Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from "Tangled Vines: Greed, Murder, Obsession, and an Arsonist in the Vineyards of California" by Frances Dinkelspiel. Lost LA's Nathan Masters recently caught up with Dinkelspiel to discuss her book and the research that made it possible. Click here to read the full interview.
The grape vines were scraggly. They pushed their way out of the ground with barely enough enthusiasm to crawl up the metal stakes meant to hold them. Some had a few bright green leaves and twisting tendrils emerging from a winter sleep, but a significant number were gray and barren.
As I stood under the warm April sky and looked at the vines, I found it hard to believe that this spot was once home to one of the most admired vineyards in California, lauded for its wine, port and sweet Angelica. Weary travelers on their way to the gold mines had exulted in the liquid made from its grapes, and judges at 19th century state fairs had given the wines top awards.
But Rancho Cucamonga, forty miles east of Los Angeles, was now a city of strip malls, chain restaurants, and hotels, indistinguishable from surrounding towns. Three highways cut through the once-verdant area. Lines of houses crawled all the way to the base of the nearby San Gabriel Mountains, which were often obscured by smog wafting east from Los Angeles.
I had come to Rancho Cucamonga to see if I could find any reminders of the 1875 wine that had been destroyed in the Wines Central warehouse fire. Ever since I had heard that my cousin, Miranda Heller, had stored our great-great-grandfather's wine in the warehouse and it had boiled in its bottles, I wanted to know more about its creation. I couldn't find any reference to that specific vintage in the forty boxes of my great-great grandfather's papers stored at the California Historical Society. No family letters about the wine remained. The only clue I had to the origin of the wine was the label on one of the green oversized bottles that had not burned up. "Private Stock, Isaias W. Hellman," was printed at the top, under what looked like a cattle brand with the initials "IWH." "Port wine, Cucamonga Vineyard, San Bernardino County, California," was spelled out below in ornate script. "Vintage 1875. Bottled from wood 1921," was under that.
So I traveled to where the wine had its beginnings. I knew that Hellman was only one of a long string of stewards of the vineyard that yielded the grapes for his wine. I had traveled four hundred miles from Berkeley to see if I could reconstruct that lineage and chain of ownership, a task that would take months of searching through county deeds, court cases, and history books. Who had planted the grapes? I wondered. Who had made the wine? I eventually would follow the path the wine took from its inception in 1839 to its creation in 1875 to its destruction in 2005. The story was, in many ways, a reflection of the history of wine in California. The bottles were connected to the early days of the wine business in Los Angeles, when it couldn't even be characterized as an industry, to winemakers' attempts to capture the attention of East Coast drinkers, to battles for market domination that raged until Prohibition.
That's how I found myself standing near one of the few remaining vineyards - if it could be called that - in the area. It was just a small patch of grapevines in front of an historic home that belonged to one of the early owners of Rancho Cucamonga. Clearly it was not well tended. Before World War II, there had been more than 27,000 acres of grapes1 around Rancho Cucamonga, making western San Bernardino County the largest grape-growing region in America - larger than Napa and Sonoma combined. Urban development wiped that away. Now, there was little to remind me of what the land had been like during that era, let alone in 1839 when the first cultivated grapes went in the ground.
1Thomas Pinney, A History of Wine in America: From Prohibition to the Present, (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London, University of California Press, 2005) 69.