How a Downtown Los Angeles Winery Has Survived for 100 Years

A testament to winemaking immigrants, LA’s San Antonio Winery kept juice flowing when American times were tough, and have stuck to it for the past century.
The original San Antonio Winery in Los Angeles

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.

Keepsakes and memorabilia / Photo by Oriana Koren
Keepsakes and memorabilia / Photo by Oriana Koren

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).

Drinking History with the Hearst Family

“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.”

Original bottle of Padres Elixir, the "medicinal wine" sold by San Antonio winery to circumvent prohibition laws / Photo by Oriana Koren
Original bottle of Padres Elixir, the “medicinal wine” sold by San Antonio winery to circumvent prohibition laws / Photo by Oriana Koren

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.

Left to right, Stefano and Maddalena Riboli today, and on their wedding day in 1946
Left to right, Stefano and Maddalena Riboli today, and on their wedding day in 1946

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.


Published on December 30, 2016
Topics: Business Insight
About the Author
Matt Kettmann
Contributing Editor

Reviews wines from California.

A fifth generation Californian originally from San Jose, Matt Kettmann covers California’s Central Coast and South Coast for the magazine. He is also the senior editor of The Santa Barbara Independent, where he’s worked since 1999, has written for the New York Times, Time Magazine, Wine Spectator, and Smithsonian, and co-founded New Noise Santa Barbara, a music festival.


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