Wednesday, March 28, 2012


We don't often visit wineries that bottle about 500,000 cases a year and ship all over the world. Boutique this isn't! But it's L.A.'s only winery and a historical landmark with deep roots. Established in 1917 by Italian immigrant Santo Cambianica, whose nephew Stefano Riboli later joined him in the business, San Antonio has stayed in the family through multiple expansions and modernizations. For a long time the Ribolis specialized in sweet wines; they still do an astonishingly brisk business in the Stella Rosa brand, which they import from Italy. Also of note: they're the largest wine supplier to the U.S. Catholic church.

Almost there!

The wines produced in San Antonio's expansive facility come from the Riboli family's vineyards in Rancho Cucamonga, Paso Robles, Monterey, and Napa. All the crushing takes place in the vineyards, as does fermentation for the reds. The whites ferment on-site in huge, climate-controlled steel tanks. Right next to them, retired California redwood tanks hark back to earlier times. Our knowledgeable and entertaining guide Christopher Cuyler talked history and winemaking terminology as he took us through rows and rows of American and French Oak barrels, stacked to the ceiling, in which the red wines age fourteen months to two years. Next he explained the winery’s formidable, fully automated bottling system.

Steel fermentation tanks

Chardonnay lees
Bottling machinery

Visitors to San Antonio are invited to taste three wines at no charge or to try an “artisan series tasting” for $10. We chose the latter, and especially liked the 2007 Paso Robles Pretty Penny Vineyard Estate Syrah. Complementary tours take place Monday-Friday at noon, 1:00, and 2:00 and weekends between 11:00 and 4:00, on the hour. The winery sells a diverse selection of wine, beer, and spirits from around the world. There is a restaurant serving lunch and dinner (last seatings are at 6:15, 7:00 on weekends) as well as three dining rooms that can be reserved for private events.

Store and tasting room

737 Lamar St., Los Angeles
Open daily

Monday, March 26, 2012


403 W. 12th St., Downtown Los Angeles

In Corkbar's roomy downtown space, guests can choose from more than fifty wines by the glass – all from northern and central California. The general palate is quite fruit-forward, but we encountered a couple of Pinot Noirs to our liking: 2009 Foxen (Santa Maria) and 2009 Morgan (Monterey). There are also whites from Alma Rosa, one of our favorite Santa Barbara County wineries.

The prices may seem a bit steep, but pours are generous and our bartender Rob was happy to offer a few tastes.  There’s also beer and food worthy of a snack or a meal. We'd love to see some SoCal wines here!


San Diego County played a significant role in the history of California winemaking. The county’s wine roots extend back to the early 1800s, when San Diego was still part of Mexico. Mission San Diego de Alcalá (its basilica is the heart of Old Town) was well known for wine.

The Basilica, Mission San Diego

Most wine enthusiasts don't know that, back in the day, there were over a hundred wineries in Los Angeles County. Joseph Filippi Winery, established in 1922, is one of the last reminders of the region's viticultural history. The Filippi family still owns 80 acres in Cucamonga, producing around 40,000 cases per year of red varietals and fortified wines. Guests can taste at a bar was cut from the largest redwood wine cask in California. 

A bit of Filippi family history
(Click Photo)

Likewise, European immigrants took up planting, harvesting, and fermenting the produce of San Diego County's vines. The Otay Valley was home to a large community of Italians and, towards the late 1800s, produced more wine than anywhere else in the county. Meanwhile, French immigrants were establishing themselves and their vineyards in the town of Nuevo (present-day Ramona), Julian, and Vista. Early 20th-Century customers at the wineries and wine shops such as Bradley's in downtown San Diego were encouraged to bring their own casks of gallon jugs for filling; bottling was the exception, not the rule. Aged and/or imported wines were definitely not for the average person.

Grape growing increased during Prohibition because grapes could be legally sold for home winemaking. Post-Prohibition there was a short upsurge in commercial winemaking, but during World War II rationing, labor shortages, decrease in wine consumption, and huge profits to be made in growing food for the war effort nearly destroyed the region's wine industry. The post-war generation didn't emmbrace wine the way their parents had; hard liquor and beer becaue the alcoholic beveragees of choice.

Now things have changed again. According to historian Richard Carrico, whose 2007 monograph History of the Wineries of San Diego County informs this post, "San Diego is poised to take its place in the surging Rhone style wine craze and the Cal-Italia surge. Escondido, Ramona, Fallbrook, and Julian may never be Sonoma or Napa but they could become something in the wine world that is uniquely San Diego County.”

Cheers! Carrico is in the process of updating his work; we’ll keep you posted.

Some Historic SoCal Wineries

Bernardo (founded 1889)
Tasting room open daily
13330 Paseo Del Verano Norte
San Diego


San Antonio (founded 1917)
Tasting room open daily
737 Lamar St.
Los Angeles

Joseph Filippi (founded 1922)
Tasting room open daily
12467 Base Line Road
Rancho Cucamonga

Galleano (founded 1933)
Tasting room open daily
4321 Wineville Road
Mira Loma


Wednesday, March 14, 2012


7644 Girard Ave, La Jolla
Open Tuesday-Saturday 11:30-10

We didn't quite know what to make of a wine bar without any wine on its website, but were very pleasantly surprised on a recent visit to Finch's. There are 29 wines by the glass; our server knew them and was happy to pour a few tastes. The selections come from all over the map, but there's clearly a palate here, and one we liked. Thoughtfully assembled three-wine flights are also an option.

Behind the bar at Finch's

Guests can enjoy a full meal or just snack. In the latter category, the musroom paté is excellent. Next time we'll sit at the bar - a pleasant spot totally hidden from the street. There's also a very nice patio.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012


Denise and Peter Clarke moved onto their Highland Valley property in 1997. In Denise's words, Altipiano ("high plain" in Italian) was "a diamond in the rough" - good sun, some elevation, a little house... They make light of their creative efforts and hours of sweaty toil, but the Clarkes clearly worked hard to create what's now a very polished gem: so beautiful, so classy, and so real. Their estate is a working farm and their exquisite home is a welcoming place for all to enjoy. It's a labor of love and a reaffirmation of farming community values.

One of the llamas
Why wine? The short answer is the the Clarkes' avocado trees burned in the 2007 wildfires and they seized the moment to plant vines - lots of them. Favoring Brunello in the afterglow of a trip to Italy, they soon found themselves with 2600 plants. According to Peter, this was a "classic example of failing to consider the endgame." What were they going to do with roughly 24 barrels of wine each year?


Neighbor Jerry Cordiano looms large in this account as a good friend who's been generous with his knowledge of viticulture.  We see seeds of a cooperative emerging among the growers in this community, who often share eggs and produce as well as winemaking equipment and expertise. And we certainly look forward to tasting Altipiano’s estate wines next year. The Clarkes are working with Ramona winemaker John York, and will at first specialize in (of course) Brunello. Peter’s rightfully optimistic about this: “Good Brunello grapes can have a high tannin content, which makes possible improvement with age up to 30 or so years. If we are wildly successful at growing the grape and making the wine, I’ll be around 105 when I taste our best wine. Some have said that with tasting wine all those years, I just might make it to 105” (Ramona Valley Wine Region Magazine).

Part of Altipiano's expansive patio

At present, visitors to the tasting room can sample five wines,  mostly from Paso Robles-area grapes: Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, and Cabernet Franc. We especially liked the full-bodied, spicy Cabernet Sauvignon. Soon guests will be able to compliment their wines with artisanal cheeses and fine chocolates. The Clarkes also welcome picnickers.

Altipiano's wine club offers quarterly 3-bottle shipments at a 20% discount, which applies to other purchases as well. Members are invited to exclusive wine club events. They're encouraged to schedule private winery tours and may reserve the facilities for private events at a reduced cost.

Tasting Room
The Altipiano Vineyard tasting room is open weekends 11-sunset. 760.839.7900

Sunday, March 4, 2012


A lot is new at Belle Marie and Chateau Dragoo. Summer-like weather obligated us to taste two crispy whites: 2010 Chenin Blanc and 2009 Chardonnay, both from Northern California grapes. The winery’s team has come up with some tantalizing spice blends to tickle the senses; we were especially impressed by how their secret “Chardonnay spice,” sprinkled on a sliver of cheese, enhanced the flavor of the wine.

Moving on to reds, we encountered a well-balanced 2009 Pinot Noir (Santa Barbara grapes) and some old favorites with roots in the Guadalupe Valley: 2006 Commemorativo (Grenache, Mourvèdre, Cabernet Sauvignon), 2008 Tempranillo, and 2006 Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Mick Dragoo treated us to a taste of his yet-to-be-released Super Tuscan, a full-bodied, fruit-forward blend of Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Our quarterly Vintage Club selections included a 2005 Barolo – which prompted us to drink the 2003 we’d been hoarding with dinner - quite a treat.

Belle Marie's tasting room is open daily 11:00-5:00. 760.796.7557

Thursday, March 1, 2012


Lenora Winery, in operation since 1999, has 7 acres of vines including Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Muscat, Grenache, Sangiovese, Zinfandel, Merlot, and Caberenet Sauvignon. The wines derive from estate, Ramona Valley and other California grapes. There is something for every palate here, though only a limited number of bottles are open for tasting on any given day. We enjoyed the lightly tannic “Dos Rojos” blend of Merlot and Sangiovese.

Eric Metz pouring in the tasting room

Eric Metz bought Lenora in 2008. He's planted Nebbiolo and Syrah and will soon introduce estate wines under the Metz Winery label.

Picnic area with BBQ

Lenora's wine club members get two personally selected bottles per month at a price not to exceed $20. 10-20% discounts apply at the winery.

Lenora Winery is open for tasting weekends 10:00-6:00. 760.788.1388


Beaming with pleasure, owners Kit and Karen Sickels hosted Milagro’s first wine club event on February 25. Winemaker Jim Hart charmed the crowd with a spirited and effortlessly detailed narrative of the process behind each of the featured Estate wines: 2010 Chardonnay, 2009 Meritage, and 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon. Jim has been involved with the winery since 2006, when he answered an ad in the San Diego Reader for a “part-time winemaker.” We’re not sure if the Sickels knew what they were getting into when they brought Jim on board, but it’s clear that they (and we wine club members!) are happy with the results.

Jim Hart leading a winery tour
We learned more about why white wines are scarce in San Diego County. Micro-climates and ocean breezes play a role, but success also involves a large investment in equipment to maintain a relatively long, temperature-controlled fermentation process.

Next month Milargro will be bottling lots of new wine. Look forward to a Cabernet Franc Rosé, 2011 Sauvignon Blanc, 2010 Sangiovese, and 2010 Barbera… among others.