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Disappearing Act

A once-vast Southern California wine region faces an uncertain future

Jean T. Barrett
Posted: January 18, 2001

 
 
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Disappearing Act

A once-vast Southern California wine region faces an uncertain future

By Jean T. Barrett


In the Cucamonga Valley, an hour drive east of Los Angeles, a battle is being fought -- urban expansion pitted against rural roots. As the magnificent San Gabriel Mountains come into focus, so do rows of grapevines squeezed between tract houses and strip malls. These gnarled, ancient, dry-farmed grapevines bearing Zinfandel, Carignane, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Palomino and Mission, among other varieties, were once the backbone of the California wine industry. But no more. As is usually the case in contemporary America, the farmers are losing.

During its heyday in the 1940s, the Cucamonga Valley was covered with 40,000 acres of grapes, making it more expansive than the Napa Valley appellation is today. But that acreage has slowly dwindled away to fewer than 1,200 acres, and signs everywhere fly like white flags: "For Sale"; "Available"; "Prime Industrial Acreage." Vines have been uprooted for development, and now this area is fighting for its very survival, even as vintners are producing the finest wines ever made from its grapes.

"The reality of the situation is that most of this land around here is far too valuable to grow grapes on," says Don Galleano. He owns Galleano Winery, a bucolic, 12-acre postage stamp surrounded by the massive warehouses and big-box distribution centers that line the streets of Mira Loma, a community southeast of Ontario International Airport in Ontario, Calif.

Galleano, whose grandfather founded the winery in 1933, has by far the largest operation of the three remaining vintners in the Cucamonga Valley, farming about 600 acres and producing the equivalent of nearly 150,000 cases annually, much of which is sold in bulk. A few miles north in Rancho Cucamonga is the Joseph Filippi Winery, which opened in 1922 and is now run by the great-grandsons of the founder; it produces about 40,000 cases per year. A third winery, Rancho de Philo, was started in 1974 as a retirement project by the late Philo Biane, former chairman of Brookside Winery; it produces a mere 325 cases of cream Sherry annually.


"There's just a small group of us left," acknowledges Gino Filippi, vice president of sales and marketing for Filippi Winery. "But we feel strongly about the area's history and its potential. At one time, this was the largest and most famous wine region in California. We feel a responsibility to carry on the heritage."

The tide turned against Cucamonga as a wine-producing region during World War II, when industrialization began in the area. Land values increased, as did property taxes, which squeezed the farmers' profits. At the same time, children of winery owners pursued college educations and, in most cases, didn't care to remain in the family business. By the 1970s, too, tastes were turning away from the rustic-style reds bottled in gallon jugs that had been the valley's mainstay. Over a period of several decades, dozens of Cucamonga vineyard and winery owners simply sold out.

One vintner who didn't sell was Frank De Ambrogio. He and his wife, Mary, purchased a Zinfandel vineyard at the corner of Foothill Boulevard (old Route 66) and Haven Avenue just after World War II. At the time, there was nothing but vineyards in the area, but the city of Rancho Cucamonga grew up around those 35 acres, which now sit smack-dab in the center of town directly across from City Hall. Over the decades, Frank De Ambrogio refused numerous lucrative offers for the property. But he died 10 years ago, and the property, now owned by his widow and two daughters, is likely to be developed.

"The irony is that if [the De Ambrogio Ranch] was anything else, it would be a historical landmark," says Galleano. "If it was an oak tree or that pecan tree right there that my grandfather planted ... ." He points out his winery office window to an ancient tree. "But it's a vineyard."

It was the De Ambrogio Ranch that caught Daryl Groom's eye several years ago when Galleano finally persuaded him to visit the Cucamonga Valley. Executive vice president of winemaking for Geyser Peak and a native of Australia, Groom, who used to produce Penfolds Grange, was immediately struck by the similarity of Cucamonga's old vineyards to Grange's Kalimna vineyards in the Barossa Valley.

"Kalimna's vines were 50 to 100 years old, and they were scraggly little vines, low to the ground, in deep sand or hardpan clay. Very unforgiving soils that tended to restrict vine growth and give small yields, but intense flavor," recalls Groom. "When I first went down to Cucamonga and had a look, I couldn't believe the similarity, particularly when my feet were sinking 3 to 4 inches in the sand. I was like a kid in a candy store. All these wonderful old vines that nobody else wanted!"

In 1997, Geyser Peak Winery made a Zinfandel from Cucamonga's De Ambrogio Vineyard, which James Laube rated 91 points on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale, saying it was "brimming with ripe berry, plum and spice flavors that linger enticingly ... has the feel of old vines, with depth and character to burn." Since then, Groom has made a 1999 bottling and has also produced old-vine Cucamonga Grenache and Mourvèdre for a forthcoming Rhône-style blend under the Geyser Peak label. "Being Australian, I was unsure about putting Cucamonga on the label because it sounded so funny," confesses Groom. "But we're so glad that we did because people are recognizing it, and I hope it's helped create interest in that area again."

Groom is hardly the only out-of-area vintner to recognize the distinctiveness of Cucamonga fruit. Up and down the state, wineries including Seghesio, Callaway, Ironstone, Hart, Mt. Palomar, Thornton and Firestone, have produced Cucamonga bottlings or used the fruit to add character to blends. Barry Bergman, winemaker for the R.H. Phillips Wine Company in Esparto, Calif., has been buying Cucamonga grapes for more than a decade. In recent years, he has produced a single-vineyard Cucamonga Zinfandel under the Kempton Clark label from the Lopez Ranch, a 130-acre tract of old vines at the base of the San Gabriel foothills, which is now surrounded on three sides by housing developments.


A sad but familiar sight in the Cucamonga Valley today -- the construction of a mall overruning prime vineyards; only a handful of vintners remain in the area.

Bergman is a fan of what he calls the "Cucamonga character," a taste that he says is born of old vines, low yields and the region's hot, dry climate. "There's definitely a terroir in the Cucamonga Valley, and it's not your typical North Coast fresh-fruit character," Bergman explains. "It's got a barnyardy, minerally, earthy character, with very ripe, jammy fruit. No other appellation in California produces a flavor profile like it."

Ironically, the vintners who are based in the Cucamonga Valley have not, until recently, made much of this unique terroir. Despite the valley's long history, it was only in 1995 that the Filippi brothers petitioned the BATF for a Cucamonga Valley AVA, allowing them and other vintners to state the grapegrowing region on a wine label. This was very late in the game, an indication of how little consciousness there was among local vintners about the importance of promoting the region as an entity.

Since the AVA status was granted, both Filippi and Galleano have begun to produce premium-priced reds that showcase old-vine Cucamonga varietals -- instead of blending them into anonymous jug-reds. In addition to a distinctive old-vine Zinfandel, Filippi produces a Grenache-Mourvèdre blend called Rochelle (named after winemaker Nick Karavidas' daughter) and a reserve Mourvèdre made from a vineyard that had been abandoned for 25 years, which the winery recently resuscitated.

For his part, Don Galleano has invested in modernizing his historic winery, and four years ago, he hired young winemaker Jason R.C. Bushong. Bushong has been responsible for a series of very good old-vine Zinfandels under the "Pioneer's Legendary" designation, as well as some impressive single-vineyard Zins from the Lopez Ranch (also called the San Sevine Ranch).

Happily, these types of wines fit today's taste for robust reds. And most of Filippi's and Galleano's old-vine Cucamonga varietals sell in the $9 to $14 range, reasonable prices by anyone's standards.

But that's the problem. The prices are too low for a property owner to justify keeping an acre planted to grapes in an area where real estate is priced by the square foot.

Making wine in a rapidly growing urban area requires skills they don't teach at enology school. Cucamonga's vintners have become adept at wheeling and dealing with property owners and developers, arranging to farm vineyards until the 11th hour, when it's time to bring in the bulldozers to prepare for the new distribution center, strip mall or tract of homes. Karavidas tells of begging developers to hold off until his picking crew can get the grapes in.

"They won't stop for a million bucks," he laments. "We have some leases where there are no guarantees. We had a situation recently where we pruned and farmed 15 acres of Zin over the winter, and we lost about 10 [that were bulldozed under] just a few weeks before harvestable fruit. It really hurts sometimes."

Local officials are sympathetic to the vintners' plight, but say there's not much they can do. "Legally, you can't tell someone they can't develop their property," says Diane Williams, Rancho Cucamonga's mayor pro tempore. However, city planners now encourage developers to use grapevines as buffers around their tracts. And the vintners have learned to hunt down parcels of land that can't be developed -- such as those in utility corridors or awkwardly shaped "leftover" plots adjacent to a development -- but that can be leased and then planted with grapevines. Karavidas and the Filippis even cut a deal with a Texas firm, Heritage Bag Company, to plant a vineyard on 5 acres in front of the firm's Rancho Cucamonga plant. It's land that otherwise would have been conventionally landscaped. Heritage Bag receives income and the satisfaction of being a good corporate citizen, and the Filippis get their grapes.

But the new vineyards can't replace 80- to 100-year-old grapevines. And both new plantings and old vines are threatened by the recent appearance of the glassy-winged sharpshooter, which carries Pierce's disease. Pierce's is a growing problem in Cucamonga, so the risk of spreading the sharpshooter, and thus the fatal vine-malady, clearly impacts the marketability of local grapes to out-of-area vintners.

These challenges haven't shaken the determination of the Filippi brothers and Don Galleano to stay in the Cucamonga Valley. These vintners are confident they can secure enough grapes to sustain their operations in the future, although they expect to rely increasingly on sources from outside their valley.

For now, at least, these last Cucamonga holdouts are selling a taste of California wine history -- an experience that can be had with the twist of a corkscrew. It's an experience that becomes more tenuous with the passing of each harvest.

Others are moving on. Despite his track record with Lopez Ranch Zinfandel, Barry Bergman didn't buy any this year. "The main reason is the uncertainty of the future of those vineyards," he explains. "There's no long-term guarantee -- other than it will be tract homes or warehouses. It's a great area with a great agricultural heritage, but like many parts of California, it's going away."

Jean T. Barrett is a Los Angeles-based writer and longtime Wine Spectator contributor.


For the complete article, please see the Nov. 15, 2000, issue of Wine Spectator magazine, page 182.

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