A century ago, an immigrant railroad worker named Santo Cambianica realized that the growing population of Italians in Los Angeles thirsted for a taste of home. So in 1917, he founded San Antonio Winery, named for his patron saint, Anthony, and began to turn grapes from Southern California’s then-sprawling vineyards into wine.
One hundred years later, sitting in the shadow of downtown LA’s skyscrapers on Lamar Street, San Antonio Winery—the nation’s first urban winery—shows no sign of stopping. Its portfolio includes close to 20 diverse brands, (case production for some in seven-figure volumes), vineyards in Napa Valley, Monterey and Paso Robles and a new 125,000-square-foot facility in Paso that’s capable of producing 300,000 cases of wine per year.
That’s not to say the road getting here was easy: San Antonio weathered storms throughout the 20th century that shaped the country itself and threatened to set wine culture in America back for good. The winery survived the Depression, a recession and Prohibition—when it produced altar wine to stay afloat. In 1965, just before a new state law would limit wineries to just one tasting room, it presciently launched 12 such outposts around Southern California (two still exist; the other is in Ontario).
“My grandfather and grandmother (Stefano and Maddalena) really were the ones who grew the company and had the vision to start our tasting rooms,” says Anthony Riboli, who represents the fourth generation to run the winery. “Back then, supermarkets couldn’t sell alcohol in California, so that was the way to reach your target consumer. They were ahead of their time.”
The original location still houses a tasting room, and additionally, a restaurant and barrels full of vintages to come. Now in their 90s, the couple is still a fixture there—continuing their personal link to the country’s wine history. “Many families are no longer in this business,” says Anthony. “It’s capital intensive, we’re dealing with Mother Nature, and there’s all kinds of things we deal with. But if you love it and it’s in your blood, you deal with those things and you just do it.”
A Trendsetting Timeline
A Taste of Home | 1917
Recognizing that European laborers were a thirsty market for wine, Cambianica starts San Antonio Winery in downtown Los Angeles.
Simply Divine | 1920–1933
Prohibition decimates California’s booming wine industry. San Antonio shifts to the production of altar wine, which sustains the winery through the Great Depression.
Mangia, Mangia | 1972
Maddalena opens her namesake restaurant inside the LA winery, launching what may be the first winery-restaurant in the country.
Sweet Dreams | 2003
The winery launches Stella Rosa, a red version of sparkling Moscato, which becomes one of the country’s fastest-growing wine segments.
Q&A with Stefano and Maddalena Riboli
What was your first job?
Stefano: When I showed up, my uncle said, “I’m gonna teach you how to wash barrels.” That’s how I started. After awhile, I started making home deliveries.
How was the wine in the early days?
Stefano: It was a good dry wine . . . a mixture of three or four grapes: Carignane, Mataro, Grenache and Zinfandel. Zinfandel was one of the best. They were all planted together, so when they picked it, the blend was already there. That’s your Red Burgundy! But the Zinfandel, they used to keep that separate and ship it back East. Customers would come with their own bottles, even five-gallon jugs.
“I’d made up my mind: If she knows how to drive a tractor, she can run my winery, too.”
Do you still enjoy a glass of wine?
Stefano: I found that [our sparkling red] Stella Rosa is very smooth and goes down easy. And . . . it helps your digestion. I’m having that every night.
How did you meet Maddalena?
Stefano: I was buying grapes from this fella in Ontario. He said, “Do you see that lady on the tractor?” I’d made up my mind: If she knows how to drive a tractor, she can run my winery, too. Maddalena, the family is developing land in the El Pomar section of Paso Robles.
What do you think of the vineyards [separately] named after you and Stefano?
Maddalena: I thought they were [both] beautiful, but I think mine is better looking.