Cucamonga-Guasti Wine District by Gino L. Filippi April 2009
Cucamonga-Guasti wine historian Reno J. Morra can recall when the scenery in our valley was nothing short of majestic – reminiscent of Italy’s Piedmont region that his parents and other countrymen and women left behind. They immigrated to towns named Cucamonga, Etiwanda, Fontana, Grapeland, Guasti and Mira Loma filled with hope and desire for a better life in a new wine country, and a desire for their children to become Americans.
“My parents arrived in Guasti in 1934, and they lived and worked there for 17 years. My father as a foreman for Mr. Guasti’s Italian Vineyard Company, my mother helped with bottling,” said Reno of Alta Loma. “Before I was drafted, I worked summers for the winery’s machinist Vic Danzo, building and repairing cellar and vineyard equipment. We enjoyed life in Guasti very much.”
Cucamonga Valley (CV) viticulture history is as complex as the old head-trained Mission, Grenache, Mourvèdre and Zinfandel grapevines that dominated the landscape for more than 150 years. From the cool rocky foothill terraces, to the warm sandy valley floor, Cucamonga’s terroir provided natural springs, ideal drainage and growing conditions for Old World varieties.
“If the founding vintners of the CV could have looked into a crystal ball to see the future of winemaking, they probably would have noted with irony the fact that they had become victims of their own success,” wrote Rob Leicester Wagner in “Sleeping Giant,” the 2004 illustrated history of the Inland Empire.
The valley’s first plantings were made in 1838 at the Cucamonga Rancho by land grantee Tiburcio Tapia. In 1859, John Rains began large vine plantings, starting a revolution by introducing 175,000 vine bearing grapes to his 320 acres, replacing cattle and sheep.
Much of CV’s vintage prosperity is owed to Secondo Guasti (1859-1927), who founded the Italian Vineyard Co. (IVC) in 1883, and built it into a gigantic wine enterprise. In 1917, Guasti was advertising IVC’s vineyard – 5,000 contiguous vine to vine acres – as the “Largest in the World.”
“The first time I laid eyes on my wife, I knew I would never behold a more beautiful sight until I stood on the crest of the Cucamonga Valley,” Guasti once said. “Surely, I thought, this is heaven’s doorstep.” The valley was not much more than a patch of desert, but he observed that the winter floods raging down the mountainside flowed only as far as the valley floor. There would be enough moisture to sustain vines.
The Sainsevain brothers – Pierre and Jean Louis were instrumental in Southern California winemaking well before the arrival of Secondo Guasti and other Italian and French vintners who developed the Inland Valley wine industry at the start of the 20th century.
Jean Louis became winery superintendent on the holdings of the original Rancho Cucamonga, whose grapes were planted in 1839 near today’s Foothill Boulevard and Vineyard Avenue. Pierre imported grape cuttings from France and planted a number of new varieties.
“A very superior article of wine grown in San Bernardino County is now on the market and is attracting considerable attention … from consumers of the juices of the grape,” praised the San Francisco Times in 1869 about the brothers’ wines. “It is known as Cocomun- go, or California Madeira wine, and is pronounced by competent judges to be as fine an article as manufactured in the world.”
“Obviously the region’s early wine pioneers fully understood its terroir. Selections of French Rhone varietals including Grenache, Mourvèdre, Carignane, Cinsault and the white grape Monbadon were planted widely. Zinfandel was one of the main cultivars owing to its popularity in California at that time,” said Jon McPherson Winemaster at South Coast Winery in nearby Temecula Valley wine region.
Traditional head-training was selected, not a wire trellis, but rather trained to a vertical trunk, with or without a wood stake support. Etiwanda table grape growers included George F. Johnston who was instrumental in developing the Thompson Seedless grape with partner William Thompson. Johnston perfected “girdling” – the removing of a strip of trunk down to the wood of the vine at bloom to increase berry size and set more heavily. Girdling within two to three weeks of ripening can also speed up ripening.
Nearly all area vineyards were planted on a square grid.
CV’s oldest vines are low yielding and not irrigated, yet still produce incredible fruit. By 1919, CV vines spanned over 20,000 acres, more than in Sonoma and twice as many as Napa County as wartime Prohibition was enacted. The Volstead National Prohibition Act and the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (1920), forbade the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors.”
Since each “head of household” was permitted to make 200 gallons, CV grown red grapes, primarily Zinfandel, was the choice for home winemakers. Zin’s thick skin and high natural sugar levels proved ideal and the wood-boxed clusters shipped well.
The alcohol ban ended in December 1933 and left a legacy of distorting the role of wine in American life, ruining a fledgling world-class industry. It took decades for hard-working vintners to overcome the damage. When repealed, only 140 wineries remained in operation statewide.
Rains, Guasti and a few others were instrumental in establishing productive vineyards beyond the confines of Los Angeles, but it was a new crop of immigrants and their offspring that brought post-Prohibition winemaking to a fine art. Like California, CV boomed with startup family operations including Accomazzo, Aggazzotti, Campanella, Cherpin, DiCarlo, Ellena, A. Filippi, J. Filippi, Galleano, Guidera, Liabeuf, Masi, Opici and Romolo.
Hundreds of post-Prohibition wineries statewide deserve credit for helping revive California’s wine industry. Even the mighty Gallo family once operated a large modern CV winery. The Vaché/Biane family operation had been a part if the Inland Empire landscape long before Prohibition, but had been eclipsed by Guasti. Philo Biane and family would grow their Brookside Vineyard Company in Guasti into one of the state’s largest. The Bianes also expanded to Temecula, making the first large plantings from 1967 to ’71 for many wineries, including Callaway, Cilurzo, Mount Palomar (Poole).
Reno’s summertime flight in the ‘40s over the vast vineyards and citrus groves in an authentic U.S. Air Force training plane is noteworthy. “As we flew above, thousands of acres of lush green vines filled the valley floor. It was the most beautiful sight my eyes had ever seen in my life. We followed the foothills from east to west and circled around south of the airport. My only wish was for others to have seen the view. If only I had a camera.”
By 1939, CV was home to 41 bonded wineries, 13 brandy distilleries and a storage and fermentation capacity of more than 13 million gallons of wine. By the mid ‘40s our east/west oriented valley region hosted more than 60 wineries and approx. 40,000 acres of vines. By the ‘60s, California was generally known for its large productions of sweeter fortified port-style and hearty red wines sold in gallon jugs, and CV was no different.
Educated winemakers soon emerged and directed a renaissance with a focus on new technologies and quality. “The advent of technology and science-backed winemaking practices eroded away the old-school approaches that were so prevalent from the ‘40s to the ‘60s,” said McPherson.
In 1968, CV accounted for 98 percent of the 47.5 million bottles produced in the Southern California wine district, which included the counties of Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego and Santa Barbara. In 1995, only 2,000 acres were farmed, with 5 bonded wineries in operation.
I remember visiting with Champagne Master Primo Scorsatto. He stated that in the ‘50s and ‘60s, CV led the country in domestic sparkling wine production. Scorsatto worked at the Vai Brothers Winery on 8th Street – also the former home of Padre Winery, Cucamonga Vineyard Company, and the Pierre Biane Winery today.
Thousands of men and women nurtured the vines for more than a century. Family growers included Belletrutti, Bruno, Carrari, Cherbak, DeAmbrogio, DeBerard, DeVito, Johnston, Lopez, Mandala, Merrille, Modica, Sanchez and Vernola. As the quality of California wines improved, the state received international attention. Unfortunately, CV would be overshadowed by the vintners in the north. Consumer tastes matured and favored less sweet wines.
Ever-increasing land values resulted in vineyard owners either having to plant varieties more in demand, or selling their vineyards. CV was officially approved as an American Viticultural Area (AVA) in 1995 by the U.S. Department of Treasury as a result of a petition written and filed by Gino L. Filippi on behalf of area growers and vintners. This law enables producers to utilize “Cucamonga Valley” on wine labels containing not less than 75% of the volume of the wine derived from grapes grown here.
In the past 15 years, local vintners have made significant investment in vineyard revitalization and new plantings, namely Biane-Tibbetts (Rancho de Philo), Filippi, Galleano and Paul Hofer, III – whose family has farmed the CV since 1882 at Hofer Ranch Ontario. Newcomers include the Brandt Family Winery and The Wine Tailor, plus a cluster of home winemakers, Dana Chandler of Upland, Ron Mittino of Claremont, Chris Capalbo and George Walker of Rancho Cucamonga.
Highly skilled and respected enologists have demonstrated that premium quality wines can be achieved consistently from CV, including Etienne Cowper and Jon McPherson in Temecula, Daryl Groom of Australia, Marc Lurton of Bordeaux, Carol Shelton in Healdsburg and Steve Felton in Paso Robles.
4th generation grower/winemaker Don Galleano assists vintners statewide sourcing CV fruit for their productions, including Callaway, Carol Shelton, Firestone, Norman Vineyards and South Coast. The Galleano Winery in Mira Loma is Riverside County’s oldest winery, and in 1993 it was designated as a County Historical Landmark and a State of California Point of Historical Interest. In 2003 it was named to the National Register of Historic Places and the California Register of Historic Places.
Two most impressive vintage collaborations involved overseas winemakers Groom of Australia and Lurton of France. Both brought new attitudes, approach, and reputations for fine winemaking.
Geyser Peak Winery’s Cucamonga Valley DeAmbrogio Ranch Zinfandel was farmed by Galleano Winery and produced by Groom at Geyser Peak. The vintages remain the highest ever rated Zins from CV.
“Upon first view of the small bush-like vines, and the sandy soils, I fell in love with them. The wine was rich, dark and jammy with a distinct character I called, ‘Cucamonga character’ – a sort of earthy and warm character. I think our first release earned a 92 point score from Wine Spectator. It was that Cucamonga site which inspired me to plant zinfandel,” said Groom who grew up in Adelaide Australia and is perhaps best known for his many years at Geyser Peak – a world-class producer.
“I knew that with Don’s vast experience and intimate knowledge of the Cucamonga vineyards and the passion we both shared with the true value of the grapes, we could make it happen. It was very gratifying. The wine we made was truly great.
“It was an awesome experience for a native Australian to be able to get the time I did working with grapes from one of the USA’s most historic grape growing regions. And not any grapes, these were planted by pioneers at the turn of the 19th century,” said Groom, who resides in Healdsburg.
The DeAmbrogio Ranch was located along Haven Avenue, west of the RC Civic Center. The vines are gone other than those few that were grown from cuttings by caring historians at Cal Poly Pomona University.
Bordeaux Enologist Marc Lurton and Gino L. Filippi created the Deux Mondes “Two Worlds” Reserve label at J. Filippi. The 2003 vintage – a unique Bordeaux-style blend from Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, with Syrah and Petite Sirah, all grown in Etiwanda and aged for 12 months in French and American oak barrels. The 2004 was the first ultra-premium blend of Bordeaux Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot with CV Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah, Syrah, Cabernet Franc and Zinfandel.
“During the 10 years I worked at the Filippi Winery I have seen the high potential of the valley. CV Cabernet is never going to be as good as Napa Valley, but can we create blends that no one else can match,” said Lurton of Deux Mondes. “We proved a premium wine from the valley was possible.”
“The valley guards many layers of complexity that can be greatly and harmoniously achieved by considering the different characteristics of the grapes associated with its terroir,” said Enologist Christian Perez of Chile, a former Filippi and Rancho de Philo cellar assistant.
The value of CV goes beyond the quality of its vines, as the region is also home to a tradition of unique fortified wines, including the world-class Triple Cream Sherry crafted by Janine Biane-Tibbetts at Rancho de Philo in Alta Loma.
CV’s viticulture heritage has been embraced by the City of Rancho Cucamonga, City of Ontario, City of Fontana, Cal Poly Pomona University, Chaffey College, San Bernardino County Museum, The Cooper Regional History Museum, the Cucamonga Valley Viticultural Conservancy and others. “The City of Rancho Cucamonga never lost heart for its agriculture heritage,” said former Rancho Cucamonga City Planner Brad Buller. “But it takes more than city hall. It takes heart; it takes vision; it takes somebody like Gino and Joey to be a catalyst for the community.”
Thomas Pinney, professor emeritus of English at Pomona College, who authored “A History of Wine in America: From the Beginnings to Prohibition” (1989) and “From Prohibition to the Present” (2005), references “Cucamonga” and its important role. “Curiously enough, Cucamonga old vines Zinfandel now enjoy a prestige value such as it never had before; but one wonders how secure a tenure on life those old vines can have. The belated discovery of the outstanding quality of Cucamonga Zinfandel, just as it hovered on the verge of extinction, is one of those bitter ironies of which all history is full,” wrote Pinney in 2005.
“I think Daryl Groom hit on one of the main reasons that the Cucamonga Valley Viticultural Conservancy was created. He has stated what all of us who live here have seen. Namely, that so much of this great and historic wine region has been lost to development. It is through the CVVC that we can educate the residents of the Cucamonga Valley in order to preserve what remains of the original vines and culture,” said Dr. Mark E. Comunale, President CVVC.
©2009 Gino L. Filippi – Off the Vine
Gino can be reached at Ginoffvine@aol.com