Leon Santoro, winemaker at Orfila Vineyards in Escondido, Calif., and an industry pioneer in San Diego County, died of pulmonary fibrosis in a local hospital on Jan. 22. He was 58.
A native of Italy, Santoro began his career in the Napa Valley in the late 1970s, first at Louis M. Martini and then Stag's Leap Wine Cellars before joining Quail Ridge as co-owner and winemaker in 1981. Santoro orchestrated Quail Ridge's initial public offering.
In 1991, Santoro relocated to San Diego County to become winemaker at what was then Thomas Jaeger winery. He stayed on when Alejandro Orfila, former secretary general of the Organization of American States and Argentine ambassador to the United States, purchased the winery and renamed it Orfila Vineyards.
Santoro was instrumental in convincing growers in both San Diego and Riverside counties to focus on Mediterranean wine grape varieties that he believed would best express the terroir of Southern California's winegrowing regions. And he staunchly asserted that fine wine could be produced in Southern California's soils and climate.
When Santoro first arrived in San Diego County much of the vineyard acreage was planted with Chardonnay grapes, in an attempt to satisfy the demand in the market at the time.
Santoro focused on what grew best and began experimenting with varieties he knew grew well under similar hot, dry conditions in his native Italy and in southern France. He grafted Syrah and Sangiovese onto existing roots and later added Viognier, Marsanne, Roussane and Merlot to the mix.
"When I came to San Diego's San Pasqual Valley in 1991, my winemaker colleagues in Napa Valley thought I had lost my mind," he once told a reporter, in a common refrain. "Despite their pessimism, I was determined to show them that grapes for fine wines could be grown here."
Santoro is survived by his wife, Carla, and their 10-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter. The First Pacific Bank in Oceanside is accepting donations for a scholarship fund for Santoro's children.