Campus Vineyard Preserves Local Vintage History

Campus Vineyard Preserves Local Vintage History
With grapes the second-largest agricultural commodity in the state, says Horticulture & Plant Soil Science professor Dan Hostetler, it's fitting that Cal Poly Pomona is the beneficiary of historic De Ambrogio Ranch cuttings.

A worker prepares to plant new root stock grapevines in the vineyards near AGRIscapes.

Two years ago, Don Galleano combed the fields in Rancho Cucamonga and selected 400 grapevine cuttings, some of them nearly 100 years old, from the De Ambrogio Ranch vineyard just before it was razed for development. These prize-winning Zinfandels were then potted in Cal Poly Pomona's nursery with the hope of maintaining a small piece of the Cucamonga Valley's rich wine-producing history.

“We wanted to take these prized cuttings from the De Ambrogio Ranch, which represents a lot of the history of the Cucamonga Valley, and preserve them for future generations,” says Galleano, a third-generation vintner who operates the Galleano Winery in Mira Loma and Galleano Enterprises, the largest shipper of grapes in Southern California.

“This valley used to be the country's largest grape-growing region,” says Robert Small, professor of Hotel & Restaurant Management. “With urbanization, that industry is virtually dead here.”

The Cucamonga Valley's grape-growing history dates back to the mid-1800s – when settlers (and later, the De Ambrogio and Galleano families) recognized that the region's sandy soil and favorable climate would promise dependable harvests. At their peak in the 1940s, vineyards covered 40,000 acres of the valley floor.

Today, the old-line Zinfandel cuttings from De Ambrogio Ranch, which have won multiple gold medals in international wine competitions, are part of the university's new viticulture program preparing students for careers in one of California's leading industries. The Collins School of Hospitality Management and the College of Agriculture are working with advisers from Sonoma County's Geyser Peak Winery to offer practical experience both in the classroom and out in the vineyard.

“Grapes are the second-largest agricultural commodity in the state, and we didn't have a single grapevine on this campus,” says Dan Hostetler, an Agronomy professor and chair of the Horticulture & Plant Soil Science department. “A lot of our students are getting jobs in viticulture or consulting to vineyards, and we wanted to create a hands-on lab in that area.”

This year, these historic cuttings will be grafted to three acres of root stock planted on the campus. “In preparation, the students built trellises around the root stocks, and now the two plants will be one,” says Hostetler. “It'll take another two years before we're ready for harvest – we hope to have a significant amount of fruit in 2006.”

Each step of the way, students have done the bulk of the work, plowing the field, tending the cuttings in the nursery and grafting them to the roots. Small, who also directs the Los Angeles County Fair wine competition, currently teaches a well-attended course called “Wines and Spirits,” and he expects the new viticulture courses to be just as popular. The instruction will cover all aspects of California's signature industry from disease control to marketing strategies.

Two California Lottery grants totaling $50,000 and the generosity of the community have contributed to the project. Alumnus Don Hendrickson of Hendrickson Brothers Irrigation designed the watering system; California Grapevine Nursery contributed the root stocks; and Galleano, who managed the Di Ambrogio Ranch, donated the historic cuttings. Geyser Peak Winery, which has used De Ambrogio grapes in their own wines, helped get the project going with financial backing. The winery has offered to help bottle the university's wine when it's ready.

In the future, according to Hostetler, there may well be a Cal Poly Pomona Zinfandel. “I hope one of these days students can come back to the school and buy a bottle born, raised and produced on campus.”

If a prize-winning lineage is an indicator, the university may look forward to a full-flavored home-grown vintage. “It was a super wine,” says Hostetler of the Zinfandel from De Ambrogio Ranch. “I hope ours will be as good.”