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This Los Angeles River Wine Company vineyard is on the Pechanga Reservation in Temecula.Abe Schoener/Handout

Save for the odd scrubby weed poking through the asphalt, there’s scant evidence of any plant life around this 1905 warehouse in downtown L.A. But this wasn’t always the case.

“There used to be a vineyard here,” says Los Angeles River Wine Company’s Abe Schoener, as he walks through his winemaking facility/tasting room/library/DJ booth.

A block to the east is the concrete aqueduct built in 1938 to contain the Los Angeles River, to the west is a large scrap metal yard and directly in front sit the still-in-use railway tracks, whose arrival more than 100 years ago spelled the start of the decline of the area’s once thriving winemaking scene.

But Schoener and a few other dedicated winemakers are committed to bringing the area back into the vinous limelight again.

The conventional wisdom is that California’s winemaking birth occurred in the Napa and Sonoma valleys north of San Francisco. But at the turn of the last century if you asked for California wine, you’d be almost assuredly served something not from Napa but L.A.

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Bottles on display at Angeleno Wine Company’s industrial chic tasting room, just east of Chinatown.Handout

The oldest vines in the state are scraggly cuttings dating back to 1774 from the historic Mission San Gabriel, just east of downtown L.A. These are the workhorse mission grapes, brought to the coast by Catholic New World missionaries from Spain. Then, in 1833 an auspiciously-named settler, Jean-Louis Vignes, imported (although smuggled might be more accurate) the inaugural vitis vinifera – cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc – from his native France and planted them on a 100 acre plot on the banks of the then untamed Los Angeles River.

By mid-19th century, the area had more than 100 vineyards producing 25 millions bottles of wine annually – roughly the same number Ontario produces now. But the factors that helped grow this industry – sun, water – also drew legions of settlers, whose desire for houses ultimately put these local vineyards on the endangered list.

The remnants of this era can still be found at the San Antonio Winery on the east bank of the river, just north of Schoener’s boîte. When Italian immigrant Santo Cambianica opened the winery in 1917, local winemaking was still good business and even the Prohibition didn’t derail its growth (thank you, church wine). But the steady decrease in grape acreage resulting from the city’s growth meant that while the wine could still be made in L.A., the grapes would increasingly come from points north.

The still family-run San Antonio Winery has expanded exponentially from its original footprint – the facility stretches over several blocks and now they make wine under 13 different labels – though sadly none feature local grapes but those from their vineyards planted upstate in Paso Robles and Monterey. But their tasting room, restaurant and wine shop are a time machine back to what the industry was like in its heyday and a good spot to nibble olives and eat prosciutto where vineyards once flourished.

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Jasper Dickson and Amy Luftig of Angeleno Wine Company have had to get comfortable picking their own grapes.Handout

If San Antonio is a connection to the region’s past, Jasper Dickson and Amy Luftig’s Angeleno Wine Company just a few blocks north, represents the future. When the pair received their winery licence in 2019, it was the first to be granted in L.A. since San Antonio received theirs 102 years prior.

Dickson had been working at Silverlake Wine when he got the chance to work with famed grower Juan Alonso, whose vineyard in nearby Santa Clarita provided him with a small allotment of tannat grapes.

One experimental vintage followed another until Dickson paired up with Luftig to open their small tasting room and production facility around the corner from David Chang’s Majordomo in a cool spot just east of Chinatown.

It’s a far cry from San Antonio’s industrial might – Angeleno picks all their own grapes because L.A. doesn’t have the numbers to support dedicated picking crews – but they now make more than a dozen wines including zinfandel, albarino and sparkling for their growing local fan base. Everything in their retro squat bottles is grown in Los Angeles County. The place still has a start up feel, with clientele Doordashing food from downtown L.A. hot spots to weekend tastings at the winery.

But as momentous as the opening of Angeleno was, for wine nerds, it paled in comparison to the news that Schoener, a former classics prof (and University of Toronto alum) and one of the seminal participants in the Northern California wine renaissance of the early aughts, was relocating to the south. And further, that his partner in the new Los Angeles River Wine Company would be Rajat Parr, arguably the most famous sommelier in the world before he started the cult California labels Sandhi and Domaine de La Côte.

The new company would follow a similar ethos to Schoener’s Napa-based label, the Scholium Project, with an intense focus on locating heritage vines, a low intervention approach to winemaking and a desire to take risks in pursuit of wine nirvana.

Schoener has become sort of a wine Indiana Jones – traversing the back roads of the region looking for gnarled old discoveries and convincing owners of these forgotten vines that he can bring them back to glory.

To that end, he’s secured access to rare plots of mission, palomino and zinfandel grapes, which were often planted before the Titanic sank and have likely never seen pesticides or had commercial irrigation. For wine lovers, these grapes are like coming across a Jackson Pollock at a yard sale.

And the wine that comes from these survivors is unlike anything else being produced in America – perfumed, genre-defying, deft in structure. They’re a history lesson as much as a drink, a gateway to a forgotten L.A. that may soon have its long overdue second act.

How to visit

San Antonio Winery is open daily for lunch and tastings. The Angeleno Wine Company is open Saturday and Sunday – they don’t serve food so encourage you to bring a picnic (or order from Majordomo around the corner). The Los Angeles River Wine Company is open by appointment and holds frequent tasting/seminars booked through Tock.

Stay: Both the past and the future of the L.A. wine scene are centred close to downtown and the new Frank Gehry-designed Conrad Hilton on South Grand Avenue is at the quiet north end, which offers easy and quick access to all three wineries without having to hop on any of the notorious freeways.

Restaurants that serve L.A. wine

Bar Covell is a cool wine-forward hangout in the Loz Feliz neighbourhood that’s been a long supporter of the local scene. 4628 Hollywood Blvd.;

Dunsmoor is an airy spot north of downtown with an attached wine bar that loves Abe Schoener’s wines. 3501 Eagle Rock Blvd.;

Providence is a much lauded Hollywood power spot and always saves space for a few local bottles on their impressive list. 5955 Melrose Ave.;

L.A. wines to bring home

In addition to L.A. River and Angeleno here are three winemakers with no tasting rooms that produce local bottles.

Byron Blatty 2022 Rosé US$30 Hand-picked tempranillo and grenache grapes serve up a blast of rose and strawberry.

Moraga Bel Air Estate Red 2019 US$140 Grown on some of the priciest real estate in America – Rupert Murdoch’s Bel Air estate. Surprisingly good Bordeaux blend.

Acri Cabernet Franc Lot 1 2021 US$34 A new natural producer making small production funky juice in very small quantities.

One in a regular series of stories. To read more, visit our Inspired Dining section.

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