“If you travel on Route 66 to Haven Avenue, you can’t miss her. She’s been standing on the same northwest corner for 75 years. ” So wrote John in his 1984 Chaffey College article featured in the college newspaper about the Virginia Dare Winery. The article continued: “Abandoned since 1960, she survived mysterious fires that swept through her in 1964, and in 1969. She even survived floods which devastated much of San Bernardino County.”
The Virgina Dare Winery in Rancho Cucamonga, California, was built in 1908 by Chinese laborers who also built the aqueduct above Cal State San Bernardino, and several other projects. The Winery was originally called the “Mission Winery.” In 1985, the old Virginia Dare was reborn into the place you see today. Only the bell tower remains of the original buildings.
The history of Southern California wine making began when the first vineyards were planted in Cucamonga back to 1839. Cucamonga was one of the few places in California that retained its old Indian name, said to be derived from “Cucamongabit,” meaning “Land of Many Springs.”
In 1910 the operation was purchased by the “Garrett Winery” out of Brooklyn, New York. Wine making persisted and, around the turn of the century, had a renewal in the Cucamonga district. The deep sandy soils of Cucamonga made it more or less immune to the attack of phylloxera, a grape vine-eating aphid, at a time when vineyards nearly everywhere else in California were being rapidly destroyed.
By 1911, the winery was in full production with over 750 acres of vineyards, second in size only to Guasti Vineyards in Ontario, California. Inside the winery were the large redwood tanks, some holding 52,000 gallons, in which the grape juice was stored and fermented in the old tradition.
The wine was never bottled at the Virginia Dare plant, however. It was shipped by rail to the company’s winery in Brooklyn for this final step. It was the Brooklyn address that appeared on the label, even though it was actually a California wine.
The origin of the winery’s name is a peek into history. Virginia Dare (born August 18, 1587), was the first Christian child born in the British Colonies in the New World. She was born to English parents, Ananias Dare and Elyonor (Eleanor) White and named after the Virginia Colony.
What became of Virginia and the other colonists remains a mystery. The fact of her birth is known because John White, Virginia’s grandfather and the governor of the colony, returned to England in 1587 to seek fresh supplies. When White eventually returned three years later, the colonists were gone. Virgina Dare, at the age of three, was never seen again, and now lives on through legend.
During the past four hundred years, Virginia Dare has become a prominent figure in American myth and folklore, symbolizing different things to different groups of people. She has been featured as a main character in books, poems, songs, comic books, television programs and films. Her name has been used to sell different types of goods, from vanilla products to wine and spirits.
When Prohibition started in 1920, it created all sorts of contradictions in the wine industry. It lasted until December 1933 when it was repealed. Prohibition shut down the regular operation of wineries, but it did not necessarily put an end to them. The ingenuity of Americans lives on today.
One surprising contradiction during Prohibition was the provision that each head of household was permitted to make up to 200 gallons of wine each year for use at home. America was a nation of immigrants and many had come to this country with a tradition of home wine making and were used to drinking wine with each meal.
There were many wine tonics made during Prohibition, but you had to request a prescription from your pharmacist. Wine could also be used in cooking. So not surprisingly, during Prohibition, with the provision for home wine-making, the sale of wine grapes skyrocketed. Vineyard acreage doubled during Prohibition.
“During Prohibition we stayed in business making sacramental wine,” said Sam Elder when he was interviewed by John in 1984. Mr. Elder worked for the winery beginning 1929. He liked the work, so he stayed on for over 30 years, until the winery closed in 1960.
“It was pretty easy going then. We had a government agent at the winery called a gauger, to monitor our compliance with federal regulations. There was always a pot of coffee going in the gauger’s office and we would all stop working around 10:00 in the morning for coffee in his office.”
During the second World War, the Virginia Dare Winery did her part. Pumice from the crushed grapes was used by the government in the making of explosives, since pumice has such a high content of potassium. After the war in 1947, the Garrett-Virginia Dare Winery bought the Guasti Italian Vineyard Company of Ontario.
By 1950, wineries decreased from its height of 163 in the mid-1930s to 68. Wineries continued to drastically diminish by the 1970s and were practically extinct by the 1980s. San Bernardino County, where the Cucamonga district lies, had 23,000 acres of grapes in 1960. By 1997 only a scant 1,000 acres remained.
The end came in 1960. The doors to the Virginia Dare Winery closed for good. Sam Elder by then was head vintner, went into the real estate business. The Garrett Company tried to stay in business with its other holdings, but before the year was over they were out of business after over 100 years in the wine trade. Garrett may have gone out of business but Virginia Dare wasn’t ready to retire.
Hollywood discovered the buildings in the early 1960s and they became a popular background in television shows, including the Combat series, where the site was often used because of its European look. In 1964, the winery was damaged by fire. Sam Elder suspected the movie industry was at fault but it was never proven. Afterwards, the gutted interiors of the buildings resembled any town square in Italy after an Allied bombing run.
To look at the six walls, it was hard to believe that the structure was unsound; some of them were over two feet thick of solid concrete. Unfortunately, not reinforced concrete. The Chinese laborers who erected the walls in 1908 had no reinforcing rod, and the contractors couldn’t foresee the building codes of the future.
A transformation of the aged winery took place in 1984. “We’d like to save the buildings and remodel them as they are, but according to the state engineers, it can’t be done,” explained Dave Michaels, Vice President in charge of marketing. “As it is, we’re going to spend $500,000 just to save the building in front with the bell tower.”
At the time, plans called for saving the grape-crushing building in the back to be used as a museum dedicated to the history of the Virginia Dare Winery. It would contain many mementos owned by Sam Elder, who was possibly the only person around with first hand knowledge.
Virginia Dare Winery became a business center, featuring professional and medical offices. The bell tower remains as its focal point.
It is believed on some rare moonless nights one can still hear the rolling of heavy redwood barrels, the deep hiss of a steam engine and the deliciously sensual perfume of fermented grapes on the breeze. We think the long ago departed Sam Elder would be pleased.
Note: There are other namesake Virginia Dare Wineries located in Geysersville, California owned by legendary film maker Francis Ford Coppola; Brooklyn, New York, and Chesterfield, Missouri.