Holy Spirit: SoCal Winery is Major Sacramental Wine Producer

by Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 12/22/16
images courtesy of San Antonio Winery

When Father Lawrence Seyer led a wine tasting last month, he was on a mission.

The parish council at Montecito’s Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, tasked with choosing a new sacramental wine, sipped through options from three producers.  Some were too sweet.  “More like a sherry,” says Father Seyer, who, for practical reasons, was actually leaning toward a rosé.  “I’ve always thought a lighter wine makes it easier to clean the purificator.”  That’s the white linen cloth used to wipe down the wine chalice during and after a Catholic service.

But in the end, “San Antonio Winery won,” says the parish’s new reverend, “and the council went with the red, because the color best resembles the blood of Christ.”

The relevance of wine for the Catholic Church, as well as for several other Christian denominations, is well known.  “We can look at it in two dimensions,” Father Seyer explains.  “The ritual of sacrifice, for one, as well as a reminder of the last supper Christ had with his apostles.”  During a Catholic service, it’s with a priest’s blessing, known as the consecration, that wine is symbolically transformed to represent the blood shed by Jesus during His crucifixion.

This iconic sacrament dates back 2000 years, of course.  And for San Antonio Winery, it has been an important element in its portfolio from the beginning.

“Making sacramental wine is what allowed us to survive Prohibition,” says Anthony Riboli, fourth generation winemaker at San Antonio, whose great-great uncle, Santo Cambianica, an Italian immigrant and devout Catholic, founded the winery in downtown L.A. in 1917.  Saint Anthony of Padua was his patron saint.

A frightening Prohibition sight: lawmen ordering wine be dumped!
Prohibition, the constitutional sanction on the production and sale of alcohol that stayed in place from 1920 to 1933, decimated Los Angeles’ flourishing wine industry.  “About 100 wineries existed here before the ban, but there were only about 10 after,” Riboli tells me.  Thanks to Cambianica’s strong ties to the Church, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles exempted San Antonio and allowed it to continue to make altar wine during the ban.  The winery not only survived Prohibition, it emerged from the restrictive injunction as a prominent California winemaker.

A century after its launch, what is L.A.‘s oldest winery remains a major player.  The original downtown winemaking facility, a designated cultural monument, remains at its original Lamar Street location.  There’s a tasting room in Ontario, too, and a state-of-the-art production facility and visitor center in Paso Robles.  The company’s estate vineyards stretch from Napa to Monterey to Paso.  Its brands – more than a dozen labels – include Italian imports, popular products like Stella Rosa and upscale bottlings like San Simeon and Riboli Family Wine Estates.  Anthony Riboli, a UCSB grad who joined the family business in 1998, is one of three lead winemakers.  And even his grandfather Stefano, who emigrated from Italy in 1936 to ultimately take over the family business, and who just turned 94, is still calling the shots.

San Antonio Winery's original downtown L.A. façade
On the sacramental front, San Antonio Winery remains an industry leader.  The pious products sell to various denominations, including Lutheran and Episcopalian, although Catholics remain its biggest buyers around the world.

“The key to altar wine is consistency – they’re typically slightly sweet,” Riboli tells me.  “But a priest can use any wine he wishes and they’ll typically find a style that fits their comfort zone, or that their parishioners like.”

San Antonio Winery's downtown L.A. façade today
To that end, San Antonio offers four options: a light muscat, a rosé and a red, all around 12% alcohol, as well as a fortified 18% alcohol wine called Angelica.  The wines carry a California appellation; grapes are sourced from Central Valley vineyards near Fresno and Bakersfield, mainly, because warmer weather yields natural sweetness.  And the wines are non-vintage, “allowing us to do blends from year to year to guarantee a consistent style.”

Riboli admits that sacramental wines are distinct from their higher-end counterparts geared toward serious drinkers and collectors.  The lighter, fresher, fruitier style does have a secular audience, though; the wines are often sold over-the-counter at the downtown L.A. tasting room.  And the wines remain “a very important part of what we do,” Riboli adds.

At Our Lady of Mount Carmel, one of the 305 churches in the Los Angeles Archdiocese, orders of sacramental wine are placed by the case on a quarterly basis.  Though many churches serve it at every mass, the Montecito church only offers it on Sundays, during the 10am mass.  And while most every parishioner accepts the Eucharist during Communion, many opt out of sipping from the shared chalice.

Demand for the wine is likely to go up this Sunday, though; after all, we pretty good Catholics always become really good Catholics on Christmas.

For more information on San Antonio Winery, including on the various events to celebrate its centennial throughout 2017, check out www.sanantoniowinery.com.


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