Urban legend: Winery that survived Prohibition thrives in downtown L.A.
Nov./Dec. 2009 California Country magazine
Story by Tracy Sellers
Photos by Scott Monaco and Riboli Family
A very special Southern California winery has lasted so long it is now one of the last urban wineries in the country.
The Riboli family's long winemaking tradition began in 1917 with Santo Cambianica, who later passed the business to his nephew, Stefano Riboli. Today Steve, Stefano, Maddalena, Anthony, Joan and Michael Riboli, from left above, are among those carrying on the tradition.
What could a bottle of wine, a church and Prohibition possibly have in common? Surprisingly, more than you might think. All three are tied to the success of one of the oldest urban wineries in the nation.
The sole survivor in a once-booming wine region, the San Antonio Winery is located in the last place you'd expect to find a thriving winery: downtown Los Angeles. Surrounded by a cement plant, parcel shipping depot and commuter rail line, this family-owned, family-operated business has outlived almost everything around it—and has continued to prosper.
Maddalena and Stefano Riboli, shown with daughter Cathy, son Santo and Stefano's mother, Caterina Satragni, all helped save San Antonio winery from extinction.
But to really understand the winery's present success, you must first learn about its storied past.
In 1917 Santo Cambianica left his home in the Northern Italian province of Lombardy to settle in the midst of a bustling Italian-American community in Los Angeles. That is where he fulfilled his dream that year of opening his own winery. In the hope of finding good fortune in his new home country, he dedicated the winery to Saint Anthony, his patron saint. By 1936 the winery was booming. The busy entrepreneur needed help, so he summoned his 17-year-old nephew, Stefano Riboli, from Italy.
"I came to America knowing nothing about the wine business, so the first night I was here my uncle showed me how to wash wine barrels and I learned as I went," Stefano, now 88, remembered.
Today the entire Riboli family is involved in the operation, which has grown to include a wine shop and a restaurant. Stefano's two sons, Steve and Santo, help run the winery. Santo's wife, Joan, works in sales with their son, Michael, while their other son, Anthony, oversees winemaking. Stefano's wife, Maddalena, runs the restaurant named in her honor. And Stefano continues doing what he's enjoyed doing for more than 70 years—involving himself closely with wine and family.
"I just feel so lucky to have my family and my children, because if not, I never would have made it," he said. "They started out young, just like me, and helped me so much."
Familiar faces at the winery today include Maddalena and son Steve.
Also helping the winery survive through some of their leanest years was aid from an unexpected source. In 1920 Prohibition jolted the wine industry in America. The majority of Los Angeles' 100 wineries closed forever, but Santo Cambianica made a special plea to ensure his winery would survive. He requested permission from the Roman Catholic Church to make sacramental wines. The church granted his request, the San Antonio Winery pulled through and the rest, as they say, is history.
"We were a little winery and two churches kept our doors open for 10 years," said Steve. "We always talk about it with tremendous pride because it's what kept us around—just two churches."
The contracts allowed the winery to expand from 2,000 cases of sacramental altar wine annually to 25,000 cases by 1933, when Prohibition was repealed. Even after Prohibition ended, the family continued catering to churches. As late as the 1960s, San Antonio's sacramental wine business was largely confined to Southern California, but the winery subsequently expanded its horizons. It now produces more than 60,000 cases of altar wine each year for distribution to churches in Chicago, New York and St. Louis.
Grapes from the family's vineyards in Monterey and Napa counties provide an ideal beginning point for winemaker Anthony Riboli's award-winning wines.
What makes this wine so special that it saved an entire winery? Sacramental wine, according to The Code of Canon Law, "must be natural, made from grapes of the vine and not corrupt" (Canon 924, #3). The Rev. Steven Whelan from Saints Peter and Paul Church in San Francisco, adds, "Sacramental wine is pure wine. You don't add coloring, flavorings, sugars, preservatives or water."
Many members of the clergy value San Antonio's wine for more than just religious purposes.
"More and more priests are really becoming connoisseurs of wine, so they appreciate the product we offer," Steve said. "In fact, many of our customers are priests who come to our restaurant and winery and buy wine for special occasions."
During the holidays, the winery is aflutter with activity.
"We do a large amount of our sacramental wine business during Christmas and Easter," Steve said. "This is also the busiest times for Catholic parishes throughout the country. Our orders can reach up to 10,000 cases of sacramental altar wine."
Santo, Stefano, Maddalena and Steve Riboli sit down together every day at lunch to enjoy the fruits of their labor and toast another vintage year of family-made wines.
Although visitors unfamiliar with the location of the historic winery may overlook it amongst the industrial buildings and train tracks that surround it, the restaurant, wine shop and winery remain packed with visitors throughout the year. Last year the family welcomed 192,000 tourists to the winery.
The San Antonio Winery's state-of-the-art facility produces 4 million bottles of varietal, dessert and table wines each year and distributes them throughout the world. And while bottling and operations remain at the downtown Los Angeles winery, San Antonio's grapes are grown elsewhere, in some of the state's finest viticultural regions. The family owns and operates more than 500 acres of vineyards in Monterey and Napa counties. The winery has grown nearly 25 percent during the past two years—and the family anticipates a robust future.
So whether you chalk it up to having faith, or perhaps even a miracle, success has been bestowed on this little winery and the hard-working family members who operate it. To them, the winery has become more than a business; it's become a way of life—especially for Stefano and Maddalena, who recently celebrated their 58th wedding anniversary and continue to work together.
"We come here to work every day and enjoy everything about it," Maddalena said. "It's really more fun than work, to be honest."
The San Antonio Winery, which has been designated a city of Los Angeles cultural historical landmark, is located at 737 Lamar St., off Main Street just north of the Union Station passenger railroad depot. For more information, visit www.sanantoniowinery.com.
Tracy Sellers is a reporter for California Country. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or email@example.com.