The wine world was saddened when one of its greats passed away Jan. 22 of a festering lung disease known as pulminary fibrosis. Leon Santoro and I used to stroll his vineyards at Orfila Winery in Escondido, his 30 some years of experience weaving a master’s touch to the grapes we tasted and the vines he described, as a father would to a son. The man that would deliver more than 1,300 medals for brilliant wines to Orfila, proving that fine wines could be produced in Southern California, left us much too soon.
Leon’s life started in Villa Santa Maria near Abruzzi, northeast of Rome. He was exposed to winemaking at an early age but was groomed to be a chef. He came to the U.S. at age 17 and earned a degree in chemistry. But wine was in his blood and he successfully applied for a junior winemaking job at Louis Martini Winery in the fabled Napa Valley of California. His next appointment was with the Stags’ Leap Winery owned by the famed winemaker Warren Winiarski, who had already established himself as a premier Cabernet Sauvignon producer by beating the French in the historic “Paris Tasting” of 1976. With Leon’s help, Stags’ Leap went on to win double gold in the London Wine Festival of 1978. Leon often called Winiarski his mentor. I talked to the now retired Winiarski about this. “Leon made valuable contributions to our success,” Winiarski said. “He was an exacting man with great commitment to vineyard management. He always looked at things differently and offered suggestions of great invention. We were fortunate to have the opportunity of his ideas to improve the winery.”
After years of impressive performance in the Napa Valley, Leon turned his attention to a challenge in the little-known San Diego County wine country and in 1991 began his brilliant second career in winemaking in what was to become Orfila Winery in Escondido. Allejandro Orfila purchased the winery in 1993 only because Leon assured him he would stay and transform it into a world-class fine wine vineyard and winery. “I saw in Leon a man of strong personality who loved winemaking,” Orfila said. “He was the only asset the winery had. I knew then we would make the perfect team.”
Leon proceeded to take out the existing Chardonnay and graft grapes suited to the land — Mediterranean-style Syrah and Sangiovese from France and Italy. The 70-acre estate over the years took on a distinctly red look and shined in the spotlight when Leon was named the 2003 Winemaker of the Year by the prestigious California Travel Association. A year later, I began my friendship with Leon, writing about this man who made such beautiful wines.
In 2006, in the middle of one of our tasting room meetings, he offered me a sip of a wine he had been cultivating for some time and was releasing with the odd name of Viognier, Lot 45. It was a stunning white blend of 73% percent viognier, with some marsanne and rousanne, grapes from the Rhone Valley of France. I immediately knew it would be a sensation and made it one of my Top Ten Wines of 2006. Leon then took it to Bordeaux France for international competition and won a gold medal, then another in the San Francisco competition. His latest Viognier release, Lot 67, made my Top Ten in 2008
“He was passionate not only about wine, he was passionate about family and passionate about life,” Larry Himmel, a veteran broadcaster in San Diego and longtime family friend said of Leon. Leon is survived by his wife Carla and two young children, Ryan and Amy. “You met Leon once and he was your best friend. We became great buds over the years, sharing our stories and his amazing wines. When I lost my house in the wildfire (2007), next day Leon sent me the gift I needed most … a case of wine. Those bottles got my wife and I through some tough times.”
Linda Kissam, a respected wine marketer in Southern California, called Leon “one of the most talented, charming and engaging personalities in the California wine business. Although he was fiercely competitive, there was a softer, huggable side the he allowed to come out whenever we would meet.”
In a signature message on a bottle of his Heritage Syrah, Leon wrote me on July 10th of last year when his condition was becoming worse, “To my dear friend Frank. Wishing you a happy and long life. Ciao, Leon Santoro.”
Wish you were still here Leon. We will miss you, but I know you’re happy in your new heavenly vineyard making fine wines that are strong and true.
A scholarship fund has been set up to help Carla and Leon’s children with their higher education. To learn more, contact Steve Harrington at 1st Pacific Bank, 3500 College Blvd, Oceanside, Ca. or call (760) 477-2970.
Wine Bytes recommending wine events will return next week.
Filed Under: Taste of Wine