SAN ANTONIO : Riboli Family Reshapes Its Winery's Image

Times Wine Writer

California's grape-growing and wine-making history began in the early 1830s when a French immigrant in his mid-50s, Jean Louis Vignes, planted grapevines imported from France and began making wine in what is now downtown Los Angeles.

Within a few blocks of where Vignes helped establish California as a wine-growing state, one of California's oldest wine making families today is embarking on a new persona for its wines.

San Antonio Winery, the 30th-largest winery in California in terms of case sales in 1987, was founded 71 years ago and has been known until recently as essentially a producer of vin ordinaire, table wines sold in large jugs with screw caps. It wasn't bad wine, but neither was it distinguished.

Today, however, the Riboli family that owns San Antonio is seeking a new image, one as a premium winery. And although most of the wine San Antonio makes and bottles on Lamar Street is still bottled under screw caps, the fastest-growing segment of the winery's line is truly premium.

The label generating a new sense of enthusiasm here is Maddalena.

In the last three years, Maddalena wines have won a slew of awards at major wine competitions, including gold medals even when pitted against some of the industry's most prestigious names. Moreover, the Maddalena wines are all priced well below their Northern California competitors.

Until recently, however, the Ribolis have done little to promote this new-found premium image.

"We always have taken a conservative approach," said Santo Riboli, vice president of San Antonio.

"We always sat back and said, 'Are we ready to promote?' And maybe now we are," added Steve Jr., his brother and the other vice president.

Maddalena wines, all vintage-dated varietal wines from premium grapes grown in North Coast vineyards, now account for about 80,000 cases, more than 20% of San Antonio's production. Said Steve Jr.:

"We have taken a good five-year look at Maddalena, which we feel is the most important part of our future. It's definitely the strength of our brand. And until now, it has been basically an on-sale (restaurant) wine, but our most important push now is to go off-sale (retail)."

He said plans are being made to more actively promote the wines. For example, San Antonio has had artist Sebastian Titus design point-of-sale material that's fresh and attractive. A new decorated wine box will be used soon, and "We are getting out to the public more, doing more public tastings," he said. "We are going to be hand-selling our Maddalena wine."

More changes at the Lamar Street complex are imminent. The tasting room will be expanded and brightened. A wine museum complete with artifacts from the early days, a corkscrew collection and photos of the era will be installed. The restaurant will be remodeled and made brighter.

One major point of controversy is whether to put a skylight in the restaurant.

Some family members don't want it.

Mom wants it.

Her name is Maddalena Riboli.

California's recent vinicultural history has been rooted in Northern California counties, notably Napa and Sonoma, but it all started here, with Jean Louis Vignes' pioneering in Los Angeles about 1833.

By 1851, more than 100 vineyards were reported growing in the county and the wine was prized for its quality.

San Antonio Winery was founded in 1917 by Santo Cambianica at a time when there were 92 bonded wineries in the city of Los Angeles. San Antonio was located on Lamar Street in an area east of downtown that was flourishing as a haven for vineyards.

Within two years, however, Prohibition jolted the region and most of the wineries closed, but Cambianica continued in business by selling grapes to home wine makers and by making altar wine for the church. (San Antonio and Christian Brothers remain the only two wineries to do a significant portion of their business in sacramental wine. San Antonio produces 40,000 cases of wine for the Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches.)

Steve Riboli Sr., Cambianica's nephew, joined the winery when Prohibition ended in 1934. By the 1950s, the property was one of the state's largest.

Last year, despite numerous mergers that have created giant wine companies throughout the state, San Antonio still ranked as the 30th largest winery in California, shipping an estimated 390,000 cases, up 5% from 1986. The increase is impressive in view of the fact that jug wine sales (a major portion of San Antonio's business) slumped in 1987.)

Steve Jr. estimates that San Antonio will grow in excess of 15% per year during the next few years.

Today, Steve and Maddalena Riboli remain in charge, but their three children are the day-to-day forces. Someone from the family is always at the building that now bears the designation Cultural Historical Monument No. 42.

In this old building, other family members also work. Cathy Riboli Colombatti, Steve and Maddalena's daughter, is treasurer. Steve's wife, Susan, and Santo's wife, Joan, also work at the winery.

"More than full time," said Steve Jr. recently.

"And sometimes we don't sleep," added Santo.

The Maddalena brand was developed when Michael Weiss, now with Vichon in the Napa Valley, was at San Antonio. Wine maker Jon Alexander has taken on the Maddalena wines as a personal quality project in the last four years.

Occasionally, Alexander's mania for quality in the Maddalena line frustrates the two brothers. "He's such a perfectionist," said Steve Jr., with mock exasperation.

Visiting San Antonio is like a glimpse back in time. The dimly lighted tasting room is loaded with wine-related gifts and gadgets. Wines are displayed on the wall and in bins. At the other end of the tasting room is the entrance to the family restaurant, opened in 1975. It may be the best bargain lunch in town.

Near the cash register are plastic cups of wine. They are $1 each. The wine is drinkable. But it is a little unnerving to see wine being served in plastic cups in a winery.

However, you'll find bottles of Maddalena at very reasonable prices for sale nearby. And wine glasses for it are de rigeur. One find is the 1986 Maddalena Chardonnay from Napa Valley grapes, a steal at $9. The fresh lively fruit has a layer of complexity from aging in French oak barrels.

The best value in the line is the 1984 Cabernet from Sonoma County grapes ($6), with a light olive-dill note and soft, easy to drink Cabernet intensity.

A delightful 1985 Cabernet designated Alexander Valley Reserve ($9.45) is excellent wine for the cellar, with rich, full-bodied fruit and great balance.

Being a Los Angeles-based winery has done little for the image of San Antonio. The brothers admit that the Maddalena line probably would be taken more seriously by connoisseurs if the winery were located in the Napa Valley.

However, most of the wines in the line come from grapes grown in places like Napa and Sonoma and trucked down to Los Angeles to be crushed, fermented, and barrel-aged. And then bottled on a new state-of-the-art bottling line.

Recently, San Antonio took the plunge and acquired a 20-acre vineyard in prestigious Rutherford in the heart of the Napa Valley, from which to make a vintner-grown Cabernet Sauvignon. And the family is looking for more Northern California acreage to acquire.

The remainder of the wines are made at San Antonio's facility at Delano in the San Joaquin Valley and bottled in Los Angeles. Included in that line are wines bottled under the labels of restaurants as their "house wines." One longtime client is the Anthony's chain of San Diego, whose Vino di Casa has been made by San Antonio for years.

And as for the question of whether there should be a skylight in the restaurant, mom has won out. When remodeling starts later this year, a skylight will be included.

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