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Monday, July 27, 2015

CALIFORNIA'S HIDDEN WINE COUNTRY

 

CALIFORNIA’S HIDDEN WINE COUNTRY
California has 100 American Viticultural Areas (AVA).  An AVA is a distinct wine grape growing region with boundaries set by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF).  Some you’ve heard of…Napa Valley, Paso Robles, Sonoma Valley, Mendocino, Russian River…others may have escaped notice such as North Yuba, Seiad Valley, or Covelo.
Once, the MAJOR wine producing area of the state was 40 miles east of Los Angeles in the Cucamonga Valley, better known today as the Inland Empire.  With commercial vineyards dating back to 1838, it is among the oldest wine grape growing areas in the state.  At over 20,000 acres at the start of Prohibition, it was also the largest.  At that time, it had more vineyard acreage than Sonoma and Napa Counties combined.


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With the booming expansion of the Los Angeles metro area, development pressures hit this area hard.  Skyrocketing land prices found many vineyards being sold, plowed under, and becoming housing tracts, shopping centers, highways, factories, and warehouses.  Little is left of the wide-open countryside I enjoyed as a youth.
Still, the old, historic vines have not completely disappeared but they still face enormous pressure.  Now, two larger producers and a couple of very small boutique wine makers are all that are left.  Sitting beneath the snow-covered peak of Mt. Baldy, this is California’s most endangered wine producing region.
It’s a Saturday with rain off and on, mostly on.  We start our day at the Original Pancake House in Orange County’s Yorba Linda.  After a filling breakfast of 49’r Flapjacks, we head over one of the last rural roads in the area, Carbon Canyon Road, which connects the area to the Inland Empire community of Chino Hills.  From there, we make our way over to our first stop, Galleano Winery in Mira Loma.


My grandmother lived a few blocks away when I was a kid.  We’d ride our motorcycles and horses for miles over the wide-open countryside here.  Now, it’s covered with houses, factories, and warehouses but at the junction of the 15 and 60 freeways, if you look to the east , there’s several acres of grapes being grown in the sandy soil.  On the street, you’ll be surrounded by warehouses.  If you turn at just the right stop sign (at Wineville and Merrill), you’ll enter a time machine and be on a small country lane with barns, farmhouses, animals, and the winery itself. 


This is exactly the way I remember Mira Loma from when I was a child.  It’s also so out of place these days as to be called “historic.”  The area is known for growing big, bold red grapes.  Zinfandel, Grenache, Mission, and Mourvèdre…all good grapes that stand up to the valley’s intensely hot summers.
At the back of the former truck mechanic’s garage is a small house that now serves as the tasting room.  Five tastes are $5 per person, price will be applied to any purchase.  While white wines are available (Galleano sources these grapes from other areas or contracts with other wineries to produce them), the reds are the star of the show here.  Cucamonga Peak Red, Legendary Pioneers Zinfandel, Old Vine Zin, Port, and Sherry are made very well here.
The valley terroir has a strong taste that infuses the wines made here.  Galleano is very good…and also very reasonable in price.  Wines here start at around $5 a bottle…good wine, too.  Many of the wines are also available in 4L jugs which make the price even lower and are great for parties.  We particularly like the haute sauterne, port, and Chianti in the jugs.

Be sure to grab a flyer from Centro Basco, a local Basque restaurant, which includes a coupon for two free glasses of Galleano wine with your dinner.
If you bring a picnic, this is a great place to grab a bottle.  Borrow a couple of glasses from the tasting staff, go outside to their little park, and have a nice relaxing lunch.  Nearby is a small zoo with farm animals such as geese and donkeys.  Hundreds of guinea pigs roam in their enclosure and a few peacocks preen.
I could spend an entire, relaxing day here but we’ve got another stop to make.

A few miles to the north, in the town of Rancho Cucamonga, is the other large wine maker here.  Joseph Fillippi has a winery and tasting room set up on Baseline Road, just east of Day Creek Boulevard off of the 210 freeway and a few blocks north of Route 66.  While there is a very small vineyard here, you can see the houses built right up to the winery’s walls…an eerie reminder that this place may not have too much of a future left.
More businesslike and industrial than Galleano, Filippi’s tasting room is a large retail establishment.  Tasting is not free here…$5 gets you five poker chips.  You trade a chip for a taste of wine.  With over 20 wines available for tasting, those five chips won’t get you very far.  If there are a few of you, share tastes with each other so you can try a larger variety of wines.
We taste several wines starting with the chardonnay and the Alicante rose and ending up with their cab/franc, zinfandels, and a variety of ports.  It’s all good but not quite as good as the wine we had earlier in Mira Loma.  That, and the fact that we just spent our money on tasting, meant that we bought the day’s wines at Galleano…not Filippi.
When will wineries stop being greedy with the tastes?  I always end up buying more where I can at least deduct my tasting fee from my purchase…this is not the case at Fillipi.
Still, they have decent wine and bottles starting at $3.95, which makes them quite a bargain compared to wineries up north and to the south in Temecula.
There is also a small appetizer bar here.  You can buy a bottle to take outside and share an app.  Not a bad way to spend the day.
I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you about the area’s other major tasting room, San Antonio Winery off of the 60 freeway in Ontario.  It’s also a nice place with complimentary tasting and they too have a small zoo.  A branch of the main winery in Los Angeles, this winery does not grow or produce wines here in the valley…it is strictly a tasting room.
At the end of the day, we drive back over the Chino Hills to Anaheim and have a nice dinner at the Phoenix Club, a private German club which has a restaurant and pub that is open to the public.  Here we finish the adventure, dining on schnitzel, sausages, and pretzels and wondering how much longer that handful of wine makers over the hill can last.

Darryl
Copyright 2011 – Darryl Musick
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