Sunday, June 13, 2010

Winery tour - L.A. style!

Last summer we went on to France, and experienced one of the most amazing trips of our lives, touring the Cote d'Or wine country where the best and most venerated wines in the world are made.

And that same fall we traveled to wine country closer to home - Santa Barbara County. This area is one of California's most beautiful regions. This is the area made famous in the movie "Sideways" - and rightly so.

When one thinks of winery tours, country villages, ancient cellars, and fields of vines and flowers on rolling hills come to mind.

Yet right here in one of Los Angeles' most industrial neighborhood, there's a winery that will surprise and delight you if you come to take a tour.

Lincoln Heights is northeast of Chinatown and just east of the railroad tracks and the Los Angeles River. It's one of the oldest neighborhoods in Los Angeles, dating from the 1830s when the wealthiest residents built their homes to overlook the river. By the turn of the century, however, industrial development and the railroad yards drove out the wealthy to quieter Pasadena, and the area became home to Mexican-American working class and to Italian immigrants.

One of these immigrants was Santo Cambianica, who started the San Antonio winery in 1917 - naming it after his patron saint, St. Anthony. Santo's devotion to the church brought him luck - in 1919 when Prohibition came in and alcohol was outlawed, his contracts with the local Catholic church to provide sacramental wine kept him in business while his competition failed.

In 1936 Santo's nephew Stefano Riboli joined him. Although development razed the grape fields in Los Angeles County, the winery continued, making wine from grapes grown in north California counties.

Here's a view of the street the winery is on

Today, Stefano Riboli and his wife, Maddalena still own and operate San Antonio Winery - from the very same site Santo Cambianica founded it in Lincoln Heights. It's next to the train tracks, and across the street from a giant UPS distribution center.

You can take a tour and see the huge stainless steel tanks where the initial fermentation takes place, and the racks of oak barrels where the wine then ages.

I learned about this place from my friend Barbara, at the blog Table Conversations. Her description of the lamb sandwich sounded so good we had to go. We went on a Sunday afternoon, and the restaurant and the wine shop were both full.

You choose your meal from a display at the entrance, then you order your food from the counter, and slide your cafeteria tray along to the cashier - though it's cafeteria style, it's still elegant, with linen napkins and glass stemware for the selections of wine by the glass. We chose sandwiches - a tarragon-flavored chicken salad for me and a Mediterranean vegetable sandwich for [The Man I Love].

Mediterranean vegetable sandwich and a glass of Heritage White

A guitarist played in the corner, and one long table was filled with a family numbering perhaps two dozen members. It was a family place, a date place, a place with tourists and a place where serious wine-lovers sipped and held forth.Next to us on one side, two older African American ladies enjoyed a lunch and two glasses of merlot. Beyond, a young couple sipped the house Sangria from tall curvy glasses. A dignified older man and a younger companion sat at table, a bottle of red next to them, talking about the wine business.

Chicken tarragon sandwich on whole-grain ciabatta, with fresh potato chips

It was a great and vibrant scene. We love touring the serene rural vineyards of Santa Barbara and Burgundy, but this was different - this was L.A.! This was full of noise and chatter, bustle and glow. Huge casks lined the walls of the restaurant, decked in strings of twinkle lights. The gift shop teemed with fancy wine accessories, and the wine shop itself was crammed with people at the tasting counters.

We took the tour, led by a recent graduate of UC Davis's wine program. She was smart and funny, and deftly tacked between explaining elementary viticulture to novices and answering questions from budding wine geeks.

We hoped to do a tasting, but the shop was so crowded we couldn't find a spot. We vowed to come back during a weekday, when it was less busy. But we will come back.

If you're visiting Los Angeles, this is a fun place to visit. If you live in L.A. and haven't been here before - go. It's yet another unknown facet of this amazing city we live in.


Pumpkin Delight (Kimberly) said...

oh, wow! that sounds like a fun trip in my own backyard. i'm going to check it out this summer...thanks for the tip

Ashley said...

Hi Aunt Snow! Coming over to say I want in on whatever other forum gets started. Livejournal is a great site for communal posting and commenting. You can make community membership open or restricted and on an approval basis (and can change settings at any time). However, people won't often stumble across a Livejournal community. So, pros and cons.

Sigh. I'm sad.

Whiskeymarie said...

Sounds great- one of these days I need to venture south of San Fran when I visit CA.