Orfila Winery hiding out in Escondido

A little known local winery has again beat the odds by producing a wine that topped Napa stalwarts Rutherford Ranch and Grgich Hills, as well as hundreds of others, in the recently completed Monterey Wine Competition.

The 2005 Orfila Coastal Cuvee Merlot not only took home a gold medal, it was nominated for Best of Show. Approximately 5 percent of entries into the competition received a gold medal, and even fewer are considered for the final “Sweepstakes.”

Receiving accolades for his wines is nothing new to Orfila Winemaker and General Manager Leon Santoro. The winery has received over 1100 medals at various competitions, all under his supervision. Santoro himself received one of the great awards in his profession by being named Winemaker of the Year in 2003 by the California Travel Industry Association. These awards decorate their tasting room letting visitors know they are partaking in serious wines.

Orfila Winery produces a number of award winning varietals including pinot noir, syrah, sangiovese, and of course merlot, among others. Santoro is particularly proud of his viognier, as he was a pioneer of the varietal in California. The 2007 International Challenge do Vin in Bordeaux, France recognized his efforts by awarding the Orfila Estate “Lotus” Viognier Lot #45 a gold medal, one of only three wineries in the entire United States honored with gold. The other two are located in the Napa Valley.

Santoro began his distinguished career at the Louis Martini Winery before moving on to work with the famed Warren Winiarski of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, who produced the winning red wine at the watershed 1976 Judgment of Paris. Later, Santoro became Co-owner and Winemaker at Quail Ridge Winery. In 1991 he accepted a position with Escondido’s Thomas Jaeger Winery and stayed on when Ambassador Alejandro Orfila purchased the property in 1994.

Over the years his wines have been served to some of the most important people of our generation. Prince Charles and Princess Diana enjoyed his Quail Ridge Chardonnay at a 1985 White House reception. This same chardonnay was presented to Presidents Reagan and General Secretary Gorbachev at the Reykjavik Summit in 1986.

Now in his 17th year in Escondido, Santoro has found peace with the fact that Orfila does not garner the same reputation as wineries from more renowned growing regions. He focuses on producing great wines for people who appreciate quality over image. “I do this for them”, says Santoro. “It sounds idealistic and unselfish, but it is true.”

Arriving at Orfila is like landing in a vineyard oasis. Trees have been planted to shield surrounding development, focusing visitor’s eyes on 40 acres of vines and the adjacent 10,000 acre agricultural preserve. Free daily tours at 2 p.m. detail their winemaking process from vineyard to cellar. Wine tastings are available for $6 and include a souvenir glass. The tasting room also offers gourmet cheeses and snacks for a light picnic on their well manicured grounds, made better when paired with a favorite Orfila wine.

Santoro hopes he brings happiness to people all over the world who drink his wines. “All I am doing is living my dream”, says Santoro. “Ambassador Orfila gives me the freedom to do just that.”

Visit Orfila Winery on the internet at


Recommendation: 2005 Coastal Cuvee Merlot, $18 ($14.40 for club members). Ruby-purple. Subtle fleshy red fruits give way to crystal clear plum on the palate. An interesting wine as it changes rapidly in the glass. This wine reminds me of a fine Washington State production with its wonderful balance of alcohol, fruit, and oak. Enjoy as a cocktail wine, with roasted lamb and mint sauce, or a Honey Baked Ham. Winemaker Leon Santoro calls this wine his “Humble Merlot”. It is only humble in style as it is not an over-extracted high alcohol beast to its, and his, credit. 14.2% alcohol, 90 points.