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Leon Santoro, RIP
By Robert Whitley
Jan 27, 2009
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This week I mourn the passing of my good friend Leone Santoro, the Don Quixote of winemakers. Leon, as everyone called him, died Jan. 22, 2009, at the age of 58 as he awaited a lung transplant.

Leon was born in the Abruzzi region of central Italy and came to the United States as a young man. He was being groomed by uncles who owned restaurants in New York to be an Italian chef, but Leon had other ideas.

He made his way to the Napa Valley and summoned the courage to bang on Robert Mondavi's door and ask the great man for a job. Leon, who had a degree in chemistry, didn't land at Mondavi, but the Mondavi winemaker at the time, Zelma Long, stepped in with some encouragement and advice.

Leon ended up working at the Louis Martini winery, where he forged a lifelong friendship with Mike Martini. Then he parlayed the stint at Martini into a job as winemaker at the iconic Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, where the legendary Warren Winiarski took him under his wing.

There Leon became fast friends with another young gun, John Williams, who went on to found the Frog's Leap Winery. Leon and Winiarski were extremely close. Leon could have stayed there and lived a cushy life, basking in the acclaim of one of the Napa Valley's preeminent wineries.

Leon being Leon, however, he sought ever bigger quarry. He founded his own winery, Quail Ridge, and had some initial success. He foolishly (in retrospect) took it public, only to lose everything in the stock market crash of the mid-1980s.

Leon was one of the first wine professionals I interviewed after taking over the now-syndicated Wine Talk column in 1991. He had been recruited by the Jaeger family of the Napa Valley (then owners of Rutherford Hill Winery) to run their Thomas Jaeger winery in Escondido, Calif., just outside of San Diego.

We were both new on the job and we both had big dreams. Leon was sure he would one day put San Diego wine on the map. It was a lofty goal, for the San Diego region barely registered with either wine critics or wine enthusiasts. He knew it was better than that, and set out to prove it.

He turned around the moribund Thomas Jaeger and helped engineer sale of the winery to Ambassador Alejandro Orfila. As Orfila the winery soared, racking up hundreds of medals at wine competitions across America because Leon was willing to proudly put up his wines against all comers.

Leon was the first in the region to recognize the potential for Mediterranean grape varieties, and gradually replanted the Orfila vineyards to Syrah, Sangiovese and Viognier. I didn't write about the Orfila wines often because production was low and their distribution was spotty, but when I did I often lauded the Sangiovese and Syrah as among the best wines of their type in all of California.

His Sangiovese and Syrah earned the highest accolades at the prestigious Critics Challenge International Wine Competition, and I will always believe that Leon's success with those grapes inspired many wineries in the neighboring Temecula Valley wine region to plant them.

Certainly the nearby Fallbrook winery took notice. Proprietor Ira Gourvitz invested heavily in new plantings of Syrah just five years ago, and the young vines are now making Fallbrook's finest wine.

I know it was only a matter of time before Leon realized his dream. The energetic and visionary Leon that all of his friends knew would be the first to admit Leon would never sit still, never rest until he got where he wanted to be. That he simply ran out of time is both sad and cruel.

We can all learn from the life of Leone Santoro. He never accepted the wisdom of experts as gospel. He had the audacity to believe anything was possible. Yet Leon had the humility to admit, sometimes sheepishly, that at least a few of his ideas might be a little bit crazy. They were. But I will miss that.

Leon, my friend, RIP.