The food and beverage industries in Los Angeles are on uncertain ground. As the coronavirus pandemic stretches into its third month, dining rooms remain closed, sales have cratered, and the vast majority of restaurant workers have been laid off. But for San Antonio Winery, LA’s oldest winery, business has never been better.
Americans have been drinking record amounts at home, and the family-owned winery is one of the beneficiaries of the booze boom — according to Steve Riboli, the company’s vice president and a member of the family, the company has seen a 200 percent increase in wine sales over the last two months. “With all the garbage that’s going on in the world, I’m embarrassed and pinching myself that we’ve had an amazing March,” says Riboli. “We’ve endured so many things in our history and we’ve gone through some really bad times. I think we just adapt.”
The family-run winery opened in 1917, expanded during and after Prohibition, survived the Great Depression, witnessed two World Wars, the Watts Riots, and LA’s massive social unrest in 1992. During each of these historic moments, San Antonio Winery survived through sheer will, flexibility, a little bit of luck, and society’s consistent demand for alcohol. And over the last 17 years, it built California’s best-selling wine brand, Stella Rosa — a line of sweet, low-alcohol Italian wines (and lip balm), some with less-than-traditional added flavors like tropical mango, green apple, or watermelon.
Best described as a wine producer, wholesaler, and retailer, staff at the showroom sell wine from notable and competing vineyards, or one of the Riboli family’s varietals. On average, it sells 500,000 cases of wine per year. Since cities adjusted to new social restrictions, the shipping room has been buzzing louder than usual with workers, forklifts, and wine machines. These machines take ripened grapes from one of the family vineyards in Paso Robles, Monterey, or Napa Valley.
Since the start of the pandemic, San Antonio has been forced to see just how much it can adapt. “We’ve been able to take our existing personnel and adapt them to the new normal of mostly online wine sales,” says Riboli. “And it seems to be going really really well. They want cool names when placing orders with us, and they want a mix of assorted wines. We have to help make life as happy as we can right now.”
In addition to making and selling wine, San Antonio is now also in the grocery business, selling produce along with containers of marinara sauce, meats, and cheese alongside Maddalena’s popular classic Italian-American dishes like spaghetti and meatballs, linguini with scampi, and chicken marsala.
San Antonio Winery’s presence on the industrial side of Lincoln Heights doesn’t look anything like picturesque California wine tasting rooms, with their rustic charm and verdant landscapes. Located at the same site since its founding in 1917, the company’s 100,000-square-foot compound sits next to a cement supplier and UPS processing center on Lamar Street with the constant sound of shipping trucks and machinery. Inside, some 300 employees ship cases of wine to those sheltering-in-place, monitor the fermentation and bottling process, stock foodstuffs in its new grocery section, and prepare takeout dishes from San Antonio’s shuttered full-service restaurant, Maddalena’s, while the wine showroom only allows a few customers in at a time.
Over the years, San Antonio Winery practiced an ability to adjust — sprinkled with a bit of luck — during disruptive periods in history. San Antonio Winery founder Santo Cambianica opened the winery in 1917, at the end of World War I, and one year before the Spanish Flu pandemic. LA’s small population was expanding with new aerospace, farming, and film industries. The Spanish Flu pandemic was spreading fast in 1918, resulting in somewhere between 17 and 100 million deaths worldwide. But in Los Angeles, city officials used strict and early measures to confront the spread, with LA averaging a significantly lower death rate. But another historic event loomed which would turn the entire booze industry upside-down in 1919: Prohibition.
The 18th Amendment, or Volstead Act, prohibited the sale, production, and transportation of alcohol in the United States. Prohibition was a devastating blow to the approximately 90 California wineries throughout Southern California in operation during the late 1910s. At Prohibition’s end in 1933, just a half dozen were still open. San Antonio Winery’s survived thanks to an exemption: Cambianica — who named his winery after Patron Saint Anthony — was granted exclusive rights to sell sacramental wine to the Catholic Church.
“There was not a huge LA population during Prohibition, but about a dozen churches,” says Riboli, Cambianica’s grand-nephew. “We sold wine to them, and they sold wine to their parishioners. It was part of taking religion home.”
The dwindling of LA’s wine industry continued after Black Tuesday, or the Wall Street Crash of 1929. The combination of the alcohol ban and record unemployment proved tragic for most industries, especially wineries without a coveted relationship with the Catholic Church in Los Angeles. Cambianica’s religious connections made a difference then and now. Today, San Antonio still remains the largest provider of sacramental wine in the United States.
In 1937, two years before the start of World War II, Cambianica’s nephew Stefano Riboli took over the winery’s operation. (He remained an active participant in the business with his wife Maddalena until his death at the age of 98 in 2019.) When World War II ended, it proved to be a profitable period.
“During World War II, we virtually sold out of wine when GIs returned home from overseas,” says Riboli. “After having been in Europe for so long, they had developed a taste for wine. We ended up seeing a bump in wine sales after the end of World War II.”
The Ribolis also witnessed the 1965 Watts Riots, when 4,000 California Army National Guard troops were called in to control police protesters after a botched traffic stop. The unrest resulted in 34 deaths and over 1,000 injured throughout the city. Yet another culture-shifting traffic stop was to follow 27 years later, as LAPD officers were videotaped beating motorist Rodney King in 1992.
The subsequent uprising was turbulent period for Los Angeles. Even though the violent epicenter was not close to the winery, the impact on communities and local industries was widespread. Officials declared Los Angeles a federal disaster area, and over 1,100 Marines, 600 Army soldiers, and 6,500 National Guard troops patrolled and enforced curfews throughout the Southland. Freeways were closed, all bus services were canceled, infrastructure was damaged, tensions ran high, and the city was like a ghost town. Riboli vividly recalls LA’s atmosphere after the unrest.
“I remember how it was painful for the city,” says Riboli. “We’re thankful there was a regrouping and rejoining of forces. It took a long time. Those were some very difficult years for tourism and the residents. Thank God we’re better today as a city. It made the city grow up. It needed a shakeup.”
And while San Antonio Winery is in the midst of record sales, it’s far from business as usual. The typically bustling parking lot and showroom are quiet. To the showroom’s right is a closed gift shop that’s been converted to a grocery and prepared foods area. Farther inside, the dining room is shut down. Yet kitchen staff still prepares food next door to the wine production area with giant casks of fermenting grapes. And then there’s the busiest section — the shipping area, where cases of wine and champagne constantly flow out the door.
Riboli seems slightly uneasy about San Antonio Winery’s current success, finding that his business lacks a key element. “We’ve been able to take our existing personnel and adapt them to the new normal of online wine sales. And it seems to be going really really well. I can’t wait for people to come back and visit us. Every imaginable shape and color walk through the doors, and we look forward to reopening when the time is right and when it’s safe to open.”