More than a century before Napa and Sonoma ruled California’s wine market, the grape juice game was primarily played in the Cucamonga Valley. At one point more than 30,000 acres of vineyards covered the Inland Empire. Most of its grapes were ripped out during Prohibition, but today Cucamonga hides remnants of its boozy history, including vines that are nearly 100 years old. “A lot of the vineyards are still active only because developers have no interest in pulling up 40 acres of vines off of the 210,” says Maxwell Leer, the 29-year-old wine director at Bestia in downtown.
Wayward California wine regions like Cucamonga have lured a new generation of vintners with the promise of cheaper grapes and idiosyncratic vines. Leer was so intrigued that last fall he made his own Cucamonga wine, a variety he calls Fleur de Valle. A pale, berry-inflected Grenache vin gris (don’t call it rosé), Leer’s libation has the lingering mineral edge of the best pink wines from France or Spain. It’s ideal for summer—cold and fresh, with a slender $10 retail price tag. “I wanted to make a light and affordable seller for our market, where temperatures are warm and days are sunny,” he says.
But Fleur de Valle has some serious hurdles to overcome. There’s a reason you’d be hard-pressed to find a Cucamonga bottle at even the most farm-focused L.A. restaurant: “Most of it is ultimately second-rate wine,” says Leer. Of the Valley’s handful of wineries—which together work a scant 250 fragmented acres—most focus on déclassé sweet reds and un-ironic white zinfandel. Hoping to update the image, Leer went to fifth-generation area winemaker Kristina Filippi of Joseph Filippi Winery & Vineyards for guidance. With her help, Fleur de Valle is now the first contemporary Cucamonga wine to appear on L.A. menus and boutique store shelves.
Jill Bernheimer of the Melrose wine shop Domaine LA, which carries Fleur de Valle, doesn’t think Leer’s efforts will spark any grand Cucamonga revival. But, she says, “sourcing locally is an important moral position to take in the beverage community. This is something we have seen for years—farm to table, nose to tail. But with wine, we haven’t quite caught up.”
Find Fleur de Valle at:
Bestia, 2121 E. 7th Pl., downtown, bestiala.com
Domaine L.A., 6801 Melrose Ave., Hollywood, domaine
Salt’s Cure, 7494 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood, saltscure.com