Tuesday, June 29, 2021

The Passing of Legendary Old Vine Champion Don Galleano: Winemaker Carol Shelton, Queen of Zin, Weighs in on the Man and His Legacy

Don Galleano, 2014

Not many wine lovers know that Southern California and Los Angeles were the first California wine country. Fewer still believe that remnants of the world of sweet wines and sherries lives on or that one could have 300 acres of organic dry farmed Zinfandel, some of it 80 year old bush vines growing in sand by the freeway. 

But for Don Galleano, this was a lived reality. The patriarch of an historic holdout in the Cucamonga Valley AVA, he presided over vines preserved due to his love and passion - until his death on June 2.

I had the good fortune to meet him once and to interview him in his home, an experience I will never forget. 

For starters, he greeted me with a plastic water tumbler sized glass - a red one like you might have had at your grandmother's house - and it was filled with Zinfandel. No four ounce pours here.

I felt like I was immersed in a world I could only have read about in wine history books. No history book could possibly match the experience of talking and drinking with him.  

First of all, what wine guy invites you into his home to drink and talk while he's sitting in his recliner ?

I loved the fact that he had an old wine country tourist map of the region showing The Road to Romance circa the 1940s.

I marveled at many details in Jon Bonne's 2014 article. He wrote that the dry farmed roots of the José Lopez vines, "push 30 feet or more into the sandy soils, strewn with granite rocks washed from the mountains above."  
Galleano's sherries reflect Old California.
 Its gorgeous, sumptuous Rose of Peru
is a unique tribute to an historical grape.

Galleano's old vine vineyard

We talked about water - he was on the local water district board for years and he knew the ins and outs of the allocation system thoroughly. 

He dry farmed all of his vines - no conflict of interest there. 

Under his watch, the winery certified all of its vines as organic.

In 1995, locals got their own Cucamonga Valley AVA. The region had once grown 40,000 acres of grapes, but by 2000 had only 1,200 left. Galleano's were the only organic vineyards among them. 

While most of the vines were Zin, others were Carignane, Grenache, Mission, Mourvedre and Palomino. Galleano worked with Cal Poly Pomona to make sure cuttings from historic vines were preserved at the college's Horsehill Vineyard.   

Galleano's grandfather founded the winery in 1933. 

A community minded leader, Galleano was very engaged in local groups and served as a judge in wine competitions, where he was also an influential presence.


Sonoma winemaker Carol Shelton, often called the queen of Zin, produces an outstanding Zinfandel from the historic Jose Lopez Vineyard, which was planted in 1918. The tiny bush vines still bear delicious, tiny sweet berries. (I was there just before harvest once and tasted them for myself. They grow unpretentiously on the side of the freeway).

Last week I spoke with Carol Shelton, who bought grapes from Don and his son Dominic, to make her Monga Zin ($26) about Don and his legacy. 

Carol Shelton with grapes at the José Lopez Vineyard, planted just before Prohibition

What was Don like?

He was a cool guy. He was kind of like a mafia don. We used to call him The Don or Donald.

He wore his pants high up on his waist with a belt and his hair was slicked back and he wore a turtleneck a lot of the time. Marlon Brando had nothing on him. He was great.

How did he work to preserve his old vines?

Don was passionate about protecting his vineyard and making sure it got recognized and he was fighting to get it made a historic landmark so it's a big loss. I don't think he had finished that job. So that’s really sad. 

He got the winery property landmarked. I registered the vineyard in the Historic Vineyard Society but he didn’t manage to get the government to name the vineyard an historic landmark which would have protected it from future development. 

They've already lost a good portion - probably two thirds - of the vineyard to development, because there weren't any freeways when it was planted, right? And they put ten lanes of Route 15 in, and then they put 210 in, which bisects the vineyard. And then there's all this new housing. There’s tremendous pressure to develop the land. The land is actually, I believe, owned by a rich Singapore businessman. I've never met him, I don't even know his name. I think he just leased the property to Donald and it was just a line on his income statement, you know, and he didn't really know what it was - just an asset. It was a much more valuable asset for housing.

José Lopez Vineyard 

What was his winery like?

The Galleano family has a 12 acre vineyard adjacent to their Mira Loma winery, which is kind of a sprawling place. Actually, every time I go there, I think, “Oh my God, I've just seen Pancho Villa with crossed bandoliers coming out, shooting, because it just looks like something out of old Mexico or something.

Don had great stories. Some of them would change a little bit every time he told them. 

I heard that the Jose Lopez vineyard was very old - it was planted in 1918. And then I heard different years in Don's subsequent retellings of the story.

He said that his property right there at the winery in Mira Loma was acquired in a poker game with one of Pancho Villa’s lieutenants - Esteban Cantu. They actually made a freeway exit for him.

Cantu was either one of Galleano's predecessors, and he owned the land around the winery. Then there was a big poker game, and he lost the land to Domenico Galleano. 

Don had a lot of colorful stories.

How did he die?

He contracted a virus about five years ago that was one of those weird things that took the doctors a long time to diagnose. He came very close to dying in the hospital, and it weakened his heart. So I think the biggest guess is that he died in his sleep when his heart gave out. 

He wasn't one for doing a lot of exercise and for taking care of himself. He smoked cigars. He drank. It was his lifestyle. He wasn't an alcoholic by any means. But he just definitely liked his lifestyle and he wasn't about to change it. And that's kind of what ultimately caused his demise.


Will the old vine plant material be saved?

As for the vineyard, there have been a few people that have taken tissue cuttings and propagated. Cal Poly Pomona and ZAP have some of the plant material. 

What, are there any of his wines that inspired you? Like his sherrys? I know you made that Tawny Monga once?

Well his Zin was your basic Dago Red. It was classic as an old school jug style. 

But his sherrys were really good. And that's how I got to know him when I worked for Windsor Vineyards, and we wanted to bottle port and sherry. 

I came down because he had some of the best stock in the country. So I went to see him once when I was doing a wine competition. So I flew in early and had a big tasting session with him and his winemaker, Jason Bushong (who’s up in Paso now). We tasted through all these different barrels and I'd say, “Okay, I want this one, this one this one, and skip those.” So then they loaded up a tanker and I took it back up north to Windsor. 

What he did with those sherries was amazing. He really had the handle on dessert wine.

He also farmed a lot of vineyards around the area. He had a real love for the heritage of the Cucamonga Valley.

So your Tawny Monga - was that inspired by his sweet wines? 

It was in a year that was very tough to harvest, because there was a terrible heat wave, and it’s a long story but the truck from the vineyard got a flat tire in the middle of a cell phone dead zone that was between Cucamonga and Temecula. 

For the first 10 or so years that I got the fruit, I had to crush in Temecula because of the glassy winged sharpshooter quarantine. So I got to know everybody down there.

The truck got stuck on Highway 15 and the guy had to walk out to get help. By the time we saw the truck, it was past eight o'clock at night. It had left the vineyard between 12 and one in the afternoon in a heat wave. The heat was radiating off the pavement. The fruit was a bit cooked, so we took the press fraction, fortified it and made port out of it. It made a damn good port.

Yes, I had some of that when I came to your place several years ago and I loved it.  I just absolutely adored it and I should try to get some more of that.

Make sure you get some from Galleano's place - he's got some really really good stuff. His cream sherry and Angelica are amazing.

Yes I have some Rose of Peru and a Mary Margaret sherry, which were his best.

His legacy was really amazing. It would be a great loss if it wasn't protected.


Southern California friends of Don Galleano are planning a memorial service to celebrate his life. A date has not yet been announced.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for sharing this important history and for reminding us of Don Galleano's and others efforts to preserve unique California vineyards. It is sad to know what can be lost to development even with passionate advocates.