More than a half century ago, our beautiful Cucamonga Valley was home to more than 50 wineries, most of them family owned and operated, each producing unique wines that reflected subtle differences in soil, sun and vintners’ craft.
Most have been plowed under and left to memory, but a few of the historic vintage structures have stood the test of time, including the Thomas Vineyards Winery at the intersection of Vineyard/Carnelian at Foothill Boulevard along historic Route 66, in Rancho Cucamonga.
The original Cucamonga Rancho dates back to 1839 when the Mexico’s acting Governor Juan Batista Alvarado of Alta California granted approximately 12,000 acres of land to Don Tiburcio Tapia of Los Angeles. A small vineyard was planted and a winery was built from adobe. In 1859, John Rains would set out 125,000 grapevines replacing sheep and cattle ranching.
H. H. and Ida E. Thomas purchased the winery in 1920, and in 1967 my family bought the business and property from brothers Clifford and Webb Thomas. Identified as California historic Landmark No. 490, the winery serves as a reminder of a lost era when the Cucamonga Valley was the heart of California winemaking. Despite the legacy of “California’s Oldest,” history has not been kind to the winery.
Over the past 170 years, proprietors have overcome challenges, including floods, recessions, Prohibition, and ownership struggles. So much of our winery history reads like great fiction, but it is history.
Reno J. Morra of Alta Loma remembers the natural beauty of the property. “The winery was filled with antiques, equipment and historical items. The grounds were like a museum and park together. There were orange groves, tall sycamore, walnut and avocado trees, rose gardens, craftsman house and the old Tapia Homestead east of the winery building and distillery tower,” said Reno with a twinkle in his eyes. “The vineyard extended to Hellman Avenue. The small wooden office building of the Lucas Land Company was in the vineyard.”
On the 25th morning of January 1969, after several days of torrential rain and rapid snow melt, the sand banks of Cucamonga Creek broke at San Bernardino Road. The winery, the Ka-Pu-Kai bowling alley located across the street received the roaring flood waters.
“The day after, I parked near Hellman and walked to the winery. The boulders were big and there was so much debris that the road was not drivable,” said Reno. “We found artifacts, broken wine barrels and bottles spread far south of the winery. Many of us shoveled out 4 feet of mud and debris from the winery through the cold winter nights. Your uncle Bill Nix placed big space heaters at the base of the walls to dry the adobe bricks. After days of cleanup repairs, we set up a temporary sales counter in the parking lot. People came to buy wine and help us. The winery was flooded again one month later, on February 25th.”
Litigation against the county and state followed. I too remember the flood’s destruction. Giant casks had crashed through the massive cellar walls, the tractors and antique cars were buried in mud and rocks, demolishing a 1902 Cadillac, 1925 Stutz Fire Engine and others. It was upsetting. I remember seeing my Dad cry for the first time, trying to explain what had happened to the treasured winery the family had been so proud to have purchased just two years prior.
Local author Don Clucas of Upland said, “During the 1969 flood, we were living in Orange County. We moved to Cucamonga in 1971, and I immediately set about researching the history of our new community. One of the first historical places I went to see was the old Thomas Winery.”
With help from family and friends and after great expense, the winery was rebuilt and business resumed. “One of the things which caught my eye right away was a mark on the window of the old office door,” said Clucas. “This was the high-water mark of the flooding in the building. It was amazing to me how high the water had actually come. Fortunately, the structure still remains to remind us of a valuable part of that history.”
Thomas Vineyards’ popular Old Rancho, Thomas Brothers and Thomas Vineyards wines were produced at the Filippi Fontana winery and by other northern California vintners including Sebastiani in Sonoma. “The cabernet sauvignon and pinot chardonnay sold for approx. 2.75 per (4/5 quart) bottle,” said Reno. “Popular sellers were Cold Duck (sparkling Burgundy), Jubilee Concord, Mead honey, sauterne, rose’, specialty fruit wines and grape juice.”
“I think about those days that I liked so much. It was the group of dedicated people that worked so well together,” said Reno. “Regular customers would come from as far away as Santa Barbara and Los Angeles naturally to buy our wines. There would be people waiting for us to open the doors at 8 a.m. and we were busy until closing at 6 p.m.”
The property was sold again in the mid-‘80s to a retail developer and the winery closed. There have been a few restaurants since come and go. Today, the Thomas Winery Plaza is owned by Legg Mason Real Estate Investors of Los Angeles who recently completed an extensive revitalization of the center including upgrades to exterior facades, new landscaping, historic winery and vineyard artifact relocation and construction of a new Fresh & Easy building.
“The plan for revitalization of the plaza was to open up the site to be more visible from Foothill Boulevard and encourage more traffic to visit the Thomas Winery,” said May Nakajima, Assistant Planner at the City of Rancho Cucamonga. Longtime tenants include Antonino’s Italian Restaurant, Souplantation and Coffee Klatch. The Wine Tailor, producer custom wines opened in 2004.
“The City’s role was to process the application and ensure that the project would not be detrimental to the historic winery buildings,” said Nakajima. “This was a high-profile project. There was much scrutiny in what was being proposed at the “California’s Oldest Winery” site. After many months of meetings, committee reviews, Planning Commission meetings, and even a City Council review, we are confident that the Thomas Winery Plaza is still a unique and special center.”