GUASTI, Calif. — The latest owners of Brookside Winery, whose corporate roots meander back to 1832, will shut its oaken doors forever this Fourth of July weekend and turn its lease back to its fast-growing neighbor, Ontario International Airport.
The future of the winery's hand-hewn stone buildings, erected at the turn of the century by Secundo Guasti to form a virtual company town, remains uncertain, said George Suzdaleff, who is supervising liquidation of Brookside's wine inventory.
There is some talk of designating the vine-covered winery building and adjacent sales hall and tasting room as historical monuments, he said. But new hotels serving the expanding airport and new industry nearby suggest a commercial future for the prime site, 41 miles east of Los Angeles between Interstate 10 and the Southern Pacific tracks at the north end of the airport runway.
For the last week, the remaining wine has been moving out briskly at distress prices--$1 a fifth and $8 for a case of 12 varietal wines.
Last weekend, buyers polished off the sparkling wines, reds and Brookside's odd specialty wines made of dry white wines laced with chocolate or a variety of fruit and nut flavors. In all, about 8,000 cases were sold. But about as many--Fume Blanc, French Colombard and Chenin Blanc from vineyards that Brookside used to own in Riverside County's Temecula Valley--remain to be sold by 4:15 p.m. Sunday. There are also small bottles of "Cooking Magic," a seasoned wine, going for 10 cents each.
The San Francisco investors who bought Brookside from Beatrice Cos. nearly four years ago admittedly had no previous experience in wines. Nor for that matter had Beatrice, the food and consumer products conglomerate that saw what looked like an expansive wine market in 1973 and snapped up Brookside.
That was before overplanting produced a glut--especially of expensive red wine grapes--that overwhelmed demand, created a buyers' market and gave rise, almost in desperation, to the currently trendy "blush" wines--white wines made from such heavily planted red-skinned varieties as Zinfandel, Cabernet, Petite Sirah and Pinot noir.
"Everyone was planting vineyards at the time," said Suzdaleff, a Marin County high school teacher who has been working off and on for Brookside for the past four years.
Moreover, the energy shocks of the 1970s cut sales at the winery's pioneering network of 34 tasting-sales rooms in four states--outlets that tended to be located in less-than-prime locations. The out-of-the-way sites did not deter motorist-consumers until gasoline prices skyrocketed.
The new owners' strategy four years ago was to prune the retail outlets to the three or four most successful in Southern California, including the winery itself, but sales volume continued to flag. This led the owners to conclude, Suzdaleff said, that "local wineries just can't make it--unless they're boutique operations able to command a good price for their bottles.
"There's no profit in jug wines," he added.
During the nearly 10 years that Beatrice owned the property, Brookside expanded into finer wines and vintage-dated bottlings and at one time offered more than 100 products. But the winery's tradition of making low-cost bulk wines, sometimes for other companies, as well as its sweet specialty wines, persisted at a time when supermarkets carried competitively priced jug wines and consumer tastes shifted increasingly toward dryer and more sophisticated wines.
Nonetheless, Brookside at its height employed 350 people at its headquarters winery, many of whom lived near the winery in houses east of the old Guasti family mansion behind the winery. Visitors wandered through the buildings in guided tours, sampled wines and took home bottles and cases of what they liked.
Brookside, the largest winery in Southern California with annual production of 3 million gallons, ranked among the state's 20 largest wineries and is said to be California's oldest continuing business, dating back to the day that Theophile Vache moved from France to establish a vineyard in San Benito County. Vache's nephews established a winery near Redlands, along a stream in San Timoteo Canyon, which inspired the name Brookside.
Two Full-Time Employees
Marius Biane, who arrived from France in 1892, married into the family and eventually moved Brookside to the Cucamonga Valley. The Biane family continued managing the winery under Beatrice until the sale to the present owners.
But now, at the end, just two full-time employees remain at Guasti--bookkeeper Trudy Kielminski and foreman Fidel Martinez, whose father, Froylan, had supervised vineyard operations for 21 years until the new owners began selling off vineyards and sales outlets.
"It's been all downhill," Martinez reflected as he helped move out the last cases of wine bearing the label of the winery he has known all his life.
Martinez said he hopes to start an automobile repair business in Guasti. He has the name for it already: Brookside Body Shop.