I could hardly believe the GPS was leading me off the 5 freeway into an urban industrial area. A winery here? Yes! This part of Los Angeles was once a thriving neighborhood of Italian immigrants. Although the surrounding landscape has changed, a visit to the San Antonio winery is like spending the day with the family that has been making wine here for 100 years.
Wine with a Story
The story begins in 1917 when an immigrant named Santo Cambianica converted some cast-off lumber from a railroad car into a “micro-winery” on Lamar Street. Two years later came Prohibition — the period when the United States banned the production and sale of alcoholic beverages, lasting until 1933. San Antonio Winery stayed in business by providing altar wine to the Catholic archdiocese. To this day, the company remains one of the nation’s largest producers of sacramental grapes. There’s a pretty good chance that you’ve already tasted wine from here if you’re Catholic and you drank from the cup during Communion at Mass.
The building you see today is a tribute to the generation that guided the company through the Depression and World War II to survive as the only remaining winery in Los Angeles. Long gone are the vineyards of Burbank, Glendale and Sierra Madre. Grapes from mostly Northern California and elsewhere are brought here to make everything from the massive Stella Rosa brand to artisan vintages from the family’s estate vineyards in Paso Robles.
Free Parking and Tours
As you enter the tasting room from the enclosed parking lot, you’ll be greeted at the door. Free tours are offered throughout the day. You’ll walk through the original room of the winery and other rooms with architectural touches like paneling made from wine barrel staves. You’ll see the towering redwood vats that have been retired in favor of modern stainless steel tanks. Kids might enjoy watching the complicated machines that attach the corks, foils and labels to the bottles.
At the time of my visit in 2017, two levels of tasting were offered at $5 and $15 per person, with ID required and special arrangements for groups. Dominic Menton, the tasting room manager, introduced me to what he described as a “very bright” 2016 San Simeon Sauvingon Blanc with refreshing notes of pear, honeydew melon and lemongrass. Everyone pouring wine at the tasting bar seemed to share Dominic’s enthusiasm and expertise, seasoned with a sense of humor. The gift shop is filled with wine-themed items that will make you smile.
A Restaurant with No Menu
The restaurant is named for the family’s matriarch, Maddalena. The striking Italian beauty was driving a farm tractor when she captured the heart of Stefano Riboli, the nephew of the winery’s founder. They married in 1946 and kept LA’s winemaking tradition alive in the postwar years. Now in their 90s, they are part of the four generations who remain actively involved with the enterprise. You are likely to rub shoulders with some of them during your visit.
The restaurant was the first within a California winery when it opened in 1970 and reflects Maddalena’s passion for fresh Italian cooking. There’s no printed menu. Instead, samples of the day’s fresh offerings are on display. You simply choose, pay and relax at your table while your freshly made entree is served. The atmosphere is one of a family trattoria, which can be festive with groups celebrating a graduation or retirement party.
I drove home, resolving to bring a designated driver next time and indulge in a bit more tasting. I had walked in the footsteps of legendary TV journalist Huell Howser, who declared this landmark winery one of the delightful surprises in Downtown LA in a 1994 episode of his Visiting series. (Watch the episode from the Chapman University Archives, beginning halfway in at about 15:34.) San Antonio Winery will definitely be on my list for future get togethers with friends, or a place to bring visitors from out of town. Convenient to Dodgers’ Stadium or Staples Center.
Terry’s Travel Tips
Centrally located near downtown LA, this is a convenient day trip. You’ll need a car, or a ride from Union Station via Uber, Lyft or taxi. Allow two to three hours for a tour, tasting and lunch or an early dinner. Food service stops one hour before closing at 7 or 8 pm daily. Hours and directions are on the website.
Reservations not necessary except for groups, but the restaurant can get quite busy for special occasions like Mother’s Day or holiday parties. Entrees mostly under $20. Some of the customers in the tasting room told me they were there to stock up on their favorites in price ranges from $4 to $90 per bottle, with discounts for 3 bottles or a case of 12.
Disclosure: I was an invited guest for a tour, tasting and lunch but have tried to honestly represent the value and experience that awaits a typical visitor. Observations, research and opinions are my own. For more on the history of Los Angeles Wine, an informative book is available in the gift shop or free with a trial of Kindle. Click the ad at the top of the page to sign up.
For a very different wine tasting adventure in Slovenia, check out this post to read about the wine pump at Vina Koper. Want more stories like this? Like @strangersinthelivingroom on Facebook, and sign up for the occasional email when there is a new post.