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This DTLA Winery Is Reviving LA's Forgotten Winemaking History

Women hold up clusters of grapes at a vineyard in Burbank, circa 1928. (Security Pacific National Bank Collection/Los Angeles Public Library)
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California winemaking didn't start in Napa or Sonoma. It started here, in Los Angeles, in "the dusty little pueblo beside the Rio Porciuncula," as Stuart Douglass Byles says in Los Angeles Wine: A History from the Mission Era to the Present.

When Jasper Dickson and Amy Luftig Viste announced their plans to open Angeleno Wine Co., the first winery in the city of Los Angeles since Prohibition, they wanted to reconnect with that tradition — one that many Angelenos know nothing about.

Now, as they bring in their first harvest, that dream is close to becoming a reality and Dickson is restless with anticipation: "We are excited for people to come down here and taste wine fresh out of the barrel that was grown 45 minutes from here and made in L.A."

Grapevines Over Olvera Street

Waking among the vendors selling marionettes, clay pots and sarapes on Olvera Street, you might notice the arbor of grape vines above the entrance of Casa La Golondrina Café.

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A few years ago, Michael Holland, L.A.'s official archivist, made wine from these vines. He harvested as many grapes as he could and snipped some leaves that he sent to UC Davis, where researchers analyzed their DNA.

"It turns out, this scraggly old vine is a direct genetic match to one known as 'Vina Madre,'" he told KPCC. "It's a plant first grown at the San Gabriel Mission, founded in 1771."

Long before Pas Robles and the Santa Rita Hills became coveted AVAs (American Viticultural Areas), what's now downtown Los Angeles and Boyle Heights were filled with vineyards.

In 1831, French-born Jean Louis Vignes, considered the father of the California wine industry, arrived in Southern California. Two years later, he had established vineyard east of the pueblo on 100 acres of land.

He built adobe structures with flat roofs around a massive Sycamore tree, named El Aliso (it means "the alder" in Spanish), growing on his property. It also inspired the name of his winery, Don Luis del Aliso, which he opened in 1833.

Vignes was the first person to bring grapevines from his native Bordeaux to California. He planted his vineyard, located where Boomtown Brewery now sits, with them. By 1850, he had become one of the largest wine producers in the world, churning out more than 150,00 bottles of wine a year.

"Los Angeles is where it all began, and where, for years, the main action was to be found. California wine meant Los Angeles wine. The whole California wine establishment descends directly from Los Angeles," Thomas Pinney writes in The City of Vines: A History of Wine in Los Angeles.

In 1848, during the Gold Rush, many people who had come to California looking for gold found it more lucrative to plant and cultivate grapes for the growing number of wineries. While much of the state was gripped by get-rich-quick fever, the winemaking industry blossomed in the shadow of the Gold Rush.

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By the 1880s, winemaking had become a significant and profitable industry, and Los Angeles was the leading region in California. L.A. was booming too and that meant most of the vineyards and agricultural land in the center of the city had been pushed into the surrounding areas. Vineyards extended north from Los Angeles to San Fernando and east to Riverside, San Bernardino and Orange. With a climate similar to the Mediterranean — mild, wet winters and hot, dry summers — Southern California provided an optimal climate for grapes. As the city became more of a metropolis, the ideal climate could not stave off the increasing urbanization.

At the dawn of Prohibition, in 1920, most of the wineries that had been located in the city of Los Angeles had closed or moved. But they weren't completely forgotten. Vignes, which means "vines" in French, has a street named after him in downtown L.A. It runs from 3rd Street in the Arts District to Chinatown, where it becomes Alpine Street.

The Legacy of the San Antonio Winery

Leaving the tiny town of Berzo San Fermo in Northern Italy, Santo Cambianica arrived in New York in 1910. He made his way to Los Angeles and worked any job he could find, mostly within the Italian American Catholic community while saving up to start his own company.

In 1917, he opened San Antonio Winery on Lamar Street in Lincoln Heights, a neighborhood that was then known as Little Italy. A devout Catholic, Cambianica named the winery after his patron, St. Anthony of Padua.

It wasn't an auspicious time to open an alcohol-based business. In 1920, the U.S. Congress passed the National Prohibition Act, also known as the Volstead Act. It allowed the government to enforce the 18th Amendment, which prevented the production, sale and transportation of alcohol. How did San Antonio Winery survive those lean years until 1933, when Prohibition was repealed?

A little-known loophole in the Volstead Act allowed wineries to produce sacramental wine, starting in 1922, when internal revenue commissioner David Blair lifted the ban on wine produced for use in religious services.

Cambianica adapted to the situation. His strong connection to the Catholic Church helped. Ordinary table wine suddenly became altar wine and it wasn't via transubstantiation. In fact, while most other L.A. wineries went out of business during Prohibition, San Antonio Winery boomed.

"Before Prohibition, San Antonio was a small winery, making about 5,000 cases of red wine," according to a story in Smithsonian. "By the time Prohibition ended, it was producing 20,000 cases." How much of that wine actually ended up in churches and how much ended up with bootleggers? Nobody can say for sure.

For Southern California wineries, the statistics are stark. Prior to Prohibition, in 1919, Los Angeles had about 90 wineries. By 1933, it had maybe half a dozen. San Antonio Winery remains the largest producer of communion wine in the United States.

After Cambianica passed away in 1956, his nephew Stefano Riboli and Riboli's wife, Maddalena Satragni, inherited the winery. They carried on that legacy and the business still produces wines with labels that bear their names.

These days, San Antonio Winery makes several California varietals from grapes grown all over the state, under nine labels. At their Lincoln Heights winery, you can tour the barrels rooms, see the historic redwood wine vats, and learn about the rich history of the family.

Making Wine in Downtown Los Angeles in the 21st Century

Less than a mile away on North Spring Street near L.A. State Historic Park, Dickson and Luftig Viste are in the midst of the first fall harvest in their Angeleno Wine's new permanent space. They've filled 16 barrels with Tempranillo, Albariño, Syrah and a white wine blend. Soon, they'll fill another 16 vats with Tannat and Grenache. If the process goes well, these will be the first wines produced by a new winery in Los Angeles since Prohibition.

Born and raised in the suburbs of Silicon Valley, Dickson's father was a DIY vintner. "He would make wine in our basement," Dickson says. "He would take me to the Sonoma County Fair and the Harvest Festival. I remember, as a kid, when you walk into a winery, you get the smell and see the barrels. That stuck in my head. I thought it was so cool."

He moved to Los Angeles 15 years ago and started working at Silverlake Wine in 2008. By 2012, he was making wine at his Mount Washington house in an earth shelter garage cut into the hillside. "It was too small for cars but perfect for making wine," Dickson remembers.

First, he messed around by making a red sparkling Semillon. Then Dickson found some Lagrein grapes, originally from Northeast Italy, being grown in the Santa Clara Valley. He bought an acre and contacted his friend, Al DeRose of DeRose winery, who offered to let Dickson make the wine at his place near Hollister. "It makes a fun wine with plum, spice, and tobacco notes," Dickson says. He named the wine Midnight Companion and released it under the label Rhythm Wine.

Determined to open a winery in Los Angeles, Dickson partnered with Luftig Viste, who runs L.A. County's My Health LA, a department that helps uninsured people obtain insurance. She is currently taking classes at Washington State University's viticulture and enology program.

Dickson and Luftig Viste met a decade ago, when she assembled a group of friends she called the Bottle Babes. She organized private tastings on Tuesday nights at Silverlake Wine, focusing on specific countries, regions or varietals.

Their mutual love of wine eventually led to a business partnership. The first step was to find grapes growing in the Los Angeles area. Dickson remembered Ed Pagor, a winemaker who had a small warehouse in Camarillo and would deliver his own cases of wine. He was using a rare grape called Tannat, from the Basque area of France, to make some of his wines. Where was he getting those grapes? From Juan Alonso of the Alonso Family Vineyard in Agua Dulce.

Dickson and Luftig Viste agreed to buy Alonso's Tannat grapes — "It was a handshake, very old school," Dickson says — and they named that wine Angeleno.

"Amy and I talked about how we wanted to have a winery that focused on Los Angeles and L.A. fruit. Angeleno was the name and by definition, Los Angeles," Dickson says.

From Dream to Reality

By 2016, they were buying all of Alonso's fruit but producing the wine five hours north, in Hollister. The hunt was on for a SoCal winery space.

Dickson and Luftig Viste got a funding boost from L.A. County's Community Develop Commission after pointing out that the original county seal was a bunch of wine grapes. A successful Kickstarter campaign helped raise $36,200, most of which was used to purchase and lease equipment. After an exhausting search, they leased a historic building on Spring Street in Chinatown, where they plan to produce wine and pour it at events and tastings. Their ultimate goal is to launch a farm and vineyard in Los Angeles.

They're currently producing several wines including a skin-fermented white wine that blends Godello, Loureiro, Treixadura and Albariño grapes as well as a Tempranillo from cuttings Alonso brought from his native Galicia in northwest Spain.

"In 1859, L.A. was producing about 2 million bottles per year. That was three years before Napa opened its first commercial winery," Dickson says. "From here, down by the [L.A.] River to the Arts District between Alameda and the river, there were vines everywhere. Wilhardt Street is named for the winemaker Louis Wilhardt. Moss Street and Wise Streets were named for winemakers."

Near Angeleno Wine's headquarters, built in1925 with recycled bricks from the original Los Angeles City Hall, Mark McTavish is getting ready to open his 101 Cider House. Wiretap Brewing is also close by. They are hopeful that more alcohol producers will open nearby and the neighborhood will become a hub for homegrown wine, beer and spirits.

"When you go up and down the west coast — San Diego, San Francisco, Oakland, Portland, Seattle — all of the cities have urban wineries, even cities like Austin and Cincinnati," Dickson says. "The urban winery thing is happening all throughout the country, but not in Los Angeles." Angeleno Wine Co. has big plans to change that.

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