Profiles of Success
Profiles of Success: The Riboli Family and San Antonio Winery
The areas surrounding what is now downtown Los Angeles were heavily agricultural around the year 1900, with many of the fields devoted to grapes for wine making. There used to be over 90 wineries in and around Los Angeles.
The vineyards that were once abundant are long gone and have been replaced by industrial properties, warehouses and railroad tracks. But about a mile and a half northeast of Union Station, there is still a winery fermenting, aging, bottling and selling wine. San Antonio Winery, in the neighborhood known as Lincoln Heights, still produces a quarter million cases a year here.
“More Fun Than Work”
The Riboli family has been running the San Antonio Winery on Lamar Street in the exact same spot for 93 years. A tasting room, a restaurant and banquet facilities are open to the public seven days a week, and Maddalena Riboli, well into her 80s, still cooks occasionally. Her husband, Stefano, now 90, comes into the winery most days, although his sons and grandsons are involved in running the business now. Maddalena claims “it’s really more fun than work,” and Stefano says he gets tired if he stays at home, but feels better if he goes to the winery.
Stefano’s uncle Santo Cambianica immigrated from Northern Italy to Los Angeles in the very early years of the 20th century, when there was a large Italian community in downtown Los Angeles and across the river in Lincoln Heights. Cambianica started the winery in 1917 on Lamar Street, naming it for St. Anthony, the patron saint of immigrants.
The winery flourished and was well-established when Prohibition went into effect in 1920. Most of the industry was devastated, but San Antonio managed to stay in business by obtaining an exclusive contract with the archdiocese to provide Los Angeles churches and parishes with sacramental wine, which was still legal. The winery reopened to the public in 1934 immediately after the repeal of Prohibition and has been a successful business ever since.
Stefano arrived in L.A. from Italy in 1938 when he was 16 and began working for his Uncle Santo. He met Maddalena in 1945 and they married the following year. Inheriting the winery in 1958, over the years Stefano and Maddalena added a gift store, tasting room and a sandwich counter that eventually became the restaurant. They began entering their wines in state and county fair competitions in 1963 and since then have won hundreds of awards internationally.
Free tours of the facilities are available, which is now Los Angeles Historical-Cultural Monument #42. Knowledgeable wine shop employees will take you through rooms where tanks hold from 4,344 gallons to over 12,000 gallons of fermenting juice. Other rooms have row after row of racks holding hundreds of carefully-labeled oak barrels where wines are aged.
Conveyor belts move bottles being filled through a little bottling plant that readies a wide variety of vintages for distribution under several labels. The huge old redwood tanks used in earlier years are kept for show and they also form one wall of the restaurant, which is named for matriarch Maddalena. A separate banquet room is also paneled with redwood recycled from the old historic tanks.
Following a mid-day tour is a good time for lunch at the Maddalena Restaurant, which is fairly informal. You order at a counter and your food is brought to your table. I had a delicious plate of butternut squash ravioli in a creamy tomato sauce and a lovely Chardonnay (also named after Maddalena). My palate is not terribly sophisticated, being more accustomed to Two-Buck Chuck than the finer vintages, but I thought it was a very good glass of wine.
Meet the Fourth Generation
Michael Riboli and Anthony Riboli, Stefano’s grandsons, are the fourth generation to run this winery. Michael was put to work at age four, sweeping and dusting. Educated at Georgetown University business school, he worked for a while as an analyst at a global real estate company. But he came back to Southern California to continue in the family tradition after a trip to Italy and earning a Master Sommelier certificate.
He calls wine “a culture within cultures” that allows one to experience “a way people live in a specific part of the world.” His brother Anthony, who has been involved in the business for more than a decade, has a master’s degree from UC Davis in enology (the scientific study of wine and the making of wine).
Education about wine is part of the family’s mission. Tasting events include wine and food festivals and 4-course wine seminars, as well as boutique tastings. In addition to the San Antonio winery location, there are also retail outlets in Ontario and Paso Robles.
Suzanne Ridgway gave up life in the cubicle six years ago to embark on a freelance adventure. She loves learning and writing about entrepreneurs of all stripes and has fun redistributing the wealth as a grant writing consultant for nonprofits. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Did You Know? California Wine is Big Business
• California produces 90 percent of all U.S. wine
• Is ranked 4th in the world as a wine producer, after France, Italy and Spain
• There are 3,400 wineries in California, nearly all family-owned businesses. This number is up 321 percent from 807 wineries in 1990
• 199.6 million cases of California wine is sold in the United States, a retail value of $18.5 billion
• Winegrapes are grown in 48 of 58 counties in the state
— The Wine Institute, California Wine Profile, 2010