Christopher Silva, energetic president and CEO of St. Francis Winery in Sonoma Valley, died Tuesday in Santa Rosa, Calif., from complications related to brain cancer. The 52-year-old native of Petaluma announced in April that he had been diagnosed with cancer.
Silva was a spirited leader who took over St. Francis in 2003, abandoning his career as a lawyer to return to farming, not far from where he grew up. Silva brought a strong sense of direction and leadership to the Sonoma winery and was admired for his upbeat and engaging personality, keen wit and intimate knowledge of the wine industry. St. Francis is best known for its Sonoma Cabernet, Chardonnay, old-vine Zinfandel and Merlot.
“He had this energy that would light up the room," says Kivelstadt Cellars' Jordan Kivelstadt, who considered Silva a very good friend and mentor. "He was just such an energetic guy, it was hard not to be [drawn to] him."
Silva grew up in a dairy-farming family, and he impressed his friends and relatives with his drive and perseverance at an early age. At 15 he landed a job at Petrini’s market in Santa Rosa when he handed the manager a business card. It was there that he met Joe Martin, who sold his furniture business in the 1970s to start St. Francis.
Silva went on to earn a degree at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, but the courtroom intimidated him, and nine years later he retired from law and returned to his agricultural roots. Silva moved back to Santa Rosa where he decided to pursue his interest in wine, taking night classes on wine tasting and winemaking.
In 1998, Martin invited Silva to join St. Francis. Silva, then 38, became CEO and president of the winery in 2003. Always looking ahead, he was instrumental in launching St. Francis’ sustainability efforts and created an onsite garden for its culinary program. He was also supportive of new and emerging trends such as wine on tap.
Silva was well-liked in the wine industry and enjoyed traveling and connecting with people. He championed Sonoma wine but was also very supportive of his community, serving on the board of Big Brothers Big Sisters in Sonoma, and was elected chairman of the Santa Rosa Junior College Wine Studies advisory board in 2014.
“He was involved in every single part of the wine industry, in the valley and in Sonoma [County] more broadly,” says Kivelstadt. “There are rarely people like that that have that kind of energy.”
Silva is survived by his father and stepmother, his son, Joseph, and his daughter, Sydney.