Photo by Jonathan Alcorn courtesy of The Tidings
Antonio Winery, which makes much of the sacramental altar
wine used in Catholic churches around the nation, is the
last of more than 100 producing wineries that once lined
the Los Angeles River Basin. At one time Los Angeles was
the hub of California’s wine industry.
Antonio Winery was founded in the City of Angels in 1917
by Santo Cambianica, an immigrant from the Lombardy region
of Italy. He dedicated his business to his patron saint
great-nephew Steve Riboli discusses the business of winemaking
and the winery that has been in his family for four generations.
“If you look at the history of wine in America, the Catholic
Church is often right at the forefront,” says Steve. “The
Franciscan padres from Spain were the first vine growers
in the New World, planting grapes to harvest for drinking
and using wine at Mass.” California had a bit of an edge
on the rest of the country because of its Mediterranean
climate, which coincided with Europe’s Spanish, French and
Italian wine regions.
the Mexican government took over the land from the friars,
private growers entered the scene. Many French, Italian
and German immigrants started vineyards through the 1800s.
Then during Prohibition, most of the wineries operating
in Los Angeles went out of business. The few that remained
open had contracts with the Church to make sacramental altar
Sacramental Wine Saves Business
Riboli’s father, Stefano, explains why San Antonio Winery
got one of those prized contracts. The local bishop had
heard that Santo Cambianica was a very devout man who went
to the poor neighborhoods in L.A. each week to give food
and clothing in honor of his patron saint. Santo was also
a daily Mass attendee.
could say St. Anthony got us that contract or the bishop
felt guilty if he didn’t give Santo the contract!” says
Stefano with a grin. “Either way, it was a miracle, and
my uncle spent hours praying before the statue of St. Anthony
in the local church.”
or not, the contract allowed San Antonio Winery to expand
from 2,000 cases of sacramental altar wine a year to 25,000
by the time Prohibition was repealed.
“Before the 1960s, our sacramental-wine business was mainly
a Southern California operation for us,” says Steve Riboli.
“Now we produce 60,000 cases of altar wine and distribute
it nationally to churches in Chicago, in New York and in
St. Louis. The Hammer family represents us in the northern
section of Missouri, so we do a lot of business with dioceses
in the Midwest and Northeast.”
the 1960s, the winery was rescued again by a Church official
when the Southern Pacific Railroad threatened to tear it
down. Father Louis Masoero, a Salesian priest who was principal
of Bosco Technical Institute for Boys, had been a regular
customer and friend of Stefano Riboli and his family. Through
the priest’s public-relations efforts among leading people
of the community, petitions were signed. Eventually, the
city and the railroad rethought a route through the winery.
Stefano explains why his mother sent him from Italy to
California in the 1930s to work for his Uncle Santo. “My
mother discovered a priest in Bergamo who had a nephew going
to America to get married to a local Italian girl living
in L.A. So my mother asked the priest if I could accompany
him,” says Stefano. “World War II was looming in Germany,
and my mother saw the handwriting on the wall. There was
talk in Italy that in America you swept dollar bills off
the sidewalks with a broom. I came from a very poor region
in Italy. We dreamed of America.
first day I arrived at the winery, my uncle asked me if
I came to work or to play,” recalls Stefano. “I said, ‘Work.’
He said, ‘Good. Tomorrow I’ll teach you how to clean wine
barrels.’ And that was how I started.”
average day for young Stefano started at 6 a.m. He worked
on the wine presses and delivered cases of grapes or wine
to families all over Southern California. During Prohibition
many people made wine at home, and the winery supplied them
on weekends Stefano assisted his uncle, who never married,
in giving food and clothes to the poor. He vividly remembers
Santo going every morning to Mass at the local church, Our
Lady Help of Christians.
a story that sounds reminiscent of Ruth in the Bible, Stefano
explains how he met his wife, Maddalena, an Italian immigrant
from the province of Asti. It was during World War II when
he saw Maddalena Satragni picking corn in a field near her
family’s farm in Chino, California. Stefano was impressed
with the way she drove a tractor. Today the matriarch of
the family has an award-winning wine label of her own and
is the creative force behind Maddalena Restaurant, located
in the winery’s former fermentation cellars.
No Sugar Added
and Maddalena, their sons Santo and Steve, daughter Catherine
and grandson Anthony continue the family’s winemaking tradition
in a market where competition is increasing. Steve Riboli
says, “We’re very pro-active. We believe wine is made in
the vineyards, not in the winery. Eighty-five percent of
quality in a glass of wine comes from the soil.”
addition to farming 500 acres in Monterey and 16 acres in
Napa Valley, the Ribolis have long-term contracts to buy
grapes from other growers. San Antonio Winery ferments white
wine in its Los Angeles facility and produces red wines
in Paso Robles. The winery’s modern bottling plant and distribution
center are in Los Angeles.
bells and whistles added by the winery, like barrel fermentation,
only account for 15 percent of the product,” adds Steve.
“I have four winemakers. Most of them have multiple graduate
degrees. For example, an M.B.A. often accompanies a viticultural
master’s degree from the University of California at Davis
[the top school in America for winemaking]. That’s the modern
produces 80 percent of the wine made in the United States.
Steve says great weather is one reason why the state still
leads the nation in wine production over Texas, Idaho, New
York, the Carolinas and Virginia. “We don’t have the frosts
or hailstorms like the Finger Lake District in New York.
Because those regions have shorter growing seasons, the
government also allows them to add sugar to their wines
to give them an edge in the market, but we don’t.
there are unique microclimates in California unlike anywhere
else in the world for winemaking. This is particularly good
for syrahs and pinot noirs that need cool nights with a
little fog to enhance the vintage,” he continues.
techniques enable quality control. “We’ll make a special
chardonnay of only 100 cases,” says Steve. “That’s it. But
you’ll get it in completely different versions. We can control
the water. We can control the temperature. In the old days
a vintage might vary from year to year. This doesn’t happen
the holidays the winery bustles with festive decorations
and customers enjoying authentic Italian cooking and, of
course, good wine. “We do a lot of our sacramental-wine
production during the holidays of Christmas and Easter,”
says Steve. “This is also the peak busiest times for Catholic
parishes throughout the country. Often our orders range
in the neighborhood of 10,000 cases of sacramental altar
wine to be shipped all over the United States.”
explains the regional characteristics of altar wine: “Colder-climate
regions historically use sweeter wines for sacramental purposes—that
would be angelicas, sherries, ports and muscats. Warmer
regions tend to use drier wines: rosé, light muscat, chablis
and burgundy.” He adds that altar wine traditionally was
darker to represent the Precious Blood and because lighter
wines were not the norm for Mass in ancient times.
wine has since moved from amber ports to lighter angelicas.
“Part of the reason for the lightening of the color is that
the linens covering the altar are usually white. Red wine
makes a very noticeable stain,” explains Steve. “White wines
were, therefore, employed for easier linen cleanings.”
wine, according to The Code of Canon Law, “must be
natural, made from grapes of the vine, and not corrupt”
(Canon 924, #3). Steve echoes this when he says, “Our wines
are pure. We do not add flavorings, sugar, preservatives
or water.” The most popular sacramental wine, he says, is
angelica or muscat.
credits the Second Vatican Council for the increase in production
of sacramental wine. “In the ’70s both bread and wine began
to be regularly offered to the congregation at Catholic
Masses,” he explains. “In the early ’90s there was a decline
in altar-wine sales because many parishes were getting away
from buying sacramental wines and wanted to go and buy from
local wine shops. But they discovered the true quality was
lacking in the wine.”
nods in agreement. “You also now have a new generation of
priests who are real connoisseurs of wine, so they appreciate
the product we offer,” he says. “In fact, many of our customers
are priests who come to our restaurant and winery and buy
gifts of wine for friends or associates for various social
addition to producing sacramental wine, the business has
expanded to a prestigious and award-winning line of fine
wines produced by Riboli Family Vineyards (www.riboliwines.com).
Riboli labels include Maddalena Vineyard, San Simeon, San
Antonio, Kinderwood and La Quinta.
Antonio Winery ships products to 24 states, Asia, Canada
and the United Kingdom. Fifty percent of the wine is distributed
in California, says Steve. He sees increased interest in
the Carolinas, Colorado, Arizona, Tennessee, Kentucky and
Florida because the young workforce that has moved into
these areas is raising the demand for good wine. In addition,
the business imports and sells wines from France, Australia,
Chile and Italy.
ship everywhere now. And we’re very popular at holiday time,”
says Steve proudly. “The Australian and Chilean brands are
excellent buys. As you can see, we’ve diversified to keep
up with the competition.”
and changing cultures have contributed to increased business
overseas. When Americans travel to Asia, they expect good
American wines at the hotels where they stay. In addition,
Japanese give award-winning American wines as gifts to co-workers
changes in this country have led to increased sales, too.
“We’re finding Latino families are becoming more and more
connoisseurs of good wine, so much so that Mexican restaurants
are much more particular of the wines they serve than they
were years ago,” says Steve.
Santo Cambianica began the winery, the neighborhood was
largely populated by immigrants like him who were searching
for jobs in what sounded like the promised land. Italians
worked on the railroad or as marble craftsmen on churches
being built. They lived side by side with large pockets
of Yugoslavian, Russian and Jewish immigrants.
was St. Peter’s Church and St. Anthony’s Church down here,”
explains Steve Riboli. “They were hubs of worship and community
for new immigrants, who turned to a parish for their initial
connection to American life.”
the Los Angeles River is paved and industry has replaced
vineyards. Modern immigrants come from places such as El
Salvador, Mexico, Vietnam and Bangladesh. It’s a place where
St. Anthony, who was an immigrant himself, would feel at
Antonio Winery, still in its original location on Lamar
Street and not far from Union Station, has been designated
a Cultural Historical Landmark. Many scenes from Murder,
She Wrote and Falcon Crest were filmed at the
winery offers a restaurant, banquet facilities, tasting
room and wine shop. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Al Pacino
are among the celebrities served in the dining hall, a popular
spot where banquets for city officials are often booked
far in advance.
Crediting St. Anthony
wouldn’t have a business if it wasn’t for my great-uncle’s
work with the poor in the local parishes of downtown,” says
Steve, who recalls asking for a favor at one of those churches.
“Ten years ago my son was two, and the doctors gave him
a week to live because of an infection he had—I remember
this as if it was yesterday. So I went to St. Anthony’s
Church, right down the street here, and I prayed inside
the chapel. I remember saying, ‘Well, St. Anthony, this
is it. I need your help. This is the big favor.’ At times
like that, all a parent can do is kneel.” His son completely
recovered from his illness.
also credits the winery’s patron with a healing experience.
“I was in a very bad accident when a wine press fell on
me and badly injured my spine in 1940. My whole back was
torn in two and there were complications. I was in bed for
a year! They gave up on me. Four people who had similar
spinal conditions all died in the hospital beds right next
to me. I figured I was next. But I never stopped praying.
Even the priests who came in to visit me figured I was a
goner. But here I am. That’s my miracle of St. Anthony.”
statue of St. Anthony and the infant Jesus still remains
in the office of the winery, even though the infant’s head
broke off when the statue fell six feet during the 1994
earthquake that shook the area.
descendants continue his legacy. “One of the last things
my Uncle Santo told me before he died was to carry on working
with the poor and the Church as he had, and never to forget
St. Anthony because he truly felt blessed by that saint,”
says Stefano. “He believed in working hard and praying hard.
We try to live up to that.”
Antonio Winery is located at 737 Lamar Street, Los Angeles,
CA 90031. For more information about products, tours or
restaurant hours, call 323-223-1401 or check the Web site
Greg Heffernan is a theology teacher at Marymount High School in Los Angeles, California. He has traveled to India and other countries and is working on a book about early Christianity in India.