Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Sweet Taste of Wine

By Mark W. Danielson

It was the kind of day dreams are made of; sapphire sky, snow-capped mountains, spring flowers, perfect temperature. I don’t visit Ontario, California, often, and when I do, I normally find myself taking walks along its busy avenues. But on this trip, I discovered Guasti Road, which parallels Interstate 10, dividing fields of lifeless vineyards whose vines rival modern art sculptures. Some of these vines defy nature, sprouting new growth from whatever water the sky delivers, despite decades of neglect. Snowy Egrets stroll these mustard-covered fields doing whatever Egrets do. Smaller birds chirp in the distance. Surrounding the area are shark-tooth mountains snapping at the sky. With few cars traveling this route, my walk was tremendously peaceful.

My vantage from the pedestrian bridge crossing Ontario International Airport’s main entry showed several enormous stone warehouses a short distance east. Inside this vast cordoned area of decaying buildings, natural grass, and wildflowers, workers inspected some boarded homes. Around the corner, a rendering of the Historic Guasti District showed how these stone warehouses will be converted into shops and restaurants. Presumably, the boarded wooden homes will also be included in this restoration. With the Ontario Convention Center, two interstate freeways, and the international airport nearby, this redevelopment plan seems ideal, but what’s the history behind this historic area? Further down, an old warehouse sign confirmed this was once the winery, and gave purpose to these lifeless vineyards.

Just east of these giant warehouses lies a mission-style mansion hiding under a small forest’s canopy. I still knew little about this location, but deductive reasoning was pulling this together. Fifty steps further, a sign over the double-wide trailer posing as a US Post Office stated this enclosed area was once the Guasti Vineyard.

Italian immigrant Secundo Guasti originally came to LA as a cook, but after marrying his proprietor’s daughter, purchased 5,000 desert acres 45 miles east of LA for $3,750.00, certain that there was underground water, and that the soil would produce good wine grapes. His hunch paid off, and this vineyard later became California’s largest winery.

Guasti imported entire families from Italy and formed a company town bearing his name. He provided single-family housing for married couples, and boarding rooms for single men. He built a general store where his workers could purchase wares with their chits. A firehouse, school house, post office, and church were also constructed. With his town now a bustling community, he built his mansion in its center to impress visiting dignitaries and board members. But in 1903, the railroad tracks he laid to bring in the crop led to a tragic locomotive derailment, killing thirty two of his laborers. Afterwards, his workers declared the vineyards haunted, and eventually Guasti believed it himself. Many years later, the Haunted Vineyard became a favorite Halloween haunt until 2006 when zoning changes forced its closure.

Following Secundo’s death in 1927, his mansion was sold to Hollywood film director and choreographer Busby Berkeley, but the vineyard continued operations as the Italian Vineyard Company until 1945 when it was acquired by Garrett & Company. In 1956 the Brookside Vineyard Company moved to the Guasti location. Later, the original cooperage building was used by the Joseph Filippi Winery as a tasting room. The Gausti mansion was also a favorite wedding location until it was sold to the development firm of Oliver McMillan in 2006. Unfortunately, McMillan’s ambitious redevelopment plan has yet to break ground.

Admittedly, I didn’t know any of this when I began my walk. On my way back to the hotel, several historical markers piqued my curiosity. The first pointed me toward the Guasti church located a block south, which still holds Mass today. Another stated that in World War II, Italian Prisoners of War were brought to the winery and worked for a weekly jug of wine and some chits to the company store. The next one said the warehouse’s walls were three feet thick and twenty-five feet tall, made from granite hauled from quarries fourteen miles away. As for the haunted vineyards? Well, they weren’t mentioned, and I never saw any ghosts. Then again, the sun was out. When I got back to my room, I spent hours researching Guasti the man, the town, and the vineyards. My walk’s biggest lesson? Had I not been observant, I would have missed out on this important slice of history.


Jean Henry Mead said...

Interesting story, Mark, and great photos. It reminds me of the Gallo Brothers of central California. There are plenty of ghosts in that story as well.

Mark W. Danielson said...

My brother has been a chemist for Gallo in Modesto for thirty years. Things have changed dramatically since Ernest and Julio passed away. They are still an amazing company that manufacturers their own bottles and uses their own cork. One stop shopping, as they say.