Monday, May 11, 2015

Wining with Arnaud Debons at San Antonio Winery...

JD and the Goddess of Wine had last been at the historic San Antonio Winery in the heart of downtown Los Angeles back in 2009. That visit had turned out to be quite serendipitous when we met Santo Riboli, who took us on a personal tour of the winery, tasted us through the current releases, and sent us home with some lovely wines. Over the following few years, we had the opportunity to work with family scion Michael Riboli at various events and wine festivals in the greater Los Angeles area.

This time, we were invited to join winemaker Arnaud Debons for a private barrel tasting. We were joined by Public Relations Manager, Melissa Gonzalo, and the charming Augustín Durán of Hoy Los Angeles, the Spanish language version of the Los Angeles Times.

A bit of California history: Winemaking in California began with the Franciscan monks who used native grapes as well as some Spanish varieties to make wines used in the Missions, hence the rise of the "Mission" grape, which made a foxy (not a good thing) and not very tasty wine. In 1833, French winemaker Jean-Louis Vignes brought the first European vines (vitis vinifera) from his native Bordeaux, planted them in downtown Los Angeles and built a winery. The aptly named Vignes, considered to be the father of California’s wine industry, has a street named after him. The wine industry grew to become an economically significant industry in Southern California. By the 1880s, Los Angeles was the top California region for grape growing and winemaking, and within another decade vineyards were planted and producing in Orange, San Bernardino, and Riverside counties.

In 1917, Santo Cambianica, a native of the northern Italian province of Lombardia, founded the San Antonio Winery. However, in 1918, Prohibition almost killed the wine industry. Most of the wineries in and around Los Angeles had to close, but the San Antonio Winery remained open as the Archdiocese of Los Angeles granted Santo permission to make wines for sacramental purposes. By 1933, following the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression, only San Antonio was able to survive, becoming the main provider of sacramental wines.

In 1936, Stefano Riboli joined his Uncle Santo at San Antonio; he saw Maddalena Satragni driving a tractor in the vineyard, fell madly in love, married her in 1946, and the rest is history!

Current winemaker, Arnaud Debons, worked in the Bordeaux and Cahors regions of France after graduating from the University of Toulouse in France. He moved to the USA and worked as an assistant winemaker for Newton Vineyards in Napa Valley for several years before joining the San Antonio Winery in 2003. Now he balances the historic tradition of San Antonio with 21st century innovation.
Arnaud stirring the lees

We started in the White barrel room, tasting through young Viognier and Chardonnay. Arnaud demonstrated lees-stirring, done by hand, to add flavor and texture to the wines as they age.

As we tasted through the white wines, Arnaud spoke of how, despite their large production, no wine is made to a recipe; while he focuses on maintaining the standards expected by their customers, each vintage is different, and it's his job to make the best wine with the materials provided by Mother Nature. Because they have a large customer base, with many different tastes, they provide a wide range of wines, from lean and austere to full-bodied and fruit-forward. They also import wines from Italy, made from Riboli-family-owned vineyards.

The GoW & AD
My favorite part of the tasting was in the Red barrel room; we got to taste the individual components of the wine that would eventually become the flagship San Antonio Artisan Series Cask 520 Bordeaux-style blend. Named for the original redwood tank used back in the early days of the winery, the blend is comprised of traditional Bordeaux varieties - Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Malbec. All the wines are fermented individually to maintain their regional characteristics, and blended when they're ready. We all were impressed by the lush sensuality of the individual wines, especially the Merlot and Malbec, and were delighted to taste "a" blend, not necessarily the final blend, of the upcoming Cask 520.

Then we got treated to lunch! The last time we were there, Maddalena Riboli herself was manning the cash register. This time, we were whisked through the line after choosing our entrees, receiving great service and several wines to accompany our meal. The food was delicious and the portions generous, but most importantly, we got to know Arnaud and Melissa and Augustín. Sharing stories, food and wine is the best way to make friends.

"Nono" & "Nona"
And then the serendipity came in. It turned out that "Nono" and "Nona", that is, Stefano and Maddalena Riboli, were having lunch in a private nook, and we were invited in to meet them! What a delight and a privilege. And Nono insisted that Arnaud send us home with a wine of our choice!

We chose to take home a modest bottle of Malbec made under the Opaque label, one of several labels designating regional and varietal styles. We loved the silky tannins and spicy finish. Yummy!

There is so much more to the San Antonio Winery than this short post can provide. Visiting the winery is truly taking a trip through Los Angeles and California history, and provides insight into the early wine industry. You should go!

So thanks to Melissa for inviting us, and to Arnaud and the Riboli family for treating us like royalty. We'll be back soon!

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