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After a decade, time-traveling ‘The Count’ retires from Sonoma’s Buena Vista Winery

For a decade, George Webber clocked in to work at Sonoma’s Buena Vista Winery as a time traveler. He donned a black top hat and Victorian-era attire to act as the winery’s ambassador and portray its founder, Count Agoston Haraszthy, the Hungarian immigrant who in 1857 started Buena Vista, California’s first commercial winery.

But Webber, 67, retired last week from playing the Count, who had the tragic fate of falling into a crocodile-infested river in the jungles of Nicaragua in 1869.

“I killed myself by crocodile five times a day for 10 years,” Webber said with a wry smile. “It gets tiring.”

Sitting at Sonoma’s Basque Boulangerie Café recently, drinking a cappuccino, Webber was fully costumed as he talked about his 40-hour-a-week position as brand ambassador of Buena Vista.

The charismatic historian handled social media, led tours at the winery and hosted winery dinners across the country for Buena Vista.

“Most winery dinners are boring, but mine were theatrical and I would surf the inebriated of the crowd,” Webber said. “I would give the technical details about the wine and then its story in bite-sized pieces. I’d even sing to the crowd.”

Webber pointed up First Street East and said, “just about 80 feet from here is where I got hired to be the Count.”

In 2011, in a twist of fate, Buena Vista owner Jean-Charles Boisset was walking north on the street with real estate agent Ryan Snow. He had just asked Snow if the actor who did the walking tours on the Sonoma Plaza was any good. Having just bought the winery, Boisset was looking for someone to play the Count. Right then Webber, who had just finished a tour, was walking south on the street. They literally crossed paths.

“Ryan saw me in my period costume and he said, ‘You can ask him yourself because here he is,’” Webber said. “Jean-Charles looked at me up and down like I was a living apparition and he said, ‘I want to hire you to be the Count.’”

What was most compelling about Haraszthy, Webber said, was his relentless ambition.

“He had the ability to convince others to give him money to make his dreams come true,” Webber said. “He really wanted America, his newly adopted country, to make wine as well or even better than Europe.”

Of course, the Count also embellished facts, Webber conceded.

“When he arrived in Wisconsin in 1842, he started calling himself a Count,” Webber said. “He was of nobility and his ancestors received land from the king. They had serfs and farmed thousands of acres, but did his level of nobility reach the level of a Count? No.”

Webber said he’s retiring on schedule since he planned for a 10-year run with the role. The winery hasn’t decided yet if it will replace him.

At ease in the spotlight, Webber is planning an active retirement; he’s not storing his Victorian wares in the attic just yet. This past weekend, he revived his walking tours on the Sonoma Plaza. At 10 a.m. from Friday through Monday, the actor and historian will give 90-minute tours beginning at the Bear Flag Monument in the Plaza.

Webber looked at the Plaza across the street and smiled.

“The Plaza is my office, and I’m excited to get started,” he joked.

His tours will cover other well-known figures of Sonoma’s past, such as Mark Twain, who lived in San Francisco from 1864 to 1866; William Tecumseh Sherman, the former commanding general of the U.S. Army who lived in Sonoma in 1850; and General Mariano Vallejo, who founded the town of Sonoma in 1835.

Webber is well aware that General Vallejo has his critics. It’s acknowledged that when Vallejo had 35 cows go missing, he ordered 35 Native Americans indiscriminately rounded up and shot.

“I’m not afraid to play General Vallejo,” Webber said. “I can discuss anything and will be happy to talk about problematic aspects of the general.”

History is complicated, Webber said. Whether tragic or uplifting, it’s always worth talking about.

“I love meeting with fellow history lovers,” he said. “Sharing my knowledge with them is very meaningful.”

Wine writer Peg Melnik can be reached at peg.melnik@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5310.

Peg Melnik

Wine, The Press Democrat

Northern California is cradled in vines; it’s Wine County at its best in America. My job is to help you make the most of this intriguing, agrarian patch of civilization by inviting you to partake in the wine culture – the events, the bottlings and the fun. This is a space to explore wine, what you care about or don’t know about yet.

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