By Mark Gutglueck
Though it today is but a shadow of itself in its heyday, the Cucamonga Wine Region was once the most prolific wine producing area in the United States. It garnered for the Inland Empire a reputation that for many decades defined this portion of Southern California, with its Mediterranean climate, as a West Coast/California paradise.
In 1838, the first vineyard was planted in the Cucamonga Valley, which would later become known to vintners and others alike as the Cucamonga-Guasti Wine District. Tiburcio Tapia, an adventurer, soldier, privateer, smuggler and politician, planted the first large vineyard in present day Rancho Cucamonga, one year before he was granted 13,000 acres of land around the area called Cucamonga by Governor Juan Bautista Alvarado on March 3, 1839. Using indigenous labor, Tapia planted rows of grapes and built a successful winery, which lay east of his adobe home on Red Hill. A portion of the winery, later known as the Thomas Brothers Winery – “California’s Oldest” yet stands at the northeast corner of Carnelian Avenue and Foothill Boulevard.
With its cool foothill terraces, natural springs, its warm sandy floor and perfect drainage, the Cucamonga Valley had the ideal growing conditions for grapes of all types, from Old World varieties of Mediterranean, French and German grapes to those that fared well on the East Coast of the United States.
1859 would prove a fateful and auspicious year for winemaking in the Cucamonga Valley.
In 1859, John Rains started planting the second large vineyard in the area, eventually establishing 125,000 vines.
The Sainsevain brothers – Pierre and Jean Louis, arrived less than a decade later and they established a formidable vineyard in eastern Etiwanda, near the present day border between Rancho Cucamonga and Fontana.
Jean Louis became winery superintendent at the winery built by Tapia. Pierre, arranging for the importation of grape cuttings from France, planted a number of new varieties in the area. In 1869 the San Francisco Times rhapsodized, “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.” In singing the merits of the Sansevain wines, the San Francisco Times said, “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.”
In the area around Etiwanda, table grape growers flourished, including George F. Johnston, who was instrumental in establishing the commercial viability of the Thompson Seedless grape developed by his partner, William Thompson.
The magnificent scenery of the Cucamonga Valley played a role in its evolution into a wine kingdom. The views the valley offered were said to be majestically reminiscent of Italy’s Piedmont region. Word of mouth and word of letter spread back to the Old Country and in no time men and women left Italy behind, emigrating to towns with names like Cucamonga, Etiwanda, Fontana, Grapeland, Mira Loma, Wineville, and another, later named after one such early immigrant, the village of Guasti.
The second reason for the significance of 1859 was that year Secondo Guasti was born. Guasti was to become the most prolific vintner in the region. In 1883 he founded the Italian Vineyard Company, transforming it into a formidable wine enterprise that was still growing when it was curtailed by the Volstead Act, which initiated Prohibition in 1919.
Guasti later said that when he first beheld the desertlike sands at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains/Angeles National Forest being overwashed by the torrent of spring time water coming out of the mountains, “Surely, I thought, this is heaven’s doorstep.” He knew there would be enough moisture to sustain the vines and he went no further than the crest of the Cucamonga Valley.
In 1917, Guasti was advertising the Italian Vineyard Company’s vineyards on 5,000 acres as the largest single vineyard in the world.
In 1882, the Hofer Family established the Cucamonga Pioneer Vineyard Winery, east of what is now Haven Avenue. The Hofer Family, in addition to cultivating their own vineyards, established an association of 11 other growers whose vineyards eventually grew to encompass 4,000 acres.
In the early 1900s, the U.S. Government and the state of California, perceiving the value of the tremendous asset that had already been established in the Cucamonga Valley, offered incentives in the form of grants, loans and tax breaks to European Vintners willing to relocate to California and establish wineries.
Philo Biane established the Vaché/Biane family operation in Cucamonga, including the Brookside Winery. The Gallo Brothers established a winery in the Cucamonga Valley as well.
By 1916, there were more than 20,000 acres of vineyards in the Cucamonga Valley, well beyond those in Sonoma and Napa counties.
The Volstead Act and the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920 forbade the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors.” It remained legal, however, to make 200 gallons of wine in each home.
Red grapes, including Zinfandel and Grenache fared well in the soil and climate of the Cucamonga Valley. When prohibition became the law of the land and large quantities of wine grapes were transported by train to the Midwest and East Coast for use by home winemakers, the Zinfandels, with their thick skin and high sugar content became much in demand.
When prohibition ended in 1933, Vintners in the Cucamonga Valley immediately parlayed the area’s reputation for high quality Zinfandel grapes into a marketable product, and the wine label, “Pride of Cucamonga” was born. It fared well in the eastern markets such as New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Cleveland, Boston and Atlantic City.
That was perhaps the only positive impact of Prohibition on the Cucamonga Valley Wine Industry. On balance, the 14-year experiment of Prohibition had a devastating impact on what had here-to-for grown into a world class agricultural setting. Those vintners that had survived (Guasti died in 1927), gamely carried on, working to re-establish what had been taken away. The Accomazzo, Aggazzotti, Campanella, Cherpin, DiCarlo, Ellena, Filippi, Galleano, Guidera, Liabeuf, Masi, Opici and Romolo families, some of whom had been in operation prior to and even during Prohibition, redoubled their efforts beginning in 1933/34.
In 1939, six years after Prohibition had ended, the Cucamonga-Guasti area boasted 41 thriving and bonded wineries and 13 brandy distilleries. The region had a storage and fermentation capacity of more than 13 million gallons of wine.
Six years later, wine production in the valley had grown, with 55 wineries operating and approximately 35,000 acres of vineyards being farmed. The Belletrutti, Bruno, Carrari, Cherbak, DeAmbrogio, DeBerard, DeVito, Ellena, Johnston, Lopez, Mandala, Merrille, Modica, Sanchez and Vernola families were active in the winemaking business.
By the late 1950s and early 1960s, much of the emphasis in California wines was on massive production of sweeter fortified port-style and hearty red wines sold in gallon jugs. The Cucamonga Valley participated in this trend. In 1968, the Cucamonga Valley accounted for 98 percent of the 9.5 million gallons of wine produced in the Southern California. At that point the Cucamonga Valley was riding the crest of the domestic sparkling wine production boom.
But with the 1970s, two trends were ushered in that resulted in the decline of the Cucamonga Wine Region. American wine consumers’ tastes matured, resulting in sweet wines falling out of favor. Northern California wines, particularly those bottled in Sonoma and Napa enjoyed a renaissance. This eroded the Cucamonga Wine District’s hold on the market. Pressure on vineyard owners to plant varieties more in demand hit just as ever-increasing land values resulted in pressure on the vintners to sell their property at great profit. Many did, and many more of those that held out capitulated later as land values rose to astronomical levels. The once-storied Cucamonga Valley has lost most of its once vast vineyard acreage to development and the urban expansion. Today, only four of the area’s traditional wine-growing families, Biane, Filippi, Galleano and Hofer remain in the winemaking business.
By Mark Gutglueck