He sat smiling, leaning on the arms of his walker-turned-chair, regaling a visiting wine journalist with tales of his winery’s rich history. The nonagenarian patriarch had strolled up, flipped his walker around, and joined the gathering, delighted to share his past.
The winery, with vineyards in Paso Robles, Monterey County, and Napa Valley, is one of the oldest continuously operating wineries in California. That it was founded and remains in downtown Los Angeles is nothing short of remarkable; that it remains family owned and run by the fourth generation, even more so.
Stefano Riboli, or Papa Steve as he is affectionately known, since 1936 has been working at the winery his uncle Santo Cambianica founded at 737 Lamar Street near downtown Los Angeles. At 93, Stefano still spends a few hours each day at the winery’s tasting room and restaurant, chatting up customers and visiting with employees. His wife, Maddalena, 92, occasionally accompanies him. They have been working side by side at San Antonio Winery for the past 70 years.
His grandson Anthony Riboli is in charge of winemaking now; his son Santo is president of the company, but it’s clear as we sat with Stefano, Anthony, sales director George Ronay, and publicist Melissa Gonzalo, that Stefano is revered.
As he should be. After all, he has spent most of his life ensuring San Antonio Winery’s success. It was guided through Prohibition by his uncle Santo who made sacramental wines. Stefano carried it to the rebirth of table wines in the 1960s and ‘70s. And when farming in Los Angeles went the way of the dinosaur, he acquired vineyards in regions that he foresaw as being the future of California’s wine industry.
And while San Antonio has tasting rooms in Paso Robles and Ontario, the winery’s heart still beats in Los Angeles where Santo first made wine 98 years ago. And wine is still made there to this day.
Dressed in a blue-checkered shirt, gray slacks, and an Ivy League cap, Stefano told how he had been born on Lamar Street in 1921, but as a small child had returned to his family’s native Bergamo in northern Italy, near Milan.
Sensing Europe sliding inexorably toward war, his parents in 1936 sent him back to Los Angeles. His uncle Santo, a devout Catholic, essentially chaperoned his teenaged nephew for the next few years. “My first night back,” Stefano recalled, “he told me you’re going no place until you’re 19. When you’re 19, OK.”
Stefano worked in the vineyards, bringing in grapes from places that are asphalt and concrete today. “Burbank was where we had our vineyards,” Stefano said. “We had Zinfandel there. There were also vineyards in Glendale, Sierra Madre, and Alta Dena. There was good Muscat and Mataro (Mourvèdre) there.”
In 1945, he noticed a young woman who had immigrated a few years before from Piedmont in northern Italy; she was driving a tractor on a neighboring farm. He liked that she was a hard worker. He also noticed that she was quite attractive.
His eyes twinkled as he recounted his short courtship of Maddaena Satragni—he proposed after their second date. She had told him she’d think about a second date, and when he proposed, she kept him waiting a few days before saying yes.
He recalled the winery’s first little tasting room, and how he made home deliveries after working all day. “There were a lot of Europeans in the area, and they drank a glass of wine a day. I had a regular route. I’d work during the day, and deliver wine after work.” A buck-75 got you a five-gallon demijohn, also known as a carboy.
The winery was founded in 1917, the same year Congress passed the 18th Amendment prohibiting the manufacture, distribution, and sale of alcohol; a scant 13 months later the 36th state ratified it, and in January 1920, it took effect. I asked Stefano why, in such a political climate, did his uncle move forward with founding a winery? He said that at the time the Los Angeles neighborhood around the winery was inhabited mostly by European immigrants. “They simply didn’t believe such a thing would happen,” he said.
Thanks to Santo’s relationship with the Catholic Church, the winery was commissioned to make sacramental wines, which kept the winery afloat during Prohibition.
Following Prohibition, as metropolitan Los Angeles grew rapidly, the Riboli family knew that the days of using San Gabriel Valley grapes were numbered.
“We stopped buying grapes locally in the 1960s,” Anthony said. “By the late ‘60s and early ‘70s we started realizing that the wine industry was going away from here, necessitating us looking to other places.” In fact of the more than 100 Los Angeles wineries that existed before Prohibition, only San Antonio remains.
It was at this point that the vineyard side of the business began. It started with purchasing fruit from Monterey County vineyards in the 1970s and ‘80s. That led to purchasing property there, which today included vineyards in Santa Lucia Highlands, Arroyo Seco, and Soledad appellations. In 1986 San Antonio purchased a vineyard in Napa Valley on the Silverado Trail. And now the winery has vineyards in Paso Robles as well, in addition to building a new winery there.
“You have to evolve,” Anthony said. “Otherwise you die. You have to be creative and figure out what’s going to set you apart.”
And that’s just what San Antonio has done. Its Napa Valley vineyard fills a niche, “but Paso Robles and Monterey is where we want to focus,” Anthony said.
It has added several brands to better reflect it’s diversity: San Simeon and Maddalena feature different expressions of its Central Coast offerings; Opaque more specifically Paso Robles; Riboli Family Estates is Napa; Stella Rosa, their Italian phenomenon, to name a few.
And even as the winery prepares for the future, it is committed to its past. Leading a tour through the winery’s barrel rooms, Anthony said the family was committed to continuing wine production at its Los Angeles venue. The grapes may come from elsewhere in the state, but the wine is made at the venerable winery.
“We’ll always make wine here,” Anthony said. “It’s our legacy. It’s who we are.” CHEERS