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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St. Anthony of Padua is not the patron saint of winemakers—that distinction goes to St. Vincent or St. Martin of Tours or, if you happen to be in Bulgaria, St. Trifon the Pruner—but perhaps he should be, at least in Southern California. Because when Santo Cambianica came to Los Angeles from Lombardy and founded the San Antonio Winery, it was his devotion to that saint and his church that would save the business.

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Like most of his compatriots, Cambianica was a Catholic, a very devout Catholic by all accounts, and thus he named his winery after St. Anthony, the patron saint not of winemakers but of lost things, of travelers, of the poor. If Cambianica was a traveler, he did not remain so. Nor did he end up poor and lost, as so many of his fellow winemakers did, when in 1920 Prohibition slammed the wine industry like a heavy jug thudding down on a dining table.

Cambianica immigrated to downtown Los Angeles in 1914, making his home and starting his winery on half an acre of land in what was then Little Italy, a thriving network of thousands of Western European immigrants. It was then one of the largest pockets of Italian-Americans west of the Mississippi. The Italians settled in Lincoln Heights and in what is now Chinatown, coming here because of a thriving agricultural industry and because of the Southern Pacific Railroad. It was a good location for a winery, as there were vineyards in the nearby valleys, a railroad to transport the product—the Red Car Line ran just outside the doors of the winery—and plenty of wine-accustomed immigrants to drink it.

Prohibition changed the burgeoning California wine business into an industry in sudden crisis, patched together with string and wire and oak barrel slats—and loopholes. The Volstead Act, which enforced the 18th Amendment, exempted alcohol that was used for medicinal or cosmetic purposes, such as hair tonics and toilet waters and elixirs, and for religious purposes, specifically sacramental wine.

When San Antonio Winery was founded in 1917, three years before Prohibition, it was one of about 90 wineries in Los Angeles; when Prohibition was repealed, in 1933, it was one of about a half dozen. Santo Cambianica literally saved his winery in much the same way that the Catholic Church metaphorically saved its parishioners: by transforming ordinary table wine into something sacred, into the altar wine used in Mass.

That the winery had been named for a Catholic saint and that Cambianica had strong ties to the church made the transition logical from both sides, and thus the winery struck a deal to continue to make sacramental wine during Prohibition. (Many wineries already made wine to sell to churches and synagogues; during Prohibition that practice went into overdrive.)

“Most of the other brands were not spiritual; they had names like Sunny Side or Sunny Slope,” points out Steve Riboli, Cambianica’s great-nephew and now the vice president of San Antonio Winery. San Antonio “was a faith-based company,” says Riboli. “Literally.”

Cambianica quickly adapted his business to fit the situation, in itself a kind of transformative process that became emblematic for the company. Before Prohibition, San Antonio was a small winery, making about 5,000 cases of red wine, the kind of wine that was sold “family-size,” or in jug form, to local immigrants and five area churches. By the time Prohibition ended, it was producing 20,000 cases. Today, San Antonio Winery is the largest supplier of sacramental wine in the country.

If downtown Los Angeles was a logical place to build a winery nearly a century ago, it is certainly not where you would expect to find one now. The winery occupies three blocks of what is in 2012 a largely industrial horizontal landscape. The footprints of Little Italy are faint, the ghostly color of concrete: the tiny Lanza Bros. Market, which still operates up the street from the winery, and the winery itself, with its banners and carefully maintained entrance. Other than that? Nothing much is left of the bungalows and shops, the pasta makers and fishmongers that made up the thriving community.

But walk over the threshold of the winery into the vast complex—100,000 square feet of showroom and restaurant, tasting rooms and bottling facility, fermentation and aging cellars and warehousing—and you’ll find history everywhere you look. It’s in the black-and-white photos of Cambianica; of his nephew Stefano Riboli, Steve’s father, who came over from Italy in 1936 at 15 to help run the business; of Stefano’s wife, Maddalena, a tractor-driving teenager from an Italian family who had immigrated to Guasti, in Ontario, California. You can see the history in the rows of wine bottles themselves and in the enormous four-inch-thick redwood barrels, so large they could hold up to 25,000 gallons of wine, that populate the rooms like the remnants of an old-growth forest.


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