Urban sprawl threatens Southern Calif. bounty

Grapes: Real estate values in the Cucamonga Valley are pricing historic wineries out of business.

October 26, 2003|By Jerry Hirsch | Jerry Hirsch,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Don Galleano swivels his chair away from a cluttered roll-top desk, stands up and walks past a rattlesnake skin 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 the interstate, past miles of housing developments, office parks and distribution centers in Mira Loma, Calif., 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 Southern California's Inland Empire since 1927.

This is California's original wine country - and it's going fast. Decades before Northern California's 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 vineyards 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 more than $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 hot, dry climate and sandy soil that washed down from the mountains proved perfect for growing the grapes used to make the hearty red wine the newcomers brought with them from the Old World. It also was a conducive environment 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, Calif. "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 bounty.

Geyser Peak Winery, based in Northern California's Sonoma County, discovered the Southern California region in 1996 and has been making a well-regarded $28-a-bottle Cucamonga Zinfandel from its harvest ever since. Geyser Peak pays to have the grapes crushed locally and then shipped to Sonoma County 500 miles north 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 the Lopez Ranch in Fontana. But through the 2001 harvest, the winery relied on grapes from the 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.

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.

"We all knew that De Ambrogio was going to disappear, if for no other reason than it was at the intersection of two busy streets," Chattan said.

All that's left of the historic De Ambrogio vineyard is about 2 acres of Zinfandel cuttings planted at Cal Poly Pomona, as well as several vines that have been transplanted in Napa Valley, where University of California, Davis, researchers hope to preserve the old-growth strain.

"If this was a structure, they would have declared it a historical site and prevented this from happening," said James Wolpert, chairman of the UC Davis department of viticulture and enology. "You just don't make 100-year-old Zinfandel vines. We are losing a piece of California's heritage."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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