Imagine: You need a jug of your favorite red, so you get in line behind the neighborhood locals at a lone railroad boxcar just south of the L.A. Basin, right next to Union Pacific. Your jug is filled by a proprietor who knows your name, and you fork over a few pennies.
That's the lore handed down to Michael Riboli from his great-great-uncle Santo Cambianica, his grandfather Stefano Riboli and his father, Santo Riboli — three generations of the San Antonio Winery, L.A.'s longest-running, and now only, wine-producing facility.
Hardly as quaint as the humble operation of Italian immigrants back in 1917, the now-vast complex — designated an L.A. cultural monument — covers two city blocks at Lamar and Cardinal streets, at the boxcar's original Lincoln Heights address.
What also remains steadfast is the winery's ties to a 150-person workforce driven by the city's ever-expanding multicultural immigrant population. That's a nonnegotiable lifeline that Riboli, at age 31, is determined to preserve.
Riboli got his start in the biz at age 4, dusting bottles, washing storefront windows, sweeping floors and “co-hosting” tours with his father. He cultivated an appreciation of city history from the stories he'd hear from all his relatives who worked the winery, including his grandmother Maddalena, who, at 84, still runs the on-site restaurant, named for her.
“It sounded like the Wild West,” Riboli says. “The only reason the winery survived 13 years of prohibition [1920-1933] is because my grandfather made a deal with the L.A. archdiocese to exclusively sell sacramental wine to local parishes.”
While Riboli was free to indulge his interests outside the family business, as a child growing up in South Pasadena, his attention was always drawn to the topics of food and wine. “I was a weird kid,” he says. “I loved watching PBS shows like The Frugal Gourmet and Yan Can Cook. And I loved watching Ron Popeil infomercials.”
As a Georgetown University business-school grad, he did a stint as an analyst at Cushman & Wakefield. But after a trip to Italy to study the culture and language, he believed he could best apply his knowledge to his love of wine, eventually earning certification from the Court of Master Sommeliers.
“Wine opens up a world of history,” he says. “It's a culture within cultures. Tasting it is subjective, but no matter what, you're experiencing a way people live in a specific part of the world.”
For San Antonio wines, that means Northern California, where the grapes are harvested and crushed. Once the juice arrives at the L.A. complex, the process of in-house fermentation begins, followed by aging, and bottling to the tune of 500,000-plus cases per year.
The complex is not only a production facility; it also attracts locals, tourists and hard-core oenophiles to the well-stocked wine shop, on-site tastings, banquet facilities and an Old World-style Italian restaurant complete with red-vinyl tablecloths and a sawdust-covered floor.
Riboli looks every bit the distinguished business owner, with his pressed gray trousers and crisp, white button-down shirt and tie, but he's not above doing any task requiring attention. “In my family, no matter who you are, if you see something to be fixed, you fix it,” he says.
He's a proficient floor sweeper, but Riboli's forte is evident when he strolls through the winery, retelling the history of L.A., handed down from his family, and citing examples of how progress and preservation can coexist.
“Lincoln Heights was home to first-generation Italians who came to Los Angeles. We named our business San Antonio Winery because Anthony was the patron saint of lost and forgotten things: immigrants.”
This story is from the current People Issue. To read more, see our cover story.