Leon Santoro emerged from his laboratory at Orfila Vineyards and Winery one hot Saturday afternoon in early August with a large beaker of red wine.
“I’ve been tweaking and tweaking this and I think I’m close,” he said, pouring glassfuls for a trio of guests at a wine tasting counter near the stored barrels. “It’s a blend of six varietals for a table wine. But maybe it’s a little sweet. Tell me what you think. Be honest.”
After cutting the sweetness, he said he bottled the Six Capegas label to add to the brand’s offerings in late August and began selling it Nov. 8.
Santoro, 54, has been the general manager and winemaker at the vineyard since 1991, when it was the Thomas Jaeger Winery. In 1994, Argentine diplomat Alejandro Orfila purchased it and changed the name.
During his tenure, Santoro has changed the emphasis of the 70-acre Escondido plot from chardonnay to red grapes, including syrah, sangiovese and merlot. His efforts have also brought a host of gold and silver medals and accolades, such as Best U.S. Red Wine for the 1999 Orfila Syrah at the 2002 Atlanta Wine Summit.
Name: Leon Santoro
Job title: General manager, winemaker.
Company name: Orfila Vineyards and Winery.
Industry involvement: Estate winery.
Education: Bachelor of science in chemistry, State University of New York at Stony Brook.
Birthplace and date: Villa Santa Maria, Italy, Sept. 28, 1950.
Essential business philosophy: To create a renaissance of high-quality, estate winemaking in San Diego by successfully creating a balance between production and demand at Orfila.
Best way to keep a competitive edge: In real estate, they say it’s all about location, location, location. As a vintner, it’s innovate, innovate, innovate.
Guiding principles: To fine-tune the varietals to the “terroir” , a combination of conditions involving the soil and climate that we have in Escondido.
Goals yet to be achieved: Making people aware that wines from Southern California, particularly the reds, can be held up to any winemaking region in the world.
Best career decision: Joining the wine industry with a background in chemistry helps me to understand the intricacies of growing, handling, aging and fermenting grapes. But producing estate wine still involves a level of artistry beyond chemical formulas or computerized output.
Toughest career decision: Not buying back a company, Quail Ridge Winery in Napa Valley, which, as a co-owner, I had helped to take public. I joined that firm in 1981 and its stock, sold on the Toronto Stock Exchange in February 1987, went belly up when the market took a precipitous drop on Black Monday in October.
Missed opportunity: Not buying land in Temecula when I first arrived in Southern California in the early 1990s.
Mentor: Alejandro Orfila, owner of Orfila Vineyards and Winery, and former Argentine ambassador to the United States.
I’ve been told I’m: A perfectionist.
What I like best about my job: I’ve created my job.
What I like least about my job: Very little. I delegate what I’m not good at.
Pet peeve: People who waste my time.
Most valuable lesson learned: Timing. In business it’s not so much who you know or what you know, it’s knowing when to get in and out at the right time.
Person I’d most like to meet: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. He seems real positive. We needed someone like that in government.
Greatest passions: Winemaking and entrepreneurship.
If I had it to do all over I’d: Have bought into some of California’s top vineyards when they were cheap.
What I’d be doing if I wasn’t doing this: I’d be a research chemist in the medical field, working to help find treatments and cures for cancer or heart disease.
Favorite quote: “You can fool some of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.”
Favorite author: The late Carl Sagan, author of “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark,” among other books.
Favorite status symbol: Any convertible. I’ve driven them for 25 years and currently have a Nissan convertible.
Dream vacation spot: Tahiti.
If I could have any car in the world, it would be: A Ferrari convertible.