Back in Old Wine Country

Posted January 12, 2012 in Arts & Culture

Forget Napa. Back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Ontario was a winemaker’s paradise, overflowing with grapes. It was considered California’s largest wine growing and wine-producing district.


Much of that was thanks to one man: Secundo Guasti. The name Guasti is not unfamiliar in Ontario, but many current residents may be unaware of the namesake, or that Guasti is an actual unincorporated community tucked 3.5 miles east of downtown Ontario near the Ontario International Airport.


To help shed some light on the small community’s epoch of winemaking, the Museum of History and Art, Ontario, welcomes Cal Poly Pomona professor Linda Mollno Thursday, Jan. 12.


Mollno shares her knowledge about the Guasti Mansion during her illustrated lecture “Preserving the Memory of Guasti.” The lecture is in conjunction with the museum’s exhibit featuring paintings from the mansion by Norman Kennedy.


Mollno wrote her doctoral dissertation on Guasti. She lends historical context to the bacchanalia paintings, called the Guasti Murals. The paintings, while not quite mural size but rather large-scale canvases, reflect the family’s affinity for harvest time and all the intoxicant’s merriment.


The Guasti family emigrated from the Piedmont area of Italy, eventually purchasing more than 50 acres near the Ontario International Airport along with a group of Italian immigrant investors. Guasti noticed that the heavy winter rains flowed from the mountains and then remained beneath the valley’s sandy floor.


Guasti started with eight acres for the Italian Vineyard Company, turning the area into a thriving winemaking area. It transformed into a company town with its own fire station, market, bakery, church, school and much more for its nearly 200 residents.


Most recently, the Oliver McMillan Company spent more than $30 million to purchase the area from the Edwin Pauley family with the intent of developing it into a mixed-use retail and entertainment complex. Demolition started in 2007 to make way for the behemoth, but construction halted due to the recession.


Oddly enough, the remaining historical structures have been wrapped in plastic in the meantime. But for those getting antsy, there’s still plenty to discuss. The City of Ontario has spent a portion of its redevelopment funds to protect the structures and Ontario’s winery past.


The Guasti Mansion, the large Italian-style villa, was built in 1923. The murals were painted in 1924. “The site of Guasti and the vineyard industry is an important part of the regional heritage,” says Theresa Hanley, director of the Museum of History and Art, Ontario.


The Guastis actually resided in Los Angeles, where they rubbed elbows and clinked wine glasses with the glitterati of the day. Kennedy had a short career as a silent movie actor prior to becoming an acclaimed artist. Ole Hanson, the co-founder of San Clemente, also commissioned the former actor to add flair to his digs, Casa Romantica. The mansion on the coastal bluff is now a museum and cultural center.


The Guasti Murals are four neoclassical works portraying romantic symbols of the ambrosial nectar during ancient times in all its grandeur. They were removed from above the mansion’s large interior entryways and restored by a fine arts conservator.


“There are classical references and a lot of references to wine and drinking wine and wine making and grapes,” Hanley says. “So they are all part of the whole wine, grape growing, winemaking history and mythology of the whole site.”


Accompanying the collection are artifacts from Guasti, including bottles of the product and promotional materials such as a vintage photo featuring a starlet promoting the wines. The murals are on loan to the museum by the Oliver McMillan Company.


“People who have lived in the area for quite a while are usually thrilled that we have information about Guasti,” Hanley says. “Others who are newer to the area don’t know that much but many have seen the site when they’ve been to the airport and wondered what it was and are thrilled to find out.” We can all drink to that.


“Preserving the Memory of Guasti” by Linda Mollno at Museum of History and Art, Ontario, 225 S. Euclid Ave., Ontario, (909) 395-2510. Thurs, Jan. 12, 6:30PM.

Reservations recommended. Guasti Mural Exhibit at Museum of History and Art, Ontario, 225 S. Euclid Ave., Ontario, (909) 395-2510; Gallery open Thurs-Sun, noon-4PM. Free admission.


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