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California Winery Adapts to Changing Markets

There are more than 5,000 wineries across the United States. California is the nation’s top wine-producing state, and vintners there are making their mark on the global market. A California winery with long roots in the region, has survived by adapting to changing tastes and seeking out new markets.

At the San Antonio Winery near downtown Los Angeles, basic table wines are still produced for the mass market, and for immigrant families, just as they were a century ago.

But today those wines account for just a part of the company's sales. Vice president Steve Riboli says the winery produces half a million cases of wine every year.

Winery owner Steve Riboli
Winery owner Steve Riboli

“Maybe 50,000 are still of our traditional wines," he explained, "you could say the traditional wines for the table, but a very big portion of what we do is our bottled wines business with a varietal category in Cabernet, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Rieslings.”

A modern tasting room introduces wine drinkers to those high quality wines derived from particular grape varieties.

The San Antonio Winery is family owned. Riboli's great uncle founded it in 1917. His father, Stefano, worked here as a teenager in the 1930s. Today it's one of the few remaining wineries in Los Angeles, which was once home to many Italian immigrant wine makers and wine drinkers.

The winery survived the national prohibition of alcohol from 1919 to 1933 by getting permission to make sacramental wine for the Roman Catholic church. The wine market grew in the 1960s, as wine and cheese found a place at social gatherings.

Since then, the company has adapted to changing tastes and markets, moving to varietal wines in the 1990s.

Some production is still done at this historic downtown site. Arnaud Debons, one of the wine makers, tests the product at every stage of fermentation. Trained in France, Debons says each grape-growing region and wine-making style creates a different taste.

Wine maker Arnaud Debons
Wine maker Arnaud Debons

“There is no right or wrong in wine," he noted. "There is the decision of making a style or making a another style using certain products, certain barrels, certain grapes.”

Steve Riboli says some of this wine is destined for China and other parts of Asia, home of many new wine drinkers.

“We export about 15 or 20 percent of our items overseas. Today, obviously China is a huge market,” he said.

Riboli says there is also an untapped market of American consumers. Although the United States is now a major producer and consumer of wine, Riboli says per capita consumption is half of what it is in many other industrial nations.

A customer pays for wine at the San Antonio Winery store
A customer pays for wine at the San Antonio Winery store

“We have a long way to go with the consumer that is just learning how to drink wine in America," he said. "Of our 300 million population, there might be 100 million that have either never had wine or say they don't like wine.”

Riboli says the next century for this family-owned winery will feature more adaptation, education of consumers and global marketing.