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Uprooting Old Vines

Civilization is encroaching on historic Cucamonga Valley's prized vineyards

October 11, 2003|Jerry Hirsch | Times Staff Writer

Don Galleano swivels his chair away from a cluttered roll-top desk, stands up and walks past a skinned rattlesnake on the wall. He slides by two rifles propped up in the corner of his office and out the swinging door into dusty terrain where twisting and gnarled Zinfandel vines have been growing for nearly a century.

As Galleano, 51, picks a late-growing cluster of purple grapes, he hears the drone of traffic speeding down Interstate 15, past miles of housing tracts, office parks and distribution centers in Mira Loma and surrounding areas that have replaced much of the vineyard established by his grandfather.

"It is the nature of urbanization," says Galleano, whose family has been growing grapes and making wine in the heart of the Inland Empire since 1927.

This is California's original wine country -- and it's going fast. Decades before Napa Valley became synonymous with California wine, Cucamonga Valley, about an hour east of Los Angeles, was home to more than 35,000 acres of vineyards and as many as 60 wineries.

Today, the Cucamonga Valley American Viticulture Area is down to fewer than 800 acres of vineyard and three commercial wineries, including Galleano's, whose namesake business produces about 100,000 gallons of mostly bulk wine annually.

Nestled in one of the fastest-growing regions in the state, Cucamonga Valley has become far too valuable for growing grapes: An undeveloped acre can fetch upwards of $200,000. Yet the surviving 50-to-100-year-old vines scattered across the valley's floor are prized within the wine industry for their complex fruit. "The great irony here is that Cucamonga Zinfandel now has a higher reputation than it did when this was a vast growing region," said Thomas Pinney, a retired Pomona College professor and author of "A History of Wine in America: From the Beginnings to Prohibition."

Southern California's wine industry had its genesis at the end of the 19th century, when European immigrants discovered the locale. The vineyard area extends from Ontario east to Fontana and from the base of the San Gabriel Mountains southward to the Jurupa Hills in Riverside County.

The hot, dry climate and sandy soil that washed down from the mountains proved perfect for growing the grapes for the hearty red wine the newcomers used to make in the Old World. It also was conducive for grapes used in the sweet dessert wines that became popular after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933.

But as tastes shifted to drier wines in the 1960s, so did wine production -- to Northern California where lower overnight temperatures and ample water supply made it easier to grow the varietals that American consumers preferred. By the 1970s, winemakers in Napa and Sonoma counties were winning top awards and soon were promoting the region as a world-class tourist destination.

About the same time, Los Angeles was pushing eastward, churning up agricultural land to make room for warehouses, shopping centers and housing.

"When I first came out here in 1984, the land sold for about $80,000 an acre," said David Ariss of Ariss Realty Advisors in Ontario. "Now it starts at $200,000 and can go to $300,000 or even $400,000 depending on the location."

Yet for some winemakers the value of Cucamonga Valley is still found in its agricultural bounty.

Geyser Peak Winery discovered the region in 1996 and has been making a well-regarded $28-a-bottle Cucamonga Zinfandel from its harvest ever since. The Geyserville-based company pays to have the grapes crushed in the Cucamonga Valley and then shipped to Sonoma County 500 miles away because "they have a wonderful intensity and consistency of character and style," said winemaker Ondine Chattan, Geyser Peak's Zinfandel specialist.

Geyser Peak's next Cucamonga Valley vintage will come from Lopez Ranch in Fontana. But up through the 2001 harvest, the winery relied on grapes from De Ambrogio Ranch -- across the street from the Rancho Cucamonga Civic Center.

"These were very old vines ... and may have been some of the original cuttings from the Old World," Chattan said.

Despite its rich heritage, the 35-acre De Ambrogio Ranch was not a very profitable business, yielding only $10,000 to $20,000 a year in income for the family that had owned the property for three generations. With the clan's 86-year-old matriarch in an assisted-living facility, the De Ambrogio family decided to sell the land two years ago.

The De Ambrogios declined to say how much their land sold for, but San Bernardino County records show that the property was assessed at more than $8 million when the transaction closed. "People want the vineyards with their beauty and history, but this was my mother's only source of income," said Bonnie De Ambrogio Kinney.

Now, a water truck periodically wets down the acres of barren and graded land, where a strip shopping center is taking shape at one corner of the property at Foothill Boulevard and Haven Avenue.

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