Orfila winemaker Santoro dies at 58

Orfila Winery winemaker Leon Santoro died on Jan. 22 at the age of 58. He was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis and had been awaiting a lung transplant.

Passionate about his wines, he would pluck a grape off the vine so one could taste his viognier’s humble beginnings.

When the Witch Creek fires of 2007 struck, he stayed with his vines until the very last second. Even as the flames licked at the vineyard and he said he could feel the blaze’s heat on his face.

The owner of the winery, Rancho Santa Fe resident Ambassador Alejandro Orfila, told the Record in August of 2008 that one of the main reasons he bought the winery in 1994 was Santoro.

“He is one of the best winemakers in the country and he is an extraordinary companion in this adventure,” Orfila said.

Santoro was raised in Villa Santa Maria, Italy. His grandmother was a winemaker and he remembered playing in the vineyards as a child.

He and his family came to America when he was 18 and he got his first job in the wine business in Napa Valley in 1977, working as an intern bleaching the floors.

From there he went to Stag’s Leap, Quail Ridge and eventually found his way to Escondido, a move he said Napa folks thought was crazy. But Santoro and Orfila made the winery a success - it has received more than 1,000 medals in national and international competitions.

Last year, their estate Lotus viognier took the gold medal at the International Challenge du Vin in Bordeaux, France."We try to make the best wine and hopefully it wins a gold medal,” Santoro told the Record last year. “If not, the judges don’t know anything,” he added.

Santoro is survived by his wife, Carla; 10-year-old son, Ryan; 5-year-old daughter, Amy; and brothers Angelo and Paul Santoro of New York.

Contributions can be made to the Santoro children scholarship fund at 1st Pacific Bank, Attn: Steve Harrington, 3500 College Blvd., Oceanside, CA 92056. Reference Scholarship Fund/Santoro Children.