The LA River Wine Co was founded by Abe Schoener in 2019, during which time our co-founder Christina Rasmussen travelled to California to help him establish the company and to do the first vintage.
Once a philosophy professor at St John’s College, Abe took a sabbatical in 1998, turning his hand to grape growing. He was hooked. While creating wines under his label the Scholium Project, he developed not only a fondness, but an utter dedication to the somewhat underdog vines of California, helping to highlight the lesser-known but magical vineyards that exist in the state, such as the deep-rooted ancient vines of Lodi.
Until recently, however, his forays had been amongst the vineyards of the north. But when he learnt about the history of southern California wine, something in Abe stirred — so much so, that he uprooted his life in Napa to move to Los Angeles to explore further. He picked up the phone one day to Rajat Parr, sommelier-turned-winemaker and farmer, as he had a visceral instinct this project would intrigue him too. Together, they set out to see what might be possible.
What they discovered was almost unthinkable: a treasure trove of century-old and semi-forgotten grapevines growing just 30 minutes outside of the city.
20 years after Abe’s first cuvée was bottled, a new chapter of his life in wine emerged.
The LA River Wine Co began with Rancho Cucamonga. When you travel to the largely urban area of Cucamonga now, it is somewhat incredulous to think that one century ago this was the largest grape growing region in the whole of North America.
Fast forward 100 years, and the circa 18,000 hectares of vineyards have dwindled to only a few hundred; a figure that is decreasing sometimes on a monthly basis. This rapid decline is testament to its location; an acre of land here can easily fetch several million dollars on the market, hence much of the land home to the original vineyards are now home to tarmac, motels, offices and depots of varying kinds. Thus, if you say the word Cucamonga in wine circles these days, it’s unlikely you’ll receive many nods of understanding, but rather several puzzled looks.
However, amongst the giant corporations, the concrete and the motorways, there is also hope and determination. Some of the old original vineyards remain, their determined roots buried tens of feet into the deep sand of the region. It was with this realisation that Abe took it upon himself to try to prevent their otherwise untimely fate: he would do everything in his power to bring their existence — and their magic — to light. He says,
“The idea is to work with the small remaining traces of these vineyards, and to rediscover the nature of wines that can be made in Southern California from vineyards that are so close to a city; so close to the ocean; so close to the desert — at the intersection of all of these elements.”
It isn’t just the vineyards he had in his mind, it is also the very notion of teaching winemaking; but an atavistic kind of teaching; the one that existed before modern university winemaking degrees and diplomas.
If you meet Abe and have the chance to taste with him (NB: he hosts many tastings in the US and indeed around the world – you can sign up to his mailing list here to find out more), you immediately recognise that this is not your usual winemaker. Using his own method, you often find yourself with more questions than answers — but larger questions which make you approach wine from entirely different angles. That is the point: his deep-rooted passion and unreserved love for that magical juice to wine transformation shines through. He opens another dimension of wine education; one that isn’t necessarily about sulfites, nor vessel type (although he may well refer to these aspects metaphysically; and sometimes scientifically too, albeit perhaps less often).
Since establishing the winery in Los Angeles in 2019, he has invited countless people to not only taste with him, but also to come and work in the vineyards, whether for pruning, shoot thinning or harvesting. In a sense, it is like a school — but one purely for discovery, one without exams. He says,
“The people who join us work in all walks of life. Some have careers in winemaking, some are viticulture students, others are horticulturalists and landscape architects. Then, there are many who work in fields that aren’t related at all to farming or winemaking.”
Indeed — amongst others who have joined the expeditions have been creators of craft furniture, artists and psychiatrists, but to name a few. There is, however, one thing which unites them all:
“Everybody finds joy in this; these are people who are devoted to learning. As such, people progress pretty quickly to a similar level of knowledge, and we now have a crew of around 40 people who join us during various stages of the year. Suddenly, we have a whole school of people who know how to not only prune, but to prune with care and love for old vines.”
It is undeniably the location in Los Angeles which makes this knowledge accessible, and which opens the door to the often-exclusive world of wine to people who may never have set foot in a winery before. In doing so, we can see the barriers of wine education begin to be broken down. This is wine — and wine education — for everybody.
Finding these rare and often abandoned vineyards is no mean feat, nor is finding their owners — some have simply fallen by the wayside as the property in which they’re rooted comes up for sale. There is one, however, which is an exception to this rule. Abe says,
“There's a very important vineyard remaining in Cucamonga, called the Lopez vineyard. It was planted originally in around 1918 — in advance of prohibition — specifically to grow grapes. These grapes were then shipped to immigrant communities on the East Coast, so the residents there could continue the winemaking traditions that they brought with them from the ‘old world.’”
Galleano Winery, the owner and caretaker of Lopez, is the oldest Prohibition-era winery in the Cucamonga Valley still owned by the same family and operating at its original location. Indeed, due to its age, it’s one of those rare wineries you read about in wine books. In their tasting room, you can still taste and buy their own Chianti and Burgundy labelled wines, despite there not being a vine of neither Pinot Noir nor Sangiovese planted here. This is due to the grandfather clause, which outlines that historical wineries which used these terms before it was made illegal by the respective wine regions, may continue to do so. It is a form of legacy.
Purchased in 1927 by the Galleano family, who themselves were from Piemonte, in Italy, the vineyards found themselves in the caring and determined hands of Domenico Galleano. He expanded the vineyards and worked with mules, always with the view to preserve the land and enable his vegetation to prosper. The vineyards here, still tended organically, are planted mostly to Zinfandel, in addition to a lot of Palomino. Additionally, close to the Galleano winery, there are vines of Alicante Bouschet, Salvador (an old and exceedingly rare hybrid), Palomino, Rose of Peru and Muscat.
Fast forward a century, and it is his grandson, Dominic, who continues the legacy. Dominic is an amazing guy. The price of land in this area is extortionate, but this doesn’t even cross his mind — apart from when another vineyard in the area succumbs to the fate of a bulldozer, which visibly pains him. He, however, couldn’t be more down-to-earth and devoted to his land; always in a T-shirt and sandy jeans, this is a true visionary farmer who continues his family’s legacy. He has deep love for his soils, not dollar signs, in his eyes.
Just down the street from Galleano lies another remarkable vineyard, planted in 1910. These are some of the original vines of the area, planted by one of the first Italian viticulturists who came here, named Secondo Guasti. Abe has named it Maglite, a tongue-in-cheek reference to the headquarters of the torch manufacturing company which lie opposite.
"The history books portray the planting as mostly Zinfandel, but there is a surprising amount of Grenache that has survived: in fact, two vineyards, separated by a few miles." Additionally, it is home to the País grape (also known as Listán Prieto or Mission), Rose of Peru, Muscat and Grenache Gris.”
Then, there is another vineyard — named Gateway, although ironically it does not have any gates at all. Rather, it is next to the 'Gateway Industrial Park,' thus named for being the gateway to the Rancho Cucamonga commercial empire. It is an oxymoron of sorts for the vineyard to still be there, yet it stoically remains. It has an uncertain future, for it is truly in an abandoned state and may be sold, thus it is on borrowed time. We can, however, only hope that it might fall into the right hands; hands who wish to not erase, but to preserve its legacy.
In contrast, 60 miles further south, near Temecula, lies a fortunate and much-loved vineyard. This one-and-a-bit acre vineyard has been preserved since its original planting, estimated to have been around 1890, making it the oldest surviving vineyard in southern California. It lies on a Native American reservation, and the owner tells us that it was planted by his great-great grandfather, from cuttings he himself brought over from Spain. Over time, it has been left to become a kind of garden. Oak trees have been allowed to take root, and wild grasses, shrubs and wildflowers grow amongst the vines.
Fascinatingly, you can see natural examples of ‘layering’ – a grape vine’s wild method of self-preservation. When the mother vine is dying, it creates an offshoot of its former self underneath the soil, causing a new vine to grow a few feet away.
Additionally, something that is almost unheard of happens here. Seedlings, natural offspring of grape vines grown from the seeds of grapes, are permitted to grow. In ‘normal’ vineyards, this rarely happens as the soil is tilled, and any seedlings would be considerd a nuisance and hence be ripped out. Therefore, it is possible to find vines in this vineyard that have their own unique DNA; a DNA which remains utterly shrouded in mystery. Cross-pollination with other varieties or native American grapevines is not only possible, but likely. As such, the fruit produced from these vines is about as far from homogenous as you could imagine. Only DNA tests will tell their truth — a plan for the future.
While Abe and his newfound viticulture squad work to ensure it prospers as healthily as it can, it will remain in its semi-natural state for as long as it shall live. Children play here, and part of the vineyard forms a cemetery for the families' beloved pets. On the first visit to the vineyard, from afar, what looked like a wolf roamed through the vines. Later, one of the children relayed the information that she was indeed half dog/half wolf, and thus the wine’s name was born: Lone Wolf.
It is an unprecedented example of a vineyard which defies all the ‘rules’ of viticulture we are taught; one might expect it to have died due to its age and competition from the other vegetation, but rather it is thriving. It’s the kind of place that begs the question: could it be that there is an entirely possible other realm of viticulture which has been ignored; that it is indeed not only feasible, but beneficial, to grow vineyards in semi-wild states?
Lastly, Abe has also worked with a vineyard a couple of hours north of Los Angeles, in Fresno. Due to its proximity to the town aptly named Raisin City (the area is famous for raisin production), the wine is both fondly and ironically named as such.
The story of this vineyard is also both wonderful and unlikely. With so many vines in the area grown for table fruit, to find a vineyard that is not only planted to historical and highly qualitative vine material — but to Palomino nonetheless — was a total shock. The person behind this special place is Gena Nonini of Marian Farms — one of the first biodynamic farms in the US. She planted it with her own hands, vine-by-vine, taken by cuttings originally planted by her grandfather.
Just as with the wines of the Scholium Project, there are no rules here. Perhaps the only rule is to respect the fruit. This means crushing is done very gently by foot, and the maceration period involves little to no extraction — Abe simply allows the particles of grape skins to float to the top and dry out, thereby creating a protective ‘cap’ of sorts. As such, Abe demonstrates that it is possible to create lighter, elegant styles from hot places, all with transparency at the heart, transporting historical vineyards to the bottle. These are simply made wines of humility, that highlight their place above their maker.
He makes vineyard-representative cuvées for all the sites he works with, as well as ‘blanc’ versions from the lighter coloured fruit found in some of the vineyards, such as Maglite, and the lighter-coloured berries found in Lone Wolf. Additionally, Disco Essence is a white blend created from the various parts of Palomino, to give an insight into just how delightful this frustratingly underrated variety can be when tended with love and care.
Indeed, this fight for the underrated Palomino is a microcosm of Abe’s work. His wines are never about fashion, trend, nor method. Instead, the very essence of his winemaking is about wine itself: nature giving us the ability to create a fermented beverage which tells the story of the place from which it came. And as for the places; instead of choosing well-known vineyards that already have flag-bearers; Abe speaks for the vineyards that need us the most. These are the ones whose stories have — until now — remained largely untold.
Disclaimer: Christina Rasmussen, our co-founder, is a minor shareholder in the company.