It's difficult to imagine Downtown Los Angeles as anything other than what we know and love today: a sprawling maze of lofts and lawyers. But stare down Alameda Street, open your mind's eye, and imagine a time, less than a century ago, when rows of vegetables, fruits, and vines dominated the sloping landscape.
For many of us, manifesting this vision would require some Hollywood CGI. But Stefano Riboli relies solely on memory. The 94-year-old winemaker immigrated to this area from Northern Italy in the mid-1930s to assist his uncle in wine production. Their vineyard, located on Lamar Street, just east of modern-day Chinatown, was named in honor of Saint Anthony—an earnest attempt to shine luck upon the operation. It must have worked, as San Antonio Winery still exists on the same grounds today.
While it's no longer a vineyard, LA's oldest continuously running winery houses a production facility, tasting room, Italian cafeteria, and banquet hall. It's also still home to Riboli, who can be found there most days of the week, gifting bottles to just about every customer walking out the door. The nonagenarian persevered through Prohibition, World War II, and the rise, fall, and resurrection of Downtown LA. Now he's just having fun.
Riboli exudes a sense of joy and ease possessed only by the rare few who have seen it all and survived unscathed. His life story confirms these observations. At 16, his parents shipped him half a world away to avoid the turmoil sweeping Europe. "Everyone was talking about war," he recalls, in a soulful Italian accent. "My father was in the first World War. He says, 'I want you to go to America.'" In Mussolini's Italy, conscription began at 17, so time was running short. With minimal preparation, Riboli boarded a boat across the Atlantic, making brief eye contact with the Statue of Liberty before riding a rail to Los Angeles. The entire journey lasted a little over a month.
"First night that I got [to Los Angeles], it was dark," he reminisces. "My uncle was in the garage, he had a little apartment. 'I'm going to show you my villa.' He was joking with me." Despite his age, Riboli is witty and sharp, his memory offering no signs of betrayal. His first impression of his adopted city is as fresh as the day he arrived. After his uncle showed him his modest digs, the weary traveler wasted no time lying down to sleep off several thousand miles' worth of voyaging. "I get in the bed, and it goes 'boom', he exclaims, motioning downward with his arms. "The mattress hit the floor….This is America. My first memory, I never forget."
While a lot of businesses were hitting rock bottom during the Great Depression, Riboli's fortunes were actually on the rise. His uncle, Santo Cambianica, started the winery and also happened to be a devout Catholic. During Prohibition, he shrewdly secured permission from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles to produce sacramental and ceremonial wines for the city. At a time when Los Angeles lost virtually every one of its 100 wineries spread across the county, San Antonio emerged as the primary provider of altar wines. After the 18th Amendment was repealed in 1933, the winery was positioned for lasting success. This was the environment upon which a teenage Riboli was thrust in 1936.
Booming business meant hard work, long days tending the vines, and transporting multiple tons of grapes a day. "It was just me and my uncle," he remembers. "There was no help." It was during one of these sweat-soaked days that Riboli set his eyes upon his future wife in the middle of a field, of all places. He noticed her from afar, manning the tractor of a neighboring farm. It took him 30 minutes to chase her down, but he swears that is was then that he decided he would marry Maddalena Satragni. ("She knew how to drive a tractor," he tells me. "She can take care of a winery, too!") He proposed two weeks later, and what was supposed to be a temporary asylum in the States suddenly turned into a very permanent stay. "I came here to work," he says. "I stay here for five years, then go back home." Now, 75 years later, Riboli is finally comfortable counting himself as a Los Angeles native.
And his hunch about Maddalena's managerial potential proved far more prescient than even he imagined. The couple assumed ownership of the winery after Cambianica passed away in 1956. It was Maddalena's foresight that helped shape the future of the business. For one, she was a major cheerleader for the development of a tasting room at a time when such a concept was virtually nonexistent. Today, on-site tasting is one of San Antonio's principal draws, increasingly so as the neighborhood continues to attract a younger, hipper crowd.
After industrialization damned the last of Downtown's vineyards, the Riboli's were savvy enough to contract grape production in Northern California, long before Napa became a globally recognized region. Much of their juice is now sourced from there, as well as from Monterey County and the state's fertile Central Coast.
As the Ribolis prepare for their 70th wedding anniversary later this year, it's clear their ambition remains keen. On a recent tour of San Antonio's new 90,000-square-foot facility in Paso Robles, Stefano quipped to his grandson, head winemaker Anthony Riboli, "I don't think it's big enough."
Speaking of big, be sure to grab a bottle of the Cask 520 on your visit to the tasting room. It's a rich, oak-laden cabernet blend, showcasing the depth and diversity of San Antonio's wide range of grapes. But even bolder than the wine is the elderly gentleman sitting near the door, offering you a free bottle.