In the early 1900s, an area on the fringe of Los Angeles was the epicenter of the American winemaking industry. Known as the Cucamonga Valley, this region was one of the largest wine-growing areas on the entire planet. With more than 20,000 acres of vines spread across the region, which runs along the base of the San Gabriel Mountain range, the landmass was significantly larger than the entire borough of Manhattan. At its height, the region was home to ten major grape-growing areas.
But, for the majority of the past century, Rancho Cucamonga has been known for its shopping malls, industrial parks and low-quality jug wines more than anything else. Now, a winemaking renaissance is underway with well-respected vintners from Napa, Sonoma and the Central Coast producing high-quality wines from the area’s grapes, sourced from some of the earliest vineyards on the West Coast.
These esteemed winemakers include Abe Schoener (LA River Wine Company and Scholium Project), Rajat Parr (Phelan Farms, Sandhi and more), Carol Shelton (Carol Shelton Wines), Mikey and Gina Giugni (Scar of the Sea) and others. Their wines made with Cucamonga grapes have garnered high praise within the industry, a key piece in the growing movement to restore Southern California’s winemaking heritage.
Why Winemakers Are Drawn to the Region
Though there are other pockets of old vines spread throughout the Southland, the Cucamonga Valley vineyards that sit alongside interstates and suburban industrial parks are certainly some of the most historic and unique.
“I was initially attracted to Cucamonga because of the historical significance of the vineyards, its proximity to Los Angeles and its historic wine industry,” says Schoener, who admits that those factors do not correlate to the actual quality of the grapes. But the grapes are, indeed, notable. “Because of the age of the vines and the growing conditions, the quality of the grapes is at least as high as the best vineyards I’ve worked with in California.”
“What is so fascinating, and also important, is that they’re using these grapes that were literally abandoned in some cases,” adds Zach Negin, owner of Tabula Rasa Bar in Hollywood. “There’s so much thought and care being put into this process.”
But the increase in desire for these grapes is not so simple, and those running the vineyards are at risk of losing their land. Many of the vines, planted more than a century ago by newly arrived immigrants, are today in danger of being replaced by industrial parks.
A Brief History
To understand the region’s modern appeal and struggles, a history lesson is warranted. Commercial wine production in the Cucamonga Valley started in the 1850s, but didn’t really take off until the early 1900s. Secondi Guasti, an immigrant from Piedmont, Italy, founded one of the largest and most renowned vineyards in the region. His Italian Vineyard Company controlled around 5,000 acres of vines that stretched between the cities of Ontario and Fontana—which, at the time, made it one of the largest wineries on the planet. Today, just two wineries and less than 400 planted acres remain in the entire Cucamonga region.
Today, Domenic Galleano, whose family began working the land four generations ago, farms about 96% of the existing vines still rooted in the Cucamonga Valley. Though he has no intention of going anywhere, Galleano is already awaiting the day he can get his three-year-old son on a tractor. Unfortunately, the vineyards not under his control are endangered by forces of development.
Galleano’s great-grandparents, Domenico and Lucia, arrived in the Cucamonga Valley from Magliano Alpi in northern Italy via Ellis Island and Mexico in 1918. Shortly after landing in California, the couple purchased the 300-acre Bonita Ranch located in the Chino-Ontario area with another family.
A decade or so later, at the height of Prohibition, they acquired another 180 acres in what was called Wineville (now Mira Loma) from Esteban Cantú, a colonel in the Mexican Army, territorial governor of Baja California Norte and onetime ally of Pancho Villa.
These days, the family still farms, makes wine and resides on the Cantu-Galleano Winery. There is also a tasting room and other hospitality elements open to the general public. Because of its deep roots and significance, the ranch earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.
But the remaining 320 acres of vineyard Galleano still farms are somewhat scattered today. One, Lopez, which is cut in two by a street and boasts mostly Zinfandel and Palomino, is clearly visible from both the 210 and 15 interstates.
“We’re really trying to hold steady,” Galleano says. “We’re constantly battling encroachment: the property value is so high and there’s such a high demand for it.”
Cucamonga’s Modern Appeal
Though industrial parks are far more common in the valley than vineyards these days, there’s still a high demand for grapes. Most of Galleano’s grapes and wines are sold into commercial production across the state, from Temecula, Buellton and Paso Robles, all the way up to Napa. (Galleano has been increasing his own production of smaller lot wines, too.)
The grapes are less expensive than those from Napa Valley and parts of Sonoma. However, the fruit certainly isn’t cheap. In fact, many winemakers like Schoener still buy grapes from other regions that cost significantly less than what he gets from Galleano and other Cucamonga Valley vineyards.
So why buy fruit that’s so expensive? The historical significance is a huge draw, obviously, but that’s not the only reason these well-respected winemakers are snatching up as much of this fruit as possible.
Due to the dry climate, Galleano’s vineyards have been certified organic for more than two decades, which falls in line with low-intervention techniques and philosophy favored by winemakers like Schoener, Parr and the Giugnis. In comparison, many northern vineyards don’t have the same ease when it comes to growing organic.
Additionally, the dry-farmed vines that grow a mix of Zinfandel, Palomino, Alicante Bouschet, Mission, Muscat and Rosa del Peru are own-rooted rather than grafted onto the rootstock of vines resistant to phylloxera (the insect that decimated vineyards across the globe in the late 19th century). Though the louse had been wreaking havoc well before these vines were planted, it was never an issue in the region because of its unique terroir.
The Cucamonga Valley lies in a big alluvial plane with sandy-loam soil that allows water to disperse quickly and deeply into the deep bedrock that holds it in place. Because the water from which the roots draw nourishment is so far beneath the surface, the infamous louse cannot easily take root.
Even the region’s other historic vineyards, which aren’t certified organic and haven’t been as well maintained as Galleano’s, don’t have the same pest pressures as other many other wine regions in California and Europe. All are dry-farmed and none are sprayed. Plus, the hot-summer Mediterranean climate is ideal for hardy varietals that were brought over by 19th and 20th-century immigrants from Italy, Spain, Portugal and Croatia, who carried their winemaking traditions to the New World.
Looking to the Future
The vintners working with these old vines feel that connection to the past as well as the weight of honoring, not just the people who laid down those roots, but the fruit itself, which has withstood disease, drought and the ever-growing pressure of development.
James Beard Award-winning sommelier and winemaker Rajat Parr, who emigrated to the United States to attend the Culinary Institute of America, feels privileged for the opportunity to preserve this history and physically connect these storied grounds while he can.
“There’s something about the density of the wine, the concentration in the grapes and the vines themselves—it’s delicious,” he says. “And there’s something very special about being able to make wine from these old vineyards that could easily have been taken out for a house or a freeway.”