State Historic Park.
Written by Sonoma Insider Patricia Lynn Henley.