By JOHN BRINSLEY

Staff Reporter

Since L.A.'s Chinatown was once Little Italy, it shouldn't be too surprising to see that the venerable San Antonio Winery has begun making investments in the area.

Within the past year, the Riboli family has bought three Chinatown properties, the most prominent being the old Capitol Milling building at 1231 N. Spring St.

Now the family plans on turning the oldest commercial building in the city into a mixed-use office and loft space, riding on what they hope will be a wave of renewal for the neighborhood in which their own history is intertwined.

"This part of industrial Los Angeles is going to have a rebirth," said Steve Riboli, whose grandfather started the winery in 1917. "I think what we're going to create there will be a catalyst for Chinatown."

With the recent green light given to building the 13.7-mile light rail Blue Line that will run between Union Station and Pasadena, an above-ground station over Alameda Street is being planned that will go right in front of Capitol Milling. The family believes the traffic a new commuter rail will bring should translate into new opportunities.

Under a design by Pasadena architectural firm McClellanHunter, the basic structure of Capitol Milling, which was built in 1831, would remain intact and include about 40,000 feet of office space, 20,000 square feet of loft space and a small retail component of about 3,000 square feet.

The building, for over a century the home of a family-owned flour milling business, is being cleaned out and its machinery carted away.

In addition to the $600,000 spent on the Capitol Milling building, the Ribolis have also bought the one-acre parking lot kitty-corner to it, on the southeast corner of College and Alameda streets, and a similar sized lot in the 900 block of North Main Street.

"Steve clearly has a vision and a belief in the area," said David Louie, a real estate broker at CB Richard Ellis Inc.

Riboli hopes to attract a high-tech firm to the building, which will retain the Capitol Milling name. Although he has been talking with city officials about the most appropriate way to use the property, the project is entirely self-financed. A cost estimate hasn't been completed, he said.

There are some obstacles, starting with the fact that construction on the Blue Line station won't begin for another year or so. Prospective tenants might be excited about the combination of high-tech rail and ethnic charm, but could be put off with the prospect of construction going on right in front of them.

Attracting an architectural firm or Internet start-up to what would be an open, airy space with lots of classic charm is feasible, but until a tenant commits, figuring out how to retrofit the building might be hard.

"It could be a very good idea," Louie said. "But an astute developer probably would want to have a tenant in hand before putting too much money in the property."

The family began here in 1916, when Santo Cambianica came to Los Angeles from northern Italy. At the time, Southern California had around 40,000 acres of vineyards, more than present-day Sonoma County.

Not having the space to grow his own grapes, Cambianica contracted with dozens of local vineyards. Prohibition decimated the wine industry, but he secured a contract with the Catholic Church to provide sacramental wine, which today makes up about 15 percent of San Antonio's output.

His nephew Stephano Riboli took over the business in the mid-1930s and began to expand it. Along with selling its own product, the winery distributes wines for 50 other labels in Southern California.

San Antonio wine is all handmade at the downtown winery, a seven-acre facility that produces 5 million bottles of wine a year under seven family labels.

Stephano, 79, and wife Maddalena, 78, still work in the business, but much of the day-to-day operations are handled by their three children: Santo, Steve and Cathy, who oversee the production and retail aspects of the business, along with running the always-packed restaurant. Santo's son Anthony has a master's degree in wine-making and represents the fourth generation to carry on the tradition.

Beginning in the early '80s, the family began to expand the business further. For the first time, they purchased vineyards, in Monterey, Napa, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo, although the bulk of their grapes are still bought from independent producers.

Although Riboli declined to reveal financials, he said revenues have grown between 10 percent and 15 percent a year for the past 15 years. "(Southern California) is the largest wine-drinking population in the country, maybe in the world," he said. "Wine drinking has just taken off."

The decision to go into the real estate business was made 15 years ago as a way to hedge against economic fluctuations as the family got bigger. Riboli real estate projects include a 45,000-square-foot mixed-use retail space in Old Town Pasadena on Colorado Boulevard and 60,000 square feet of loft space along the L.A. River.

"The secret to an Italian's survival is diversification," Steve Riboli said. "This just helps to make sure success spreads. It's a nice kind of a virus."

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