San Antonio Winery, A Los Angeles Landmark

Ξ August 14th, 2011 | → 2 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Interviews, Wine History, Wineries, Young Winemakers |

If you had the right prescription during Prohibition you could get your bottle of San Antonio Padre’s Elixir, a tonic to be used only as directed, for medicinal purposes. And I am absolutely certain this is just what everyone did. Just how many prescriptions doctors of the era wrote we do not know, but the sum total, and permission to produce altar wines kept the San Antonio Winery in business through America’s dark age of Prohibition.
Both dream factory and fabled social dystopia, perpetually renewed by immigration and the domestic migration of restless souls called by angels West, Los Angeles, city and county, has seen multiple industrial and cultural histories come and go, among them the wine industry. Indeed, the city fathers, specifically the Cultural Heritage Board, Municipal Art Department, issued a proclamation some years ago declaring San Antonio Winery a historical monument, naming it “The Last Remaining Winery In The City Of Los Angeles”. Now, there is no reason to assume that an upstart winery styled after San Francisco’s celebrated Crush Pad (since relocated to Napa) might not already exist. I do not know. But the point of Los Angeles’ recognition bears upon San Antonio Winery’s historical character, as you will read in my interview with Anthony Riboli, winemaker at San Antonio and of the family’s 4th generation here in America. Enjoy.
Admin Good afternoon. I’m here from Santa Cruz visiting Los Angeles. While looking for a well known piñata store down in the warehouse district, I came upon your grand winery instead. A winery still in Los Angeles?
Anthony Riboli Yes. I am the winemaker here; I am also a 4th generation of the family. We’re in very unique situation here, being based in Los Angeles; but the winery was started in 1917 by my great great uncle, Santo Cambianica. At the time, this area was very much an Italian neighborhood. His idea was very simple: to cater to people going to work on the railroad by providing wine. The Southern Pacific Railroad yard is right down the street. So people would drop off their empty jugs in the morning and pick up the full jug at night. That was really the business plan.
But unfortunately he started the winery just before Prohibition. When that occurred, being a very devout Catholic, he had been granted permission by the Catholic Church to make altar wines. So at least he maintained some income.
Prior to Prohibition, in this area there were probably over 100 small wineries, right here in Los Angeles; but afterwards, less than 10. Then new growth of the industry began. In the early 30’s my grandfather was living in Italy, but World War ll was close to breaking out and his mother didn’t want him to stay in the country. So he came here to work for his uncle. Those two really began growing the company. And my grandmother, also Italian, was here sharecropping with her family in Chino. They met. Then it became those three people who grew the company through the 60’s and into the 70’s. Now my father is the president; he is the first of the third generation. My aunt and my uncle are also involved in the winery. And now, the fourth generation, myself and my brother, we are involved.
Were the founders, your great great uncle, involved in winemaking in Italy?
AR Well, Santo Cambianica, like almost everybody, made wine for their family, just as part of the traditions. No one was formally trained. It was that every family had their chickens, they had their cow, and they had their wine. There was never any formal training. My father learned from his uncle, and that is how it carried on. We had hired winemakers though, throughout the history of the winery. And we still have several winemakers on staff besides myself. But I was the first of the family to go out and get a degree; I attended UC Davis.
There seems to be a considerable volume of wine being made at San Antonio Winery. Where do you source? Were the original wines made from grapes sourced locally?
AR Yes. Historically the grapes sourced were all local at the time. Anaheim had grapes in the foothills of Pasadena; out in Cucamonga and those areas there were vineyards everywhere in this area of Southern California.
Do you know which varieties were grown?
AR Back then it would have been mainly reds. That was the bigger demand. Some field blends, Zinfandel, Carignane, Grenache, I think those had probably the greatest acreage, the biggest components of the wines. Then all anyone wanted was blends, that was all that really mattered; the jug wines then were all blends of those wines.
And then around that time was when those local vineyards began to disappear. Our winery needed to find other sources. So my father spearheaded going further up the coast. Now most of our vineyards are based in Monterey. We own vineyards in Monterey; and in Paso Robles we own vineyards and we also buy from a considerable number of small landowners whose business is growing grapes. Those are our two main areas.
And we now have a tasting room in Paso Robles — it opened just last year — as well as the one here. It was a new venture for us. And we have a tasting room in Ontario. Three tasting rooms in California. And we also have a small vineyard in Napa. We make a small production of Napa Cabernet in Rutherford. That was an investment my grandparents made in the 80’s. When I was at Davis that kind of became a project to replant and to bring that vineyard up to its full potential. Now it has been fully replanted. We make a small production. It is only about 500 to 800 cases of high-end Napa Cabernet; not too high-end, it’s $50, in that range. That’s kind of our flagship wine. But the majority of our varietal wines are from Monterey and Paso Robles, those two areas.
Most whites and the Pinot Noir we offer are from Monterey. The reds come mainly from Paso Robles, with a few whites like Muscat Canelli, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier. But mainly the Bordeaux and Rhone reds come from Paso Robles.
There are a number of field blends still in existence in California. Will Bucklin’s place in Sonoma, the Sierra Foothills, Mendocino AVA… Do you source from any?
AR No, no! It would be nice. But even in Paso Robles it is far more common that you buy a little bit of Mourvedre, a little bit of Grenache, a little bit of Petit Sirah, Zin or whatever you want to make in that blend. You can co-ferment them if you wish. But typically they are not ripening at the same time, so we ferment separately and blend after we’ve aged.
One of the great secrets of the old field blends was co-fermentation of varieties at different phases of ripeness. In any case, what do you do about the softness, the acid issues, some of the grapes may have?
AR In Paso it is definitely warmer during the day than Monterey, so that allows you to get really full ripening, especially with varieties like Cabernet. The heat dissolves green characters, pyrazines, naturally, which is a benefit. But we do deal with higher pHs and lower acid levels just naturally occurring even though Paso Robles does drop 50 degrees on normal night. So it might be 100 degrees in August but 50 degrees at night. And this big drop is what separates it from the Central Valley. The warm days are the same, but that nighttime temperature does preserve more acid than the Central Valley. But we do acidify if it is needed. I can’t say we don’t add acid. It is about finding the balance. Think of microbial stability. We don’t want a wine that will potentially have problems. But cooler Monterey, you’re not typically adding acid as much as Paso Robles. It’s like anything. We’re site and year dependent; sometimes we need more acid, some years we don’t.
So who right now is in the tasting room? Tourists? Locals? It is very crowded in there.
AR It is a mix.
I saw some Spanish speakers in there. That can be a difficult demographic. If I remember correctly, the Wine Institute reported that it’s about one teaspoon per capita in Mexico!
AR We are unique in that we cater, especially at lunch here in the restaurant, to a lot of local business people out on lunch, the USC hospital for example. We do have tourists, especially on weekends, more tourists from out of town. We enjoy a very broad demographic here, being Los Angeles. Part of appealing to whether Hispanic or Asian clientele is that we provide a lot of different wines. We’re not just a Napa Cabernet producer. We also offer wines that are not sweet, but sweet wines as well. Having that mix of sweet and dry red wines, same with whites; having rosés and sparkling sweet wines; and the imports we offer from Italy; we have very diverse mix. That is what brings in such a diverse clientele. We hope to offer something different for each of those diverse customers.
How do people hear about your winery?
AR A lot of it has been word of mouth. For many years that is all is was: word of mouth. And it was what we based all of our growth on. Now recently we’ve done more with billboards and such, but we don’t do any extreme advertising. Word of mouth is still probably the number one way we get ourselves out there.
You probably have a mailing list and a website…
AR We do. We have a website and an email blast list that we’ll use. But for new customers, other than the billboards, they come see us because a friend or family member mentioned or recommended the winery. That is the beauty of being in Los Angeles. There is a large population, and having people come in who’ve never heard of you is a good thing. And there is a constant supply of people who have never heard of us. So we keep growing.
How many people pass through the tasting room each year?
AR That is a good question! It’s up there!
It’s a Tuesday and the place is jumping.
AR I don’t know how many people pass through. I would say we’re pushing over one hundred thousand people, probably more.
So business is good…
AR Yes. In retail we’ve been lucky that we’re unique; we have our clientele, whether here or in Ontario or Paso Robles. The other restaurants we sell to have had a hard time in this economy. We have seen sales to other restaurants have problems. But in general I think we have weathered the storm pretty well. Maybe, again, it is because of the diversity of the products we offer. And we just persevere. Hey, we made it through Prohibition! What’s a little blip like today’s economy compared to Prohibition?
Getting back to the history of San Antonio Winery, could you provide a little more detail about your relatives?
AR Sure. My great great uncle, Santo Cambianica came from Northern Italy. He was from a small town north of Milano, and even north of Bergamo, way up in the Alps. He came here with his brother and cousins to work for the Southern Pacific Railroad. That was the big employer at the time. The yards are still here, just down Lamar street. They were just laborers, you know, boilermakers and laborers. Again, Santo had no formal training in winemaking, but he saw all these Italian and French immigrants and he wanted to provide them something they brought with them, which was their demand for wine. Wine was part of their experience, something that was always on the table. So Santo, I think, just saw an opportunity. Hey, luck is always a part of anything; and hard work. That became his business.
As you’ve said, he sold bulk wines, refilled the bottles folks would drop off in the morning. When did individual bottlings begin?
AR We bottled by hand. Back then that is all there was. And the labels as well. Everything by hand at first. Then we slowly became more mechanized over time, of course. Now we have speed bottling line.
Do you still posses examples of early bottles?
AR Yes, we have some examples of a few of the originals. The San Antonio name is the same as then appeared on the original labels. I’d be happy to show you them. During Prohibition there were bottlings called Padres Elixir. That one was a medicinal product that was legal to sell. You’d go to the pharmacy with a prescription for wine. (laughs) There were a lot of ways to survive financially, and that was one of the ways historically.
At one time the whole winery was redwood tanks. The ones we’re standing next to are first growth. I am sure they are over 100 years old, and made from trees who knows how old.
I’ve seen similar ones at Parducci in Mendocino County…
AR Exactly. They are of the same generation. Unfortunately, over time we’ve had to remove them; but our new tasting room — which will be open here in Los Angeles in about a month after remodeling — will incorporate these redwood tanks into the decor. It will be amazing to see, tying in tradition with a modern tasting room, to connect the old and the new.
Do you know who built these tanks?
AR That is a good question. I don’t know. I’m sure my grandfather would know. He’ll be 90 in September. But I’m sure they were made by an Italian gentleman with just that speciality. My grandfather would tell me stories about when a new tank would come in. You see, redwood doesn’t give any good flavors. It is not like oak. So you would actually remove and strip away the flavor of the redwood by using a caustic solution. He would tell me how strong that stuff was to get rid of that taste of redwood! You can imagine. Redwood decks? There is a reason bugs don’t like redwood. So the flavor would have to be removed before you could use it for wine.
Built by craftsmen whose names are lost to us…
AR Probably. We have tried to maintain that connection with our history and tradition. My grandfather is really excited about our remodel. He’s still very active and comes in almost every day.
So these are the historical bottles from San Antonio Winery.
AR Here’s one of San Antonio Cabernet, probably from the 60s. We’ve redone this label. Now we have one called San Antonio Cask 520, a call back to this older bottle. Our new one is a Bordeaux blend whereas this one is a straight Cabernet. Padres Elixir. This one dates from Prohibition. Here’s an old San Antonio Riesling bottle. I would have to guess this dates from the 50s. It’s a different label.
The medicinal Padres Elixir has a screwcap! I love this bottle. Oh, here along the bottom of the label it reads “This tonic is not to be used as a beverage.” (laughs)
AR Exactly. A way around Prohibition. You’ve got the old monk…
Of course. He seems healthy enough.
AR You’ll notice all of these small rooms with barrels and what have you. We use them all. They are small because they were not all built at one time. These were once part of the neighborhood. The rooms were actually houses. As people would move, my grandparents would buy their lot and build another part of the expanding winery. As we expanded, we would buy the next lot. So instead of one giant winery — popular today — we have a lot of small rooms added over the years.
What are we bottling today?
AR This is a sweeter red wine, a semi-sweet red wine that we call Imperial Red. It is our San Antonio label. Again, this is part of our diversity, of appealing to many different tastes. Such a wine is not common in today’s fine wine world, but it is becoming more and more popular. For this wine — you see the cathedral — we did an old retro label. This is the cathedral of Saint Anthony. We try to tie in a lot of our packaging to our past. This image was once on all of our jug wines from 50 years ago, the cathedral of Saint Anthony in Padua, Italy. That’s where the name San Antonio came from. Saint Anthony was the patron saint of my great great uncle. Everyone thinks there is a Texas connection! No Texas connection!
Are grapes still brought into the winery? I don’t see any crushers or presses.
AR We still ferment juice here, but we don’t bring whole grapes in anymore. We stopped bringing in whole grapes in the 60’s. For reds we ferment in our facility in Paso Robles and several other facilities, all on the Central Coast. Then we bring that red wine here after fermentation for barrel aging. All the barrel aging and bottling is done here. But with whites grapes, we’ll de-juice those elsewhere and then bring the juice here. We still ferment all of our white juice here on-site.
These barrels are cool.
AR You can see the wine inside, and all the yeasts, the lees laying on the bottom. Here we can show people why we are stirring, the whys of the sur lie process. You want to get the yeast back into suspension. That adds body to the wine over time. We do that every week after fermentation is complete. As you know, it is a very traditional method. And these barrels are completely functional. Here we also use them so that people can see inside, because most people have no clue what the interior of a barrel looks like. It’s something different!
Well, Anthony, thank you very much for the tour and history lesson.
AR It was a pleasure, Ken. Thanks for stopping by.


2 Responses to ' San Antonio Winery, A Los Angeles Landmark '

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  1. Robert poe said,

    on November 11th, 2013 at 11:58 pm

    I found a bottle from the 20s when I was 12 at my grandfathers house, the label is in perfect shape and still has a little “elixir” in the bottom. Its not something I would ever sell, but was wondering for conversation sake is there a value for this bottle?

  2. Admin, Ken Payton said,

    on November 12th, 2013 at 4:53 pm

    Brilliant. I truly love their old labels. They had a number of examples on the premises.

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