Christopher Silva, president of Sonoma Valley’s St. Francis Winery, dies at 52

Christopher Silva, the supercharged Petaluma-born wunderkind who left lawyering for the wine industry, then grew the reputation of Sonoma Valley’s St. Francis Winery & Vineyards as an epicurean destination, died Tuesday morning at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital. He was 52.

It was just in April that the fifth-generation Sonoma County resident and father of ?two announced on Facebook that he’d been diagnosed with brain cancer. He wrote in the posting that he noticed “I was slurring my speech, struggling to format syntax ...”

That was seven months to the day after the death last September of his mother, Dorothy Cassina Silva, from colon cancer.

Silva told his many Facebook friends he would immediately confront the brain tumor with radiation and chemotherapy treatments at UCSF Medical Center.

“Don’t cry for me - not just yet,” he wrote. “This has really been a wonderful life - so much richness and joy - everlasting joy - and I have not begun to fight.”

Silva had an aggressive Gliobastoma cancer, but he was able to celebrate his daughter Sydney’s graduation from his own alma mater, Santa Rosa’s Cardinal Newman High School, on June 3.

Jeffrey Silva of Sacramento said it had a powerful impact on his brother to learn that he had cancer on the seven-month anniversary of their mother’s death.

“She was a rock in our lives,” Jeff Silva said.

He recalled his brother telling him shortly after the discovery of the brain tumor, “Don’t worry about it. This ride has been such a good ride. I’ve done everything I wanted to do. I knew something was going to happen, it was too good for too long.”

From his earliest days on his Swiss-Italian family’s Petaluma dairy, Chris Silva astonished the people around him with his ambition, wit, originality and zeal.

He won a job at the former Petrini’s gourmet market in Santa Rosa at just 15 after the manager told him he was too young and there were no openings anyway, and he handed the grocer a business card and said, “Please call me if you have a job.”

The Petrini’s manager phoned him the following day to say, “I can’t believe a kid has a business card. Can you start on Saturday?”

Larry Brown, a nearly lifelong friend, on Tuesday recalled something Silva did not long afterward as the student body president of Cardinal Newman High in the early 1980s.

“He would channel his Ronald Reagan,” said Brown, now a superior court judge in Sacramento. “He drafted his friends to act as Secret Service agents and escort to him to assemblies” while they wore sunglasses and earpieces.

Speaking of the group of buddies who grew up together in Santa Rosa, Brown said, “We were simply in awe of Chris.”

“It sounds maybe trite sometimes, but he was bigger than life. A dynamic personality, lightning wit and a huge heart. To watch Chris was to marvel at the way he connected with people.”

From Cardinal Newman, Silva went on to Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, where he was elected as the school’s youngest-ever student body president.

He became an attorney in Los Angeles, then discovered that appearing in court intimidated him.

Silva said in an interview with the New York Times in 2010 that to overcome his courtroom anxiety he offered to make court appearances for all of the firm’s senior partners.

“There were more than 40 of them,” he said. “My first year with that firm, I appeared in court more than 100 times. It’s a cliché, but I knew that the only way out of my fear was through it.”

While he worked in Los Angeles, Silva would return to Sonoma County to visit with friends, with his mother in Santa Rosa and with his father and stepmother, Al and Barbara Silva of Sonoma.

The young lawyer also would check in with a friend and mentor and former customer from his grocery-bagging and clerking days at Petrini’s: furniture dealer-turned-vintner Joe Martin.

Martin and his wife, Emma, sold their furniture store in 1971 and purchased 100 acres of farmland on Sonoma Highway, just outside of Kenwood. Martin planted and then sold merlot and chardonnay grapes, and in 1979 built with partner Lloyd Canton the St. Francis Winery.

In 1992, Silva quit Los Angeles and joined the Santa Rosa law firm headed by Clay Clement.

Having long appreciated good wine, Silva fed his curiosity by taking wine tasting and winemaking night classes at Santa Rosa Junior College. He joined the Martin family with his marriage to a granddaughter of Emma Martin, the former Linda Armstrong, now Linda Stubblefield. They had two children and later divorced.

Chris Silva had come by a substantial knowledge of the wine business when, in 1998, Joe Martin invited him to work at St. Francis.

He was the winery’s chief operating officer at age 33, and was 38 when Martin promoted him to president and CEO in 2003.

“In a lot of ways, he was my best friend,” Silva said in a 2016 interview with The Press Democrat. Martin died in 2015 at the age of 80.

Personable, vigorous and charming, Silva honed St. Francis Winery & Vineyards into a model of sustainability and the pursuit of constant improvement. He encouraged employees to give back to their community, and he led by example.

He held leadership positions on the boards of Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital and the Santa Rosa Junior College wine studies program.

“Chris was a real gift to everyone who knew him,” said Frank Chong, the school’s president.

This past February, Silva welcomed a large crowd to the 3rd annual SRJC Wine Classic, a food-and-wine event he envisioned as a benefit for the college’s wine studies program.

“He connected people. He has so many friends,” said Chong, who singled out Silva for praise and prayers in his May 31 address to the community.

“He was a shining star,” Chong said. “In the time he was here, he left his imprint on so many people.”

In addition to many wine competition awards and tasting honors, Silva’s leadership helped to bring to the 200,000-case St. Francis Winery a variety of sustainability and green-practices awards.

Silva was proud to point out that the wine-and-food pairings by St. Francis executive chef Bryan Jones twice in recent years prompted OpenTable to name the winery the “No. 1 Restaurant in America,” even though there is no restaurant there.

In addition to his daughter in Santa Rosa, his brother in Sacramento and his father and stepmother in Sonoma, Silva is survived by his son, Joseph, of Santa Rosa.

The family is working on arrangements for Catholic funeral services.

Memorial donations are suggested to the new Christopher Silva Endowment, to benefit students at Santa Rosa Junior College. Gifts can be sent to the SRJC Foundation, 1501 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa 95401, or can be made online at

Chris Smith is at 707-521-5211 and

Editor’s note: This version corrects an error regarding the relationship of Chris Silva’s former wife, Linda Stubblefield, to Joe and Emma Martin.

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