One afternoon, in early December of 2015, the tasting room of the San Antonio Winery in Lincoln Heights is filled with people doing their Christmas shopping, tasting some wine or going to lunch at the cozy restaurant. A private party is held in a hall that separates the store from the wine tanks.
On the other side, near a counter where sausages and Italian delicacies are sold, Stefano Riboli, 94, monitors closely everything that happens, as he always did since arriving in Los Angeles from Italy in 1936, at the age of 16, to help his uncle Santo Cambiánica with the business he had founded in 1917.
“When I arrived from Italy, this area was half Italian and half Mexican,” says Riboli in a perfect Spanish mixed with Italian accent. “I learned Spanish before English. In fact, at the other end of this street there was a very good family who had 12 boys. They invited me to their house on Christmas Day, in 1938, to eat tamales. Of course, I had never eaten them before.”
Those memories come more clearly than yesterday’s,” says Riboli with a smile. “When I got here, my uncle took me for a drive to show me Los Angeles. Everywhere I saw ‘For Sale’ signs and then I asked my uncle: ‘Why do they sell so much salt in Los Angeles?’” he said, smiling. “Sale is salt in Italian,” he explains.
The business, founded by his uncle and that Riboli inherited after his death in 1953, is today’s thriving San Antonio Winery, the only winery in Los Angeles and the only one that remains out of the more than 100 wineries built in this city at the beginning of the last century. At that time, many areas of Southern California, including this neighborhood north of today’s “downtown,” were covered by miles and miles of vineyards.
Although the San Antonio Winery began with the idea of producing jug wine for immigrant workers who passed through its door on their way to the railroads, today it is a very different place than it was then: it now produces high quality wines with award winning grapes from its own vineyards in Napa, Paso Robles and Monterey, and that are exported to countries such as China, Canada, Mexico and even Nigeria.
But in 1920, three years after its foundation, the winery was about to disappear, along with dozens of other wineries in Los Angeles, when the United States passed the Volstead Act, better known as “The Prohibition,” which lasted from 1920 until its derogation in 1933.
Its salvation: communion wine
What began as a small family business has flourished into a 150-personnel company. More than 100 kinds of wines are produced and bottled on the spot, with several vineyards and a winery under construction in Paso Robles, California. But Santo Cambianica’s dream almost failed after a law in 1920 banned the sale, production, import and transportation of alcoholic beverages.
“The Prohibition lasted a long time, until 1933. There were 100 wineries in Los Angeles before that, the place where the wine industry was,” says Anthony Riboli, fourth generation of the family and wine expert. “For being such a devout Catholic, the church allowed Santo to continue producing wine for communion, which kept him afloat until this period was over.”
The San Antonio Winery is still one of the main producers of altar wine in the country and its wines, especially those made based on canon law, are not only used in Los Angeles Cathedral, but it is also sold in the store as a “souvenir.”
The accessible wine for all
But something has not changed at the San Antonio Winery, says Anthony Riboli: a friendly place, where many discovered wine for the first time and where there are not “pretentious attitudes” about what you should or should not taste.
“Most of the people are afraid to talk because they think that wine is for experts,” says Riboli. “Unfortunately, the wine industry has always been so stretched and that’s fine for some, but most people do not want that, they want a comfortable place. Here we are kind, we speak Spanish, we adapt to all cultures.”
Perhaps because of that attitude or because they are located in the heart of Los Angeles, the customers are very diverse, like the population of Los Angeles. “At least 50% Latino,” says Riboli, who is the first college graduate wine expert of the family and who also speaks Spanish very well. “But we have all kind of people and we treat them equally”.
Nine members of the Riboli family work in the company today, including his grandparents Stefano and Maddalena, who still come very often to see how everything works. The grandmother had the idea, in 1974, of creating the restaurant next to the shop and tasting room. Santo Riboli, Anthony’s father, is the president of the company.
Her aunt Cathy now runs the restaurant, his uncle Steve is in charge of marketing, Anthony oversees the wine production and three cousins have positions in other departments of the company.
Anthony and Arnaud Debons, a French wine expert, constantly travel to the vineyards where they grow the grapes with dedication. Debons, a young wine expert who worked in the Bordeaux and Cahors area in France before coming to California, is married to a Mexican American and the couple is expecting their first baby.
“I came from France to California looking for a new experience. Of course I still believe in the tradition of how things are done there, but it is not about French wine making in California. You have to work with local grapes and the terrain,” said Debons.
Today, the San Antonio Winery is not only the oldest wine cellar in Los Angeles (and the only one in an urban area), but it was declared a cultural monument of Los Angeles in the sixties. “We have a very diverse staff, but a large number are Latino,” says Anthony. “We are a reflection of Los Angeles.”