Bustling and festive. Those are not two words you expect to use when describing a winery in Lincoln Heights, at 11 a.m. on a Wednesday morning. But that is exactly the scene I found at the sprawling San Antonio Winery on Lamar Street. Groups of senior citizens crowded into the tasting room and store, while a line of downtown office workers formed at the cafeteria-style Maddalena Restaurant. A tour group followed closely as I was shown the facility, where bottles of wine were being filled and labeled. In the warehouse, giant steel fermentation tanks towered above. Employees smiled as we walked past. I sat down with the winery's President, Santo Riboli, a charismatic and energetic man, to ask him how his family had managed to flourish in Los Angeles for almost 100 years. But before we were seated, he picked some microscopic debris off the floor, made sure I had the perfect table in the restaurant for lunch, and rearranged a wine display on a counter. I already had part of my answer.
San Antonio Winery started out as a small store front in an abandoned boxcar on Lamar Street, in what was then Little Italy. It was founded by four brothers, who had emigrated from Lombardy, Italy, in 1912. One of the Cambianica brothers, Santo, deeply religious and astute, quickly emerged as the head of the winery. Named after the patron saint of finding things or lost people, the winery joined a crowded field of winemakers in Southern California. Wine had been made in Southern California since the Mission era. By the mid-1800s, there were already 43 wineries in the area. "When we started in 1917, there were 100 wineries, mainly in the city," Santo Riboli said. Grapes were grown in places like Sylmar, La Crescenta, Burbank, Fontana, Rancho Cucamonga, Alta Loma, and Chino, and then brought to Los Angeles to be fermented or sold.
With the advent of Prohibition in 1920, most of these wineries quickly folded. But San Antonio diversified. They obtained contracts and permits to make altar wines for the Catholic Church, which they still do. "The difference in communion wines is that they are mostly made with specific grapes and most of them are very, very sweet, very luscious," Riboli explained. "And generally they have brandy added, which comes from the old days." They also made wine for local families who had permits to juice. The unsurprisingly popular alcoholic "health elixirs," which could be bought at a pharmacy with a doctor's prescription, were also a lucrative business. According to Riboli, these elixirs were usually wine-based, with ingredients like vermouth, brandy, herbs and iron added to make them seem healthful. By the time Prohibition was repealed in 1933, San Antonio had gone from producing 2,000 cases of wine a year to 25,000.
By the 1930s, all of the Cambianica brothers except Santo had returned to Italy. He proved to be a smart businessman, finding new vineyards in the San Gabriel Mountains after Prohibition ended, and catering to the large immigrant population. But the bachelor Santo needed an heir, so in 1937, his nephew Stefano Riboli came over from Italy to work for his uncle. In 1945, Stefano married Maddalena Satragni, whose farming family was originally from Piedmont, Italy. Stefano was impressed with Maddalena for many reasons, but he was mostly in awe of the way she handled a tractor.
Maddalena immediately joined the business. "They worked together from the week they got married," Riboli said of his parents. "So it was my great uncle, mother and father. And my great uncle didn't trust her. He didn't trust women." Riboli laughed. "He was a very religious guy. I mean his whole life was religion, work, and he really loved my dad...over there, [in Italy] things were very strict and regimented. Over here, it was the Wild West! When she got pregnant with me, that settled it. [He said] 'Ok, I trust her!' Plus she was a great worker."
That work ethic was instilled in Santo Riboli and his siblings from a very early age. "They would bring us in when we were like a year and a half, two years old, and we would just kind of run around," Riboli said. "But I think invariably we would pick up a duster, right? And you dust. Or you pick up a broom and you sweep because you see others doing that. And from there you go on. And we're very clean, you probably noticed that -- and I think that came from the old days. My father and great uncle were very particular.
Everything had to be just so." At five, Riboli graduated to a more official position. "If you go down Lamar and keep going, it was the railroads, and the railroads used to employee 20,000 immigrants, and they would come off work, off their shifts. And they would stop right here," Riboli explained. "It's why we had the winery right here. And we'd have these counters with glass on the top. And in these glass counters we'd have cigarettes, pipe tobacco, chewing tobacco, gum, and Chiclets. And that was my job. I'd keep everything in order and a customer would come in. 'I'd say here you are,' and then they'd pay at the register."
Uncle Santo went back to Italy, where he died in 1958. Shortly thereafter, Stefano and Maddalena would usher the winery though its biggest transformation. Until the late '50s, they catered mostly to the large immigrant population in Los Angeles. "The 'American' public -- they were not a wine drinking public," Riboli said. "Then you had the immigrant group -- lots of your Europeans, Hispanics, the Czechs, the Germans, the Italians, French and Hungarian -- and they drank wine. And they wanted wine in gallons. You know good wine, but only a $1.50 gallon. But we still made money then! There were very few taxes then. Taxes were a nickel a gallon. Federal taxes! Today they are $1.70 a gallon."
The wine market would soon open up. Americans began traveling more, and popular chefs like Julia Child brought the idea of good wine to the larger American public. "Varietal was suddenly a new word," Riboli explained, "cabernet, chardonnay, things like that. So that's when we started to make changes. So we had traditional wines -- like altar wines, volume wines, high alcohol wines like port, sherry -- which was a huge business then. And we started transitioning into varietal wines in the '60s."
The family continues to take chances. As wine production shifted to Northern California, they bought valuable vineyards in San Luis Obispo and Monterey counties, where their grapes are still grown. They began bottling private labels for restaurants and chains like Trader Joes. Today, when the "whole world is a brand," San Antonio has many -- including Windstream, San Simeon and Maddalena. Riboli believes it is a great advantage to have been in the business as long as they have. "If you look at a winery today," he said, "nobody is going to build a winery and go through the expense of what it takes to build a new facility, with technology and everything needed, to make wines at $6.95 a bottle. They're not going to do that. We do it because it's what we've done."
The family is proud of its almost century-long track record. "I think in the world of wine in California there are about 1,300 bonded wineries," Riboli stated. "And of those there only about 28 of us left that have been owned and operated by a family for more than 50 years." He continued, "The trend is definitely large companies buying brands that have been established."
And how has his family avoided this fate, which has swallowed up so many other wineries? "I think taking opportunities. Like for example -- the restaurant helped. We were the first winery in California to include a restaurant in a winery. We were the first one, 35 years ago. So today, if you can do it, you should do it. I think that has helped. The diversity of our wine group has helped. Taking up the opportunity to come out with different varietal wines really helped over time. Because if we didn't do that we wouldn't be here, quite honestly. I think the opportunities of buying land when we did, the lands, the vineyards -- that has helped."
San Antonio Winery continues to expand. They recently broke ground on a new artisan winery in Paso Robles. Stefano and Maddalena, now both in their 90s, still frequently come into work. Four generations of the Riboli family have now worked hard to help San Antonio Winery flourish. And there is little doubt that one day, the fifth will as well. Before we parted, Riboli told me a charming story about his granddaughter Sophia. A "little Stevie Nicks," she recently picked up a broom in front of her grandfather. "What are you doing Sophia?" he asked. "Oh, just keeping things clean, Nonno," she replied.
Special thanks to San Antonio Winery