Inland Southern California Wine
This brief address was written for a presentation to the Redlands Rotary Club and delivered in November of this year. It is broken into four parts, which, in broad strokes, describe why we make wine how and where we do: Heritage, Soil, Grapes, and Philosophy.
In 1882 Theophile Vache, a French immigrant, leased a vineyard from Dr. Benjamin Barton to the west of the present day Barton Mansion. The vineyard was planted to so-called “Mission” grapes, which came from Mission San Gabriel. Three years later, in a newly constructed winery just up the street in San Timoteo Canyon, Vache fermented the first vintage of Brookside Winery, made from Zinfandel and Mission he’d planted at the mouth of the Canyon. Redlands was already heavily restricting the sale of alcohol 5 years before the Volstead Act, forcing the Vache family to give up on their property and on Redlands in 1914 and move their wine production to Rancho Cucamonga. About a decade later, during prohibition, Domenico Galleano constructed an eponymous winery in a town now called Mira Loma and befriended the Vache family. By this time, Secondo Guasti, an immigrant from Piedmont, like Domenico Galleano, had grown the Italian Vineyard Company in a town that once bore his name into a 5-thousand acre vineyard of Grenache, Zinfandel, Alicante Bouschet, Mission and others along with a winery producing 3.5 million gallons of wine. To the north, Jose Lopez, another immigrant, planted Zinfandel for packing grapes used by home winemakers along with smaller quantities of Palomino and Grenache.
While the Redlands vineyards were torn out to make room for oranges, these other plantings remain the foundation of Inland Southern California wine, over 100 years later, though subdivisions and warehouses encroach ever further every year.
In 2014, Karen Sherman, a Redlands native and winemaker in Escondido, helped George Aballi plant a quarter acre of Primitivo on a steep slope in his mother-in-law's backyard: one of many projects undertaken by small scale wine growers in the San Bernardino Valley, including many in Yucaipa, inspired by the submission of a new American Viticultural Area in the shadow of San Bernardino peak.
Last year, our winery Herrmann York, made wine from the same vines as Theophile Vache, Jose Lopez, Secondo Guasti, Domenico Galleano, and Karen Sherman as well as others across Southern California in a facility just down Nevada St. from Dr. Barton and the Vaches.
People often ask why a certain place is “right” for grapes, probably because most wineries talk about how the “conditions” of the land on which they grow grapes are somehow “ideal” and that’s why you should join their wine club. But this is misleading because it presumes that there is an “ideal” to begin with. There are thousands of different grape varieties that prefer wildly different growing conditions, and there are many dozens of styles of wine, which beg exploration, not stack ranking.
Similarly, there is no “ideal” soil for wine because each has a signature effect on the wine it grows. Limestone soil, for example, produces lean and elegant wines whereas granite produces wines of muscle and power. This is massively oversimplified, but our time is limited.
There is, however, something unique about the soils of the Inland Empire. They’re granite, rich in quartz, and very sandy. This is important because the little louse Phylloxera does not like quartz, or sand. In the 1850s, that little louse all but obliterated every vineyard in Europe, and the only solution to the problem was to graft every European vine onto American rootstock because the louse did not eat the American stock. Some European vignerons still claim something immense was lost when they had to graft. The wines lost focus, purity. There are only a handful of vineyards in the world that are still on European roots: in Australia, in the Canary Islands, and those vineyards planted by Jose Lopez, Secondo Guasti, and Domenico Galleano in Cucamonga. Because of the sandy, quartz-heavy soils, the louse never destroyed these. And because the soils are so loose and the rain so rare, the roots have burrowed over 40 feet to the water table and aren’t reliant on irrigation of any kind.
Zinfandel is California’s grape, and you would be forgiven for thinking of it as a bold, alcoholic bruiser because that is often how it’s made. Winemaker at Turley Wine Cellars, Tegan Passalacqua, has said that it only starts to show its character above 15% alcohol. But it can show other sides. The grape is originally Croatian, where it is known as Crljenak Kaštelanski. From there, it went to Italy in the suitcase of a Dalmatian priest, and was deemed Primitivo for its early ripening, and then to the East Coast of the United States where it was kept alive in the greenhouses of Boston before slowly making its way to its promised land, the golden state. Most of our old vineyards, both north and south, were planted predominantly to Zinfandel because of its many virtues: it can withstand hard times, loves the heat, needs little water, retains acidity despite reaching dizzying heights of ripeness, and can make a surprising range of wines. From Healdsberg to Lodi to Cucamonga, Zinfandel is king. In the hands of winemakers like Joe Swan or Passalacqua or Paul Draper of Ridge, it shows what’s possible from California terroir.
Over in San Timoteo Canyon, Vache planted loads of Zinfandel with its supporting variety, Carignane. But for whites, he planted another red grape: one often referred to as Mission. See, the juice of most grapes, even the black ones, is clear. If you press the juice away and allow it to ferment without the skins, you get a white wine. The cuttings they planted came from Barton who got them from Mission San Gabriel where they were planted in the 18th century. Though they were planted near one, “Mission” is likely the least appropriate name for this globetrotting variety. Originally, it was called Listan Prieto and is still found in Spain and on the Canary Islands. In South America, it’s called Pais. In parts of the Americas it's called Rose of Peru. There is, of course, variation in DNA between cultivars bearing these names, but they can be understood as being connected.
In addition to Zinfandel and Pais, the spanish variety Palomino (most often planted for sherry) and Grenache (a heat-loving mediterranean grape also frequently used to make sweet wines) were planted by the experimental and resourceful immigrants who paid close attention to the landscape of Inland Southern California with its relentless sun and heat. Both have stood up to time and still produce fruit, year after year, even though their original farmer’s children are long dead.
These varieties have a deep connection to this place and have told its story for generations. So called international varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay are relative newcomers whose glories are often sung, but whose wines are too often unimaginative.
If you look into the past of southern California winemaking, you’ll notice production is often measured in millions of gallons and wines are identified with the names of regions of France like Champagne, Chablis, or Burgundy rather than by the names of their vineyards. You’ll also read sentences like “The Vaches produced ordinary wine because the climate at Redlands does not favor premium varieties of grapes.” There was a sense of inferiority, a need to produce large quantities if quality was not an option, and a need to ride the coattails of regions with the “ideal” conditions. Even today, you feel that sense of inferiority when you visit local winemakers who elect to buy fruit from other more recognized regions of the state. But just look around. The vines of the Inland Empire still stand on their own roots, without water, producing beautiful, heritage varieties. New vines planted in the backyard of ambitious small-scale farmers take to the soil with verve, quickly producing fruit of intriguing character. The original sin of southern California winemaking is not believing in its own capacity for greatness.
And in order for a wine to be great, the winemakers must take care. They cannot engineer a wine to be great. They must work in concert with the fruit and the microbiology of the vineyard. They must respect what makes something unique, not ideal, delicious, not premiere. Our winery is proud of our heritage and, so long as we can, we will continue to make the most honest wines from this great place that we can.
In January, we’ll go into the fields with our families and take cuttings from the vines of Lopez and Galleano and Guasti and Mission San Gabriel. We’ll bind them up and bring them home to Redlands where we’ll find a piece of land, not far from where the Theophile Vache planted quite possibly the very same vine material over 140 years ago and bring vines and wine back after too long an absence.