Community feels loss after St. Francis CEO’s passing
Chris Silva had a big impact on local people and businesses
Every now and then, someone comes into our lives who has an oversized impact on the people around him or her, sometimes through accident of time and place, but in this case, through an outsized personality that seems to have touched everyone who knew him. Chris Silva, a fifth-generation Petaluman, was such a person from his very young days. Silva died last month, at the age of 52, from a brain cancer that spread rapidly from the time it was discovered in April. Family, friends, neighbors and employees are all stunned by his loss, but remember well the impact he had on their lives.
Silva was born in 1964 and grew up in Santa Rosa. He graduated from Cardinal Newman High School, then went to Loyola Marymount and on to Loyola School of Law in Los Angeles. He practiced law in Los Angeles and then Santa Rosa before deciding to follow a different path.
Silva reconnected with old friends in Sonoma, including Joe Martin, a co-founder of St. Francis Winery, and married Joe’s step-granddaughter, Linda Armstrong. Martin brought Silva into the business in 1998 as COO and then as President and CEO in 2003, where Chris quickly set his very personal stamp on the business of growing grapes, and making and selling wine.
The people who worked with Silva were impressed by his personal style.
“He straddled the line between friend and management,” said Katie Madigan. Madigan has worked for St. Francis for 15 years, becoming chief winemaker in 2011. “I could always go to him with business or personal questions. He would always make the point that he was there for you.”
Silva was a people person. “He always wanted to make the situation positive and bright,” Madigan continued. “He always wanted people to feel comfortable. Bringing people together made his name so recognized.”
St. Francis Vineyard Manager Jake Terrell recalls Silva’s intense love of family.
“Chris really cared about family,” Terrell said. “Over and over he would ask about kids and wives. No matter what, family always came first. If something was going on (in our family life) that we needed to attend, if we needed to leave at 1 p.m. to attend a kid’s baseball game, he’d say ‘go.’”
Terrell recalled a Christmas party attended by Silva’s 102-year-old grandmother where Terrell’s nine-year-old son spent a lot of time with her. “He sent a hand-written note to my son, Caleb. He really did care about employees and our kids. It’s a unique quality.”
Production manager Derek Borell literally grew up nearby and has worked for St. Francis since 1990, starting on the bottling line. He recalled that Silva would visit every employee once a month, handing out cookies and having a personal chat. He was fluent in Spanish, so no employees were left out of these personal chats.
“I got to see him as my boss, so we talked all the time,” Borell said, “but for the employees who worked out in the cellar and barrel room, he made a point to see them all.” Borell remembers the blue marker Silva always carried around, making notes about everything.
Family friend and former Oakmont golf pro Dean James knew Silva for most of his life. Silva, who lived next door, graduated from Cardinal Newman High School with Doug James, Dean’s son, and Linda James, Wendy James’ daughter by a previous marriage. They were all the same age. Linda passed away last year, also from brain cancer.
“I mostly remember that Chris was extremely precocious from day one,” James said, having known him since kindergarten. “He was always thinking of ways to be funny and had fun with his neighbors. But as he got into high school, he was always driven to do what he wanted to do and he got it done. Like becoming the leader of the entire student body. He was president, valedictorian, and accomplished anything he wanted to do.”
After retiring as a pro golfer, James went to work for Silva at the St. Francis tasting room and got to know him as a boss first-hand.
He recalled that at the Christmas gatherings that included field workers, he had presents for every single child, calling them by name and he’d talk about them and give them a gift.
“I’ve met a lot of people in my life and he was the most charismatic I ever met,” James said. “He drew people to him.”
Silva’s personality reached beyond the winery, however.
“Chris and the winery were a very good neighbor,” Shady Acres resident Dave Chappell said. “They were always responsive to our needs and our concerns about vineyards spraying and events and those kind of things. He responded personally and referred other questions to the vineyard manager. He was always concerned with his relationship with the neighbors. As far as we were concerned, he WAS the winery.”
Henry Belmonte, an owner and proprietor of VJB Cellars, was a friend.
“When I opened the doors to VJB in May of 2003, Chris was the first person I went to,” said Belmonte. “He advised me well. He instructed the team at St. Francis to put signage out in front welcoming the new VJB facility. He was and will always be remembered for the true definition of class.”
A Funeral Mass was celebrated on June 30 at St. Rose Church. Memorial donations may be sent to the Christopher Silva Endowment to benefit Santa Rosa Junior College students. Gifts may be sent to the SRJC Foundation, 1501 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa 95401 or may be made online at santarosa.edu/foundation.
Winebusiness.com is inviting friends, family, co-workers and others to share their thoughts about Silva online this week. Go to www.facebook.com/events/123897984867208 for more information.
[This article was corrected on July 5, 2017, to reflect that Chris married Joe Martin’s step-granddaughter, Linda Armstrong - ED]