There wasn't a drop of wine in that giant bottle of Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon at
San Antonio Winery's 95th anniversary party. It was a cake -- Black Forest, with cherries inside instead of grapes. Beside it were two other mammoth cakes created for the celebration, one of them frosted with historic photos.
The party took place in the winery parking lot in downtown L.A. On that day, Sept. 27, the tasting room, corner cafe, shop and restaurant closed early. No one was available to work in them anyway, because the employees, some of them 30-year veterans, were at the party along with winery friends and families.
The guests who attracted the most attention were San Antonio patriarch Stefano Riboli, 91, and his wife, Maddalena, 89. Both still work at the winery, as they have for decades. Stefano goes there daily. Maddalena puts in four days a week.
Stefano Riboli is the nephew of Santo Cambianica, who founded San Antonio in 1917. In 1936, Stefano left Italy to join his uncle in the business. Both came from the hamlet of Berzo San Fermo in the province of Bergamo. Maddalena Riboli is from Mombaruzzo in the province of Asti.
It was she who came up with the idea of a winery restaurant almost 40 years ago. To get it started, she used her own recipes, such as Florentine lasagna, eggplant alla Parmigiana and chicken in wine sauce with mushrooms. The menu was titled "Maddalena Award-Winning Entrees."
Instead of Italian food, though, party guests ate Argentine barbecue: beef, pork ribs and chicken with chimichurri, salads and bread. Before that, they snacked on globe-spanning appetizers such as ceviche, Asian fusion quesadillas, samosas, bacon-wrapped dates, paprika shrimp, crab fritters and deep-fried Parmesan rice balls.
"We thought we'd do something a little more out of the box than what we usually do," said Cathy Riboli Colombatti, San Antonio vice president.
Two bars were set up with San Antonio wines and commemorative glasses. Along with Argentine, Latino and Italian songs, guests were entertained by the noisy rumble of a passing train, just like in the old days. "The engineers would see us as kids and they would toot their horns," Colombatti recalled. "We knew all the conductors."
Colombatti and her brother, San Antonio vice president Santo Riboli, conducted a brief tribute at the party. Riboli said of his parents, "They were people of faith. They always felt all things would work out in time."
Today the family spans four generations, and the winery has grown until case production is now 900,000 a year. The Maddalena line accounts for about 225,000 of those. The new, expanded tasting room sells imported wines as well as those from the company. Other wines go to the food-service industry for use in products such as wine salad dressings. And exports are booming. "The Asian market is just phenomenal for us," Colombatti said.
San Antonio has three winemakers and vineyards in Paso Robles, Napa Valley and Monterey County. While tasting room fees soar to the astronomical in Napa, tours of the downtown facility with sampling are free.
The oldest producing winery in the city, in 1966 San Antonio was named Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument No. 42. "Who would have thought a company like ours would be here for 95 years?" Santo Riboli asked the guests, sounding pretty amazed himself.