California’s wine industry spread from Los Angeles and continued to flourish, making it the most prominent wine-producing state. Southern California has a rich history of wine production, but it was not until vineyards started overcrowding Los Angeles that it eventually spread elsewhere. One town that stands out in California’s wine history is Rancho Cucamonga. While a mysterious disease and eventually prohibition destroyed the vineyards in Los Angeles, they persisted in Rancho Cucamonga, which most people think was the true origin of California wine production.
The Rise of Rancho Cucamonga
The crowding of vineyards in Los Angeles had them spilling over into neighboring valleys and towns. Rancho Cucamonga became one of California’s vineyard cities. Rancho Cucamonga’s rise started in 1839 when Tiburcio Tapia, a wealthy Los Angeles merchant, took charge. Until 1839, there were insignificant wine production activities in Rancho Cucamonga. However, with Tapia taking charge, he reshaped the city’s wine industry.
Los Angeles had experienced difficult times at the end of the 19th century due to Pierce’s disease decimating vineyards. By the turn of the century, their vineyard cultivation and wine production had taken a turn. At the beginning of the 20th century, they began constructing modern wineries in Los Angeles. The new era, however, faced an expansion challenge. Real estate prices and fear of prohibition rose. Planting vineyards in Los Angeles’s adjoining San Bernadino County solved the problem. This is how Rancho Cucamonga came into the picture—it lies just at the west end of San Bernadino.
Rancho Cucamonga’s History
Interestingly, Rancho Cucamonga residents majorly reared livestock. Rancho refers to a residential area for ranch workers. The Kukamonga tribe originally inhabited this place. “Cucamonga” is derived from Kukamonga, meaning deep sandy soils. This was where ranch workers resided, located in the deep sandy soils at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains. Going back to Tapia, he also wanted to rear cattle at Rancho Cucamonga but found another use for it—planting vineyards.
At the start of the 1840s, Tapia introduced wine production in Rancho Cucamonga.
He employed a longtime friend and winemaking associate, Jean Louis Sainsevain, to restore the neglected vineyard and add to it.
Tapia established Cucamonga Vineyard Company to take care of the wine business. Grape production increased, and Rancho Cucamonga became the largest vineyard in the state until prohibition. Tapia died in 1859, and “his daughter and her husband, Maria and Leon Victor Prudhomme, sold the 13,000-plus acres to John and Maria Merced Rains.” The Rains were later murdered in 1862, and Racho Cucamonga fell to foreclosure.
Isaias Hellman transformed Rancho Cucamonga into a new dimension. Hellman purchased the vineyard in 1870, naming it Cucamonga Vineyard. He acquired the property after it fell into foreclosure after the murder of the Rains. A banker from Los Angeles, Hellman brought in investors that built a new winery whose wines were revered. He also sold part of the property. Cucamonga Vineyard continued producing wine until 1917 when most of its vines had been torn and exhausted. In 1920, Hugh and Ida Thomas bought the vineyard.
San Gabriel Mountain Range, Southern California by Ron Reiring
Modern-day Rancho Cucamonga
Many components bearing Los Angeles wine history are destroyed or forgotten. However, Rancho Cucamonga’s case is different. Rancho Cucamonga is sensitive to its history and has embraced it by cultivating small vineyards. Even with urbanization, residents tend to these small vineyards as part of their landscaping schemes. Rancho Cucamonga often holds their Grape Harvest Festival to commemorate the town’s wine history. Old wineries still exist, some of which are more than 100 years old. For instance, Tapia’s first winery, the oldest in Rancho Cucamonga, still exists, although repurposed for commercial use. Wine and history enthusiasts can visit to see and rediscover its heritage.
This Day in Wine History
May 15, 1769: Father Junipero Serra set on his expedition north from the Baja peninsula in Mexico. The expedition’s mission was to establish Spanish control in previously explored lands. In addition, the task was “sacred” since it established missions and converted natives. As a result, they settled in California and introduced wine cultivation. Father Serra, also known as the father of California wine, set the state’s course to becoming the biggest producer in the US.
January 24, 1848: They discovered gold nuggets in Sutter’s Mill in Sacramento Valley. The discovery shaped much of California and America’s history in the second half of the 19th century. California had a few residents, but with the Gold Rush, its population increased tremendously. Interestingly, while most people came looking for gold, they found another treasure—grapes. Most of them turned to vineyard cultivation, which represents the rising wine production in California in the second half of the 19th century. Besides, the wine industry flourished due to increased consumption from miners. The industry was, however, affected by Pierce’s disease and prohibition.
January 25, 1969: On this day, the historic Thomas Winery in Rancho Cucamonga was destroyed. After several days of torrential rain and rapidly melting snow, the banks of Cucamonga broke, and the roaring waters washed over the winery across the street. The debris on the San Bernadino Road were so massive that it was undrivable. The damage to the winery was significant. Giant casks, bottles, and broken barrels were spread far south of the winery. The storm destroyed artifacts and precious antiques and washed out part of Tapia’s original homestead. Unfortunately, the destruction did not stop at that since a second flood, on February 25, came and continued the destruction.
Want to read more? Try these books!
Byles, Stuart Douglass. Los Angeles Wine: A History from the Mission Era to the Present (Charleston, Sc: American Palate, 2014).