I’ve experienced many ups and downs over the years, but there are often phases where life is going along quite well and, to some degree, I tend to take things for granted, as though everything around me is safely in place, that all my friends and family will be there forever.
And then a day comes, as it inevitably does, when that dream-like bubble is burst by a dose of harsh reality that one can never predict. It may mean the loss of a job, a long relationship that ends sadly, or some financial crisis, but it often involves the unexpected passing of a loved one.
“I hate to be the bearer of bad news…” is how the process often begins, and in this case the bad news came on Friday, January 23rd in an email from a close friend. The note said that Leon Santoro had passed away the previous day, and a memorial service was scheduled for Monday the 26th.
I had to read the email a couple of times before it truly registered. It simply wasn’t possible, I hadn’t known Leon was sick, I had never said goodbye, he was such an amazing person, how could this be?
A Brief History
Born in Villa Santa Maria, east of Rome, Leon Santoro was raised in a family of winemakers and chefs. He came to the United States at age 17, enrolled at the State University of New York, and earned a degree in chemistry. His first job in the wine industry was at Louis Martini Winery in Napa Valley. He later joined winemaker Warren Winiarski at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, where he assisted Winiarski from 1978 to 1981. These highly regarded vintages earned many accolades, including a Double Gold at the London Wine Festival for the 1978 Cabernet Sauvignon.
In 1981 he joined Quail Ridge Winery, also in Napa Valley, as co-owner/winemaker and in 1985 the White House presented his Quail Ridge Chardonnay at a dinner honoring Prince Charles and Princess Di. In 1986, Quail Ridge Chardonnay was purchased for the superpower summit between Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev.
Leon headed south to San Diego in 1991, accepting a position at Thomas Jaeger Winery and stayed on when the winery was purchased by Ambassador Alejandro Orfila. Leon was well known in the wine industry as a highly respected winemaker with a passion for producing top quality wines. He was also known as a friend that could be counted on if ever you were in need.
How My Friendship Evolved
I met Leon in the early 1990s while serving on a tasting panel that gathered each month to evaluate newly released wines. That first night I sat next to Leon and soon learned just how smart he was. There wasn’t a topic that I could toss his way that he didn’t have a quick and articulate opinion on. I also experienced his mischievous wit, and quickly came to appreciate his highly educated palate. We became fast friends and looked forward to each ensuing encounter.
Leon and I were also judges at the Monterey International Wine Competition, and in 2005 we decided to drive north together from San Diego. Though I had known Leon for many years at this juncture, and our conversations had always been lively and enjoyable, we rarely had time to sit down together for a long chat. This trip would be a different matter altogether.
For 8 hours up and 8 hours back Leon and I talked about politics, religion, relationships, business, world history, and most topics in between. You get a different sort of insight on a long stretch like that. It’s not about gluing snippets of disparate conversations together, as the nature of extended dialogue has a way of saturating the brain cells. Conversations get real deep and quite meaningful, whether you intend them to or not. There’s no escape.
Those who knew Leon will tell you the man loved to carry on a conversation, and he could do so from sunup to sundown if you let him, but as much as he enjoyed the talking side of the equation, he was an amazing listener, counselor, and friend. And while I learned a hell of a lot about him during that road trip, I learned far more about myself, a profound experience indeed. Leon had a way of opening your eyes, not by telling you something, but by asking questions, the greatest form of teaching. And while his ego was intact, his humility always held sway.
Being a Father
The following year I took my son, Bryce, up to visit the winery. I hadn’t seen Leon for a while, and because wine was such a big part of my life I wanted Bryce to see how a winery operated. It was also cool that Leon had a son, Ryan, who was about the same age as Bryce. Leon took us on a tour, explaining how each piece of equipment worked and describing the process of making wine in detail.
He was a busy man, with a million things to do, but he never rushed, taking his time to ensure that Bryce understood what he was saying and answering each question with the patience of a saint. I learned a lot about patience that day, and caring and connecting – I learned a lot about being a father too.
At the end of the tour he filled two wine glasses with a barrel sample of his Merlot and we went outside. While Leon and I sat on a picnic bench, Bryce and Ryan played with a soccer ball on the grass outside the barrel room. We joked about being old men with young sons, and talked about how cool it was going to be watching them grow up into young men, sending them off to college, and ultimately raising families of their own someday.
I realized in that moment that Leon had three priorities in his life; to be the best friend possible, to be the best husband to his wife, and to be the best father to his son. He also wanted to be the best winemaker, of course, but it was connecting to people that made his life rich beyond words, that put a smile on his face and a gleam in his eyes, and I always suspected that the main reason he made wine in the first place was simply to make people happy. He took such pride in serving others.
Life and Learning
And as I sit here at the keyboard, with midnight rapidly approaching, I’m thinking about those rare people that have the ability to alter your life forever. A relative, a close friend, a girlfriend or boyfriend, or your spouse. Not because they try to, but because their happiness is, to such a large degree, derived from your happiness – the essence of unconditional love.
My saddest moment of the day came at the conclusion of the service when the pastor asked us all to remain seated while Leon’s wife, son and daughter exited first. As his son passed by my row the tears flowed freely – mine, not his. I think Ryan was still trying to figure out what it all meant. The man who had been his father, best friend, guide and mentor would no longer be there for him. It wasn’t fair. It made no sense. How does a child understand that?
And I found myself thinking, “What if that were my son?” The thought devastated me, and I wondered if I had done everything possible for my son, or for my friends. Who had I neglected? What wrong had I not righted? What had I done to change the world? Could I honestly say that humanity had benefited from my being here?
I still haven’t processed all that went on today, and I’m still grieving at the loss of a dear friend, but I do know that Leon not only changed my life while he was here, he continues to change my life now that he’s gone. And as the tears flow freely once again, I’ve come to realize that life is not just about helping others while you’re here, it’s also about leaving a legacy that continues to change lives once you’re gone.
I never had the chance to tell Leon this while he was alive, I can only hope he hears me now.