John Rains created the area’s first substantial vineyard in 1859. Originally from Alabama, Rains held various jobs (soldier, Texas ranger, livestock driver), before winding up in Los Angeles where he bought a hotel in 1851. A few years later, Rains left Los Angeles for the Cucamonga Valley, where he oversaw a ranch for cattle baron Isaac Williams.
Williams died in 1856 and three days later Rains married Maria Merced Williams, one of his late employer’s two daughters. In 1858, soon after legal issues regarding the Williams estate had been sorted out, Rains and his wife sold their half of the Williams’ ranch to Maria Merced’s brother-in-law, Robert Carlisle.
With the proceeds, Rains purchased Rancho Cucamonga, shares in two other ranches, and re-purchased the hotel in Los Angeles. Rains expanded the Ranch Cucamonga vineyard to 175,000 vines. But a series of calamities brought disaster to Rains and his enterprises. The country fell into an economic depression, the appetite for the area’s cattle declined, and the region suffered from both devastating floods and an extended drought. By 1862, Rains was deep in debt, had mortgaged the ranch, and was seeking additional funds.
Late that year, Rains was brutally murdered while on his way to Los Angeles to secure more financing. There was no shortage of suspects, yet the crime was never solved. Among the suspects were his brother-in-law, Robert Carlisle, and Ramon Carillo, rumored to be Maria Merced’s lover.
But the intrigue didn’t stop there. In 1864, Ramon Carillo was shot to death outside the ranch house. In 1865, Carlisle, who had tried to take control of the Rains estate and then been legally stripped of that responsibility, died after an epic gunfight with his rivals for the estate in Los Angeles.
Soon after, the ranch went into foreclosure. Brothers Pierre and Jean-Louis Sainsevain acquired part of the ranch and added even more vines. But by 1870 the ranch was again in trouble and was purchased by Isaias Hellman in a sheriff’s sale. Hellman was able to turn things around and prospered, producing high-quality fortified wines.
Guasti established the Italian Vineyard Company in 1883 and grew that business dramatically. He created a full-on company town, complete with homes, a school, a store, and more. By 1917, the vineyard comprised 2,023 contiguous hectares (5,000 contiguous acres), which Guasti claimed made it the largest vineyard in the world. His annual production at that time was around 13 million liters ( 3.5 million gallons).
In 1919, overall vine acres for the Cucamonga Valley stood at 8,094 ha (20,000 acres). Then came Prohibition. Prohibition, however, did not have the devastating impact on the region’s vineyards that one might expect.
Some wineries survived as well, selling sacramental wine to churches. And some more than doubled the alcohol in their fortified wines, reaching the level required for it to be purchased with a prescription as “medicinal.” Not all wineries made it through, but Prohibition was finally repealed in 1933 and the wine industry was able to enter a new era.
In 1934, the Cucamonga Pioneer Vineyard Association was established. It was a cooperative winery and marketing organization run by local growers. As time passed, Cucamonga Valley viticulture continued to thrive, while production in other parts of southern California steadily declined. By 1968, Cucamonga Valley was making 47.5 million bottles of wine per year, 98% of all the wine made in southern California.
Beginning in the 1960s, urban sprawl and the high price developers were willing to pay for land began eating away at vineyard acreage. Demand for sweet and fortified wines started to drop at about the same time. And competition for those sales from other regions and from overseas increased. Though much less of an issue now, air pollution did hurt viticulture for many years. Southern California vineyards have also suffered from Pierce’s Disease, a devastating malady spread principally by a flying insect called the glassy-winged sharpshooter.
When the Cucamonga Valley AVA was approved in 1995, it included five wineries and 809 ha (2,000 acres) under vine. Today, just three wineries and 130 ha (320 planted acres) remain. That’s a massive decline from the 14,164 ha (35,000 acres) and 60 wineries the region hosted as late as the 1950s. The remaining wineries hold true to the area’s past though, offering robust red wines, fortified wines, and even advertising sacramental wines.