Vallejo (Val) Haraszthy, founder and winemaker at Sonoma’s Haraszthy Family Cellars, will spend the better part of this year driving a 1951 Willys Jeep around the country. He pulls behind him a trailer with Weber grills and spends his days meeting with—and cooking for—the distributors and retailers throughout the country that sell his wines, racking up thousands of miles along the way.
Compared to those who use airplanes and rental cars to sell their wines, this may sound like a tough journey. Yet, as he is quick to point out, it’s actually a piece of cake compared to the pilgrimage made by his great-great-grandfather, Agoston Haraszthy. A Hungarian immigrant who arrived in America in the 1840s, Agoston packed his large family into a wagon and headed to California on the Santa Fe Trail via the treacherous Donner Pass. “He came west in one type of wagon, and I’m heading east in a different type of wagon,” says Haraszthy. In fact, it’s Agoston’s story that Val Haraszthy is traversing the country to tell. Agoston (in addition to becoming the first sheriff of San Diego) founded California’s first commercial winery—Buena Vista, which still operates in Sonoma. The reason he is called the “Father of the California Wine Industry,” however, is because he introduced European grape varieties (vitis vinifera) to replace the humble Mission grape that had been used for California’s wine production. Accepting a commission from the governor, Haraszthy went to Europe and collected thousands of vine cuttings and planted them in California, kickstarting the wine industry as we know it. But wait—the story of Haraszthy’s inherited legacy gets even better: Agoston became friends with General Mariano Vallejo, the last of Mexican governors of Northern California and the founder of Sonoma in 1834 (and a winemaker himself). Vallejo was captured in 1946 by Sonoma settlers who wanted the territory for themselves. (“A high energy group of local settlers who lowered the Mexican flag and hoisted a badly-drawn bear flag and declared the Republic of California—the state’s flag to this day,” explains Haraszthy). Vallejo was lucky to survive, and two of his daughters later married two of Agoston Haraszthy’s sons, creating a multi-family wine dynasty.
A Zinfandel Specialist Comes Full Circle
A fifth-generation Sonoma native, Val Haraszthy took a job in 1972 as a cellar rat at Buena Vista, the very estate founded by his great-great-grandfather. After years honing his skills, he founded Haraszthy Family Cellars in 2006, dedicated primarily to the production of California’s signature grape, Zinfandel. “Zinfandel is so expressive of the place where it grows—it changes so much from one place to another,” says Haraszthy on why he loves the variety. He makes wine from the three most important California regions for Zinfandel: Sonoma Valley, Lodi and Amador County. “Each has a different spice rack flavor profile driven by clonal selection and the site itself—the soil, the sun, the wind and dirt,” he notes.
But wine is about more than simply what’s in the bottle; it’s the individuals, the stories, the connections. “This is a people-driven business,” says Haraszthy. “When I was developing this company, I would stop by stores and restaurants and really try to make a connection with the people selling my wine. But I have 40 distributors nationally and haven’t met 90% of them. I wanted to find a way to broaden my reach in a really authentic way that would make an impact—without rental cars and business suits. So, I got the Willys Jeep and a BBQ wagon.” Haraszthy isn’t attempting rarified gourmet cuisine (although his BBQ spice rub is a highly coveted secret recipe). “I grill some pork loins, cook some beans and slaw and we sit outside and get to know one another, and I tell them the story of my family. It’s very simple, but it resonates in a memorable way and the reaction has been incredible.” His inspiration was one part “the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile of my childhood” and one part “Wishbone, the cantankerous old cook on the [1960s] television show Rawhide. He would cook hearty trail food and always had your back when any trouble came along. I named my trailer after him.” When Haraszthy wraps up the final leg of his American tour—finishing in New York and then taking a month to drive back to California via Michigan, Texas and the Southwest—he will have covered more than 12,000 miles. It’s not too early to call the tour a success: Haraszthy has tripled sales in many markets (“We’re at 25,000 cases this year but are confident that we will be a 100,000 case brand in a few years,” he predicts.) Some things are just better the oldfashioned way, says Fred Franzia, CEO of Bronco Wine Company, the exclusive national distributor for Haraszthy Family Cellars: “When I was younger, we would sit in meetings with Ernest Gallo or Robert Mondavi or Louis Martini. Now you go to those same meetings and everyone’s a lawyer or a public relations guy. Val is a dinosaur—he’s a throwback with a real family and a real history.”
FROM THE JULY 2016 ISSUE OF BEVERAGE MEDIA
Vallejo "Val" Haraszthy
Making the Connection – Pioneer Partnering with Wine Distributors – Haraszthy Family Cellars, Willy’s Wagon and BBQ
After 9 years in business together, Vallejo (Val) Haraszthy and Bronco Wine Company’s Franzia family are planning for a breakout sales year in 2016 with Haraszthy Family Cellars. Both parties share the idea that hitting aggressive sales goals requires an equally hard-working effective plan driving it forward - a plan with clear concise achievable aims. This year their plan is definitely different. By normal standards, perhaps even a little bit crazy. And that is precisely why it should work so well.
“Our ultimate Haraszthy Family Cellars target sales goal is 100,000 cases per year. Val’s brand is strongly positioned to get there and is headed straight for it,” says Bronco Wine Company’s CEO, Fred T. Franzia. He adds, “It’s just a matter of time and Val’s direct sales involvement this year will narrow that time down.” Bronco Wine Company represents Haraszthy Family Cellars wines nationally in over 40 states.
Mr. Franzia continues. “Their family wine history is legendary – Val’s renowned ancestors, General Mariano Vallejo and Agoston Haraszthy contribution to the founding of the California wine business are very well respected in our industry. Val is a good 5th generation California winemaker but he’s an even better ambassador for California wines and his brand. He teams up well with his distributors and the trade. He really enjoys making his wines but I think he loves selling them more.” The Haraszthy brand was up 64% last year and is growing their production to slightly over 25,000 cases in 2016.
Haraszthy’s two new BEARITAGE wines consist of a 2013 Lodi Red Blend – Zinfandel (50%), Syrah (35%), Petite Syrah (15%) and a stainless steel fermented non-oaked 2015 Lodi Sauvignon Blanc (100%). Haraszthy also makes a very popular Lodi Old Vine Zinfandel and Amador County Zinfandel. He will soon be releasing his 2013 Sonoma County Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel and his first reserve Zinfandel – 2013 Sonoma Valley, Indian Spring Ranch Zinfandel. Much admired Sonoma Valley grape grower, 94-year-old George MacLeod farms these ultra high quality Zinfandel grapes. A limited production of 198 cases was produced.
“I want to build personal connections - create a stronger bond and friendship with my distributor partners in the 40 states currently selling my wines,” says owner / winemaker Val Haraszthy. “Most distributor’s upper level managers responsible for executing my sales really don’t know me at all. They don’t know that much about my wines and I don’t know them very well either. It’s almost like were doing well selling wine together by accident. Imagine what could happen if they really got behind us. That’s the change we want to make this year. We’ve got really good wines, an interesting story, and super high value pricing. We need to highlight and underscore this and support each of our distributor’s efforts.”
Val is driving on four separate road tours in 2016 across America in his BEARITAGE 1951 Willy’s Overland Wagon along with his BBQ trailer, Wishbone, in tow. He’ll cover about 12,000 miles.
“It’s pretty basic stuff,” says Haraszthy. “We’re going to enjoy Haraszthy wines with BBQ cooking. Food always brings people closer together. Zinfandel and BBQ is the perfect food and wine pairing. We’re going to get to know our distributors outside the box. And not in their office, but in their parking lot with wine and BBQ tailgate. To me, that is creating the condition, the best environment to discuss how we can grow our sales together. This road trip will be memorable, productive and a lot of fun. Let the other winery guys arrive in rental cars and suits. They can meet their distributors in a partitioned cubicle if they want. Seriously, I’m real fortunate and blessed to be able to do this.”
There is genuine enthusiasm emitting now and Haraszthy seems pumped. “I’m putting a lot more miles on my wagon than Agoston ever put on his,” Val says, smirking. He is referring to his great-great grandfather. Agoston Haraszthy who came to California in 1848 in a covered wagon journey along the Santa Fe Trail ending in San Diego. “Of course, he only had four-ox power and I’ve got much much more! He put his entire family’s life on the line just to get here. The worst thing that can happen to me is I’ll have to call AAA roadside assistance on my cell phone. Agoston headed west and now I’m headed east. Maybe it’s the Hungarian gypsy DNA.” Follow Val’s “Give Them the Willy’s” wine sales road trip. Make a connection with Haraszthy, the Willy’s Wine Wagon and Wishbone on Instagram @ HFCZIN.