Fruit of the vine

Ranch resident Orfila keeps his winery thriving

Not everyone can uncork a great bottle of wine and proudly see his or her name prominently displayed on the label. Rancho Santa Fe resident Ambassador Alejandro Orfila gets to do just that, having owned Orfila Winery in Escondido for the last 14 years.

“I’m very, very happy,” said Orfila, 83. “More important than making money, it’s a wonderful thing to contribute to San Diego being known as a place to produce first class wine, just as good as anywhere else.”

Orfila, a former Argentine ambassador, runs the winery close alongside Leon Santoro, a winemaker with 30 years of experience in the wine business. A good pair, both said that the other is the reason that the winery has been so successful.

“I bought it not because of the winery but because of Leo,” Orfila said of Santoro. “He is one of the best winemakers in the country and he is an extraordinary companion in this adventure.”

Santoro said that the day Orfila bought the winery was one of the best.

“I was very happy, underline very,” said Santoro. “We are similar but opposites in a lot of ways. He’s a very bright man, very aware of what he is doing.”

Time to harvest

The vineyard had its first harvest last Wednesday. For three hours they harvested the viognier grapes and then they stopped.

While the crew was anxious to harvest more, most of the grapes were still not ready yet, although you would not know by their appearance on the vine - a purple so deep it’s almost blue.

“The luxury of having a small winery is that you get to pick grapes when they’re ripe,” said Santoro.

The winery’s popular Grape Stomp was last weekend.

Santoro said it took him a while to get on board with a grape stomp, cringing at the thought of all those grapes being crushed. But grapes are brought in from another location and the resulting juice from the wooden barrels is used as fertilizer.

The Orfila Winery is a 70-acre estate that grows 40 acres of premium wine grapes, close to the San Diego Wild Animal Park. Its location put it directly in the path of the Witch Creek Fire last October. While fire threatened from three sides, the winery was lucky and only 200 vines of merlot representing about 1 percent of the vineyard were burned. All were replanted.

Since Orfila purchased and changed the name of the winery in 1994 (it was formerly the Thomas Yeager Winery), it has received more than 1,000 medals in major national and international competitions.

Last year, their Estate “Lotus” viognier took the gold medal at the International Challenge du Vin in Bordeaux, France. Other award winners include their syrah, sangiovese, pinot noir, merlot, chardonnay and zinfandel.

“We try to make the best wine and hopefully it wins a gold medal. If not,” Santoro joked, “the judges don’t know anything.”

Foreign roots

Orfila has been a Rancho Santa Fe resident since 1989. Originally from Argentina, he grew up in a family of winemakers.

Instead of going into the family business however, he went into politics. He left Argentina to study political science at Stanford and went on to study foreign trade at Tulane University.

Orfila was a diplomat from 1946 through 1984, serving in positions like the Argentine minister plenipotentiary to the United States, the Argentine ambassador to Japan and the secretary general of the Organization of American States.

During his diplomatic career, Orfila met every American president from Truman to Clinton.

He even met his wife Helga at an event at the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts on a night when he was Jacqueline Kennedy’s escort.

Mementos of that time of his life are present in the winery’s tasting room, photographs of him shaking hands with numerous presidents placed on the barrels.

Coming to Rancho Santa Fe after working a few years as a consultant in international finance and real estate, he wasn’t satisfied with just being retired.

“I was not very active and after being extremely active I grew a little bored,” said Orfila.

He heard of a winery for sale not far from his home and was immediately interested, especially upon hearing of Santoro’s presence.

Santoro, 57, is originally from Villa Santa Maria, Italy. His grandmother was a winemaker and he remembers playing in the vineyards as a youngster.

Santoro and his family came to America when he was 18, to Long Island, N.Y. He went to college and got a degree in chemistry and math, a fact he acknowledges with a slap to his forehead.

It was a trip back to Italy to visit Tuscany that reminded him of how great the wine life can be. Upon his return to America he moved to Napa, experiencing his first harvest in 1977, working as an intern and bleaching floors.

From there he moved to Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars where he mastered the art of winemaking.

“At each varietal, you have to have a great aroma or bouquet, you have to have a good entrance on the palate, a rich mid-palate and a nice long finish,” Santoro said. “There should be balance in the wine.”

Santoro was at Quail Ridge for 10 years as co-owner and winemaker before being wooed to Southern California.

“People thought I was crazy,” said Santoro of his move from Napa to Escondido.

The so-called craziness paid off - Orfila came into the picture two years later, the beginning of a great relationship and very successful winery.

“Everything I have done in my life I try to do the best I can do to make it the best possible whatever,” Orfila said. “If I do something, I do it with everything I have.”

Orfila Winery is at 13455 San Pasqual Road in Escondido. To learn more, visit