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Local Winery Hopes Turning to Japanese Will Bolster Its Sales

A shipment of 1,667 cases of wine to Tokyo late last month is proof to Leon Santoro that, “You can’t be a prophet in your own town.”

Santoro is the general manager of Orfila Vineyards, a pristine 58-acre stretch of grapevines surrounding a hilltop winery and tasting room in Escondido.

The shipment, which amounted to 20,004 bottles of wine, including sangiovese, merlot, pinot noir, zinfandel, chardonnay and viognier, is destined for the tabletops and wine tastings at some of Tokyo’s best hotels and restaurants, said his Los Angeles-based sales representative, who goes simply by Yoshiko.

Santoro, 55, hopes to make another large shipment to Tokyo in the spring.

Still, the September order was a big splash for a small company whose volume sales have increased by 1,000 cases annually since 2003, but which had three flat years beforehand.

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Yet it’s more about quality and getting higher prices per case than quantity, Santoro points out.

When Orfila , owned by Alejandro Orfila, once Argentina’s ambassador to Japan , started in 1994, the company averaged about 5,000 cases a year, each going for $72 on average wholesale. Today, the cases sell for an average wholesale price of $120.

On the local landscape, Orfila, a Southern California winery, takes a back seat to its Northern California counterparts.

“But in Tokyo we’re considered a boutique California winery, not a Southern California winery,” Santoro said.

For a long time, Santoro and his Southern California colleagues have campaigned to convince the public they’re as good or better than estate wineries in Northern California. An estate winery is one that produces wine from its own vineyards.

“We have the advantage over Northern California of having dry summer and fall weather for just about every vintage, which is good,” Santoro said.

However, instead of barking up the same tree with the same message , we make the best wine in Southern California , Santoro says it’s time to look abroad for additional fame and fortune.

Meanwhile, since the U.S. Supreme Court opened up the country to wine shipments to individual consumers earlier this year, Santoro said he’s sent about 10 additional cases to New York, a state whose liquor laws previously barred shipments to residents from outside its borders.

“I’ll have to work on building that market,” Santoro said.

A bigger challenge, however, and one that has been beyond his reach, is getting his product into England.

“London has its Vin Expo, and I can’t get in,” he said. “But I’m tenacious. I have a couple of friends and I’ve asked them to help out.”

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From One Quarter To Another:

A group of Downtown restaurants and clubs that devoted their profits and tips from a special benefit event Sept. 21 announced that they raised $38,000 for the American Red Cross’ Hurricane Katrina relief effort.

More than 700 people attended the event staged in several venues, including the Side Bar, Auburgine, Martini Ranch, the Bitter End, Confidential and Thin/Onyx Room, said Jamie Sigler, a partner at J Public Relations, which donated its time and effort to the cause.


Send tourism and hospitality news to Connie Lewis via e-mail: clewis@sdbj.com. She may also be reached by phone at (858) 277-6359.

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