Saved From Prohibition by Holy Wine

In downtown Los Angeles, a 95-year-old winery weathered hard times by making wine for church services. Now connoisseurs are devoted to it

Century-old casks line the winery’s restaurant, built inside its 1940s redwood wine tank room. (Gilles Mingasson)
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On a recent afternoon, Steve Riboli walked around the giant barrels touching the burnished surfaces and remembering when he played inside them—the barrels were replaced by stainless steel tanks in 1963—washing the interiors with baking soda and emerging, wine-stained and faintly pink. “We haven’t divorced ourselves from the past at all,” says Riboli. “We’ve evolved – from sacramental wine to 92-93 [point]Wine Spectator wine.”

Riboli now operates the business (“I’m the bottle washer”) with his brother Santo; Santo’s sons Michael and Anthony, one of the winery’s four winemakers; his sister Cathy and his parents, who are still active in daily operations. And they do so in the same building, albeit as vastly transformed as the operation itself.

San Antonio still makes and bottles much of the over 500,000 cases of wine it produces annually in L.A. It has another facility up the coast in Paso Robles. The grapes no longer come from Pasadena and Glendora and Burbank, but are grown on 500 acres of vineyards in Napa and Monterey counties and in Paso Robles. By the early ’60s, San Antonio had become the last winery in Los Angeles, and in 1966, it was designated one of the city’s cultural landmarks.

All that history fills the bottles of the sacramental wine that still constitutes close to 15 percent of San Antonio’s annual production. Tastes have changed through the years, as the Church has changed (the use of altar wine in Catholic services expanded after the Second Vatican Council, in the 1960s) and as its clergy and parishioners have become more accustomed to wines beyond the varieties used for religious ceremonies. Today San Antonio makes six sacramental wines, with four—a red, a rosé, a light Muscat and an Angelica—being the most popular.

Sacramental wines were once very sweet and mostly fortified—canon law stipulates that wine for the Eucharist must be “from fruit of the vine.” Riboli says that the vast majority of altar wine now is medium dry, and that his wines have no added water or sugar.

Since the early ’90s, priests and parish leaders have been asking the industry for drier wines and lighter colors. Before then, sacramental wine was dark, valued for its deep color that suggested the blood of Christ it represented. But lighter wines not only have appealed to the palates of both clergy and parishioners, they have had pragmatic value too—as lighter wines are easier to clean when they inevitably spill, and are thus less likely to stain the altar cloths. Imagine your own dry-cleaning bills after an evening of, say, pot-au-feu and Cabernet Sauvignon.

The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown L.A. has used San Antonio’s sacramental wines exclusively since opening and even has four different San Antonio labels in its gift shop. Monsignor Kevin Kostelnik, the pastor of the cathedral, says that parishioners buy the wine not only to drink, but as a souvenir.

Kostelnik says before the cathedral opened in 2002, it formed a wine-tasting committee to choose the sacramental wines. The committee went to nearby San Antonio for a tasting session and ultimately decided on the Communion rosé (“It’s based on palate: It was a full-bodied rosé”), which is the only wine the cathedral uses for the Eucharist. And it goes through a lot: 25 cases a month, or over 300 bottles, at a rough cost of $1,500.

“San Antonio is a treasure,” says Kostelnik. “There aren’t many urban areas that have a winery, and supporting them has been an important ministry. They’re a model of sacrifice for staying in the city.” As for the wine itself, the monsignor says that the quality of wine is important for both theological and aesthetic reasons. “We don’t use cheap wine. It’s the blood of Christ: We want to use the best wine that we can find.”

Made under canon law, San Antonio produces its sacramental wine group from grapes grown in California’s Northern San Joaquin Valley from older vines with intense flavors: the red is a blend that includes Barbera and Cabernet grapes; the rosé is made with Grenache. The Angelica is fortified with grape brandy, as was the custom with previous generations of altar wines, to achieve 18 percent alcohol.


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