LAST WINERY STANDING
At the height of the wine business in Los Angeles there were more than 100 wineries! Now, there is only one working winery inside the city limits: The San Antonio Winery.
Pining for an immersive wine experience with world-class juice and mouth-watering meals at a legendary winery? Do Soccer Coach duties keep hamstringing that Napa trip? 20 miles east of the airport in downtown Los Angeles is the 90-year old San Antonio Winery. We have tasted wine and food around the world for over two decades and just recently made our first visit to this still familyowned and operated historic landmark. We were simultaneously enchanted with the experience and shocked that we’d never been there before. No one told us there were velvety deep purple Napa grown Bordeaux blends aged 24 months in new French oak loaded with black fruits, vanilla spice, soft tannins and persistent finishes being bottled in our own backyard! Under the impression we need a few grand and a couple days away to broaden our oenological minds and stimulate our pallets, we often delay satiating our cravings. Who knew Los Angeles had one of the oldest, richest and most delicious wine histories in the New World?
Step inside the inviting confines of the San Antonio Winery and savor the rich history of Los Angeles. The Cambianca Family settled in Los Angeles in the late 1800s when Santo Cambianca migrated from his home in the province of Lombardy to the “Little Italy” of California situated in the heart of downtown Los Angeles. Wineries among other businesses were popping up all along the Los Angeles River. To assure his good fortune in 1917, Cambianca dedicated his new Lamar Street winery to Saint Anthony the patron saint of “safe delivery.” The winery still occupies its original location and is still safely delivering high quality wines to over 150,000 visitors each year!
In the 1920s, prohibition destroyed the alcohol business. Wineries, breweries and distilleries folded one state at a time. How did San Antonio keep afloat? Steve Riboli, great, great grandnephew of Santo, gratefully recounts, “Santo made a request to the Catholic Church to continue producing alter wines. It was granted! And, we sold everything to keep the doors open. Coca Cola, bread, milk and anything else we could find. The truth is that selling the church wine was a blessing. We were one of only five wineries given permission by the government to continue to sell alter wine. Today it’s still a very large part of our business.” The Riboli family warmth and attention is palpable from the moment you enter the winery.
“This is not a museum. This is a working winery,” Riboli shares. “My mother Maddalena, who was picking grapes when she was 7 years old in the surrounding vineyards of Los Angeles, is the one who decided we should serve food. We were the first winery to actually serve meals. She had three tables and nine chairs set up.
Three dishes — that’s all.” There was a popular segment in 1970 on the local Los Angeles network KNXT (now KCBS) with famous host, Ralph Story. “Ralph came in one afternoon, sat at one of the three tables and had the polenta and sausages. Later on his segment he boasted, ‘I had the best lunch today at The San Antonio Winery downtown!’ We sold out of everything within an hour that day!” “Doing lunch” among the aged and magnificently giant wine casks has been a Los Angeles tradition ever since. Breakfasts, dinners, event and banquet rooms are available, too.
“My mother has always been the brain of the operation.” It was her idea to serve food and it was Maddalena who told her husband Stefano, 87, that she felt they were missing the boat in attracting more affluent customers. Her solution was to host 40 USC doctors for a tasting party. Her idea was an instant success! “We continue to do tasting events here on a regular basis. Whether it’s a Wine Tasting 101 event, winemaker dinner, Bordello or a Scotch tasting, we feel it’s important to be diverse in this area as well.” (Check the website for upcoming events: www.sanantoniowinery.com) The Riboli family is extremely traditional in the best sense of the word. Waste not, want not.
In addition to being an efficacious enterprise, it is equally an inspirational setting for private and corporate events. The tasting room boasts walls constructed from the old redwood wine storage tanks, which are impervious to termites! The deep drupaceous redwood envelops the room in the resplendent hues and faint bouquets of winemaking history.
The Riboli Family table is situated only a few feet away from where patrons enter the restaurant. From there, Maddalena, Steve, Stefano, Anthony, Santo or any of the other family members can quickly spot a regular, or even a newcomer who may feel out of sorts. It’s astonishing to have that sort of attention paid during at mid-day of the complex operations one of the top 25 producing wineries in the United States. “We produce over 500,000 cases a year and distribute 100 labels from friends around the world.” Nearly impossible to imagine this same operation used to work from a truck.
“It was like an ice cream truck. We would drive around the neighborboods honking our horn after work. Everyone expected us. We sold the wine right off the back. A lot of relationships were formed from seeing people face to face each day.” Today, San Antonio Winery stretches over three-square blocks of downtown Los Angeles, in addition to vineyards expanding from Paso Robles through Monterey and Napa. “Being an estate grown winery and having control of the fruit is very important to us.” And they mean business! Winemakers Anthony Riboli and Arnaud Debons have produced specatular wine rivaling some of the world’s best. The Opaque Petit Verdot is an inky, wondrously sumptuous wine rivaling any big Napa red and only available at the San Antonio Winery; a steal at just under $30! The 2004 Maddelena Cabernet Sauvignon (named after Steve’s mother) is velvety, plummy with soft tannins and a subtle oak that finishes incredibly long for a wine retailing at Whole Foods for under $15! Their San Simeon Syrah and Petit Syrah are serious wines, and popular crowd pleasers. The latest wine, releasing in the next 12 months, is their new Cabernet Sauvignon. “I think our 2006 Riboli Family Cabernet Sauvignon is the best wine we’ve ever made. It’s absolutely amazing.” “We feel so incredibly fortunate.” Good fortune it might be, or it simply could be there is a lot of comfort in being part of the San Antonio Winery circle of food and wine. “More than 63% of our customers are regulars. Having people visit is important. So much so, that beginning in January of 2009, we’ve created a relationship with Yellow Taxi where patrons can take the train to Union Station and have complimentary round trip taxi service to and from our winery.” Service of this nature is exactly what keeps the “regulars” list growing. It’s not a surprise given the immediate, intimate and personal attention Steven, Maddelena and Stefano show their guests.
“We would be apprehensive to expand beyond our natural growth.
We don’t want to lose touch. We have seen our friends attempt to expand quickly and not make it. If we’re out of a wine, we’re out of it. We don’t want to suffer quality at the expense of quantity.
And it’s very important to us to let our customers know that we can make fantastic wines for affordable prices.” They have proven their philosophy to constant critical acclaim. Since 2005, San Antonio produced wines have earned over 70 awards and numerous scores of 90+ points from Wine Spectator.
Not sure what to do this weekend, or where to go for your lunch hour? Drive, take a train or even a taxi over to the San Antonio Winery and enjoy one of their signature dishes of ravioli or polenta.
Want something lighter, depending on the weather, you’ll find it.
“My mother still decides the menu based on weather, like she did in the old days. If it’s hot, we will have the salmon ceaser salad special.
Cold, we have meat and pasta specials. It works to this day.” (See Maddalena’s Eggplant and Mariara Sauce Recipe) While having the privilege of sitting at the Riboli Family table, we dove into our savory ravioli and seafood pasta with garden salads and fresh baked bread. Within minutes, the agile and spritely, 86-yearold Maddalena, arrived to survey our needs. Steve invited her to sit with us. She was delighted, but excused herself momentarily upon spotting a regular out of the corner of her eye. We recognized her approach as informal and even intimate. Her hand stretched out, accompanied by a warm squeeze to the customer’s shoulder while inquiring by name if they were well and if they needed anything. This immediately reminded us of the comforts of being with our family. At that moment there was a visceral connection to what it is we love so much about food and wine: The sharing.
The Riboli family business, through shifting decades of prosperous and depressed times, maintains their generous spirit. Clearly it works effortlessly. Nearly one hundred years later, the traditions of their business and family are well in tact. No formalties, no pretense, no inauthenticty, only a familiarity best recognized in one’s own kitchen or dining room. However, at this moment, we were away from our home, so we graciously accepted and shared the example The Riboli Family and the San Antonio Winery staff live day in and day out: “It is not flesh and blood, but the heart that make us family.” Location/Contact Information: San Antonio Winery & Maddalena Restaurant 737 Lamar Street Los Angeles, CA 90031
323. 223.1401 www.sanantoniowinery.com
– LISA FRANCE & DAVID FERRIGNO