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St. Francis Winery & Vineyards

Category: Winery CEO

100 Pythian Rd., Santa Rosa 95409

707-538-9463

www.stfranciswine.com


Raised on a Petaluma dairy farm, Christopher Silva for more than 13 years has led St. Francis Winery & Vineyards in Sonoma Valley as president and CEO to become a destination medium-sized producer.

A fifth-generation Sonoma County native, Silva returned to agriculture after Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and nine years in practice. In 2003 at age 38, he was picked to lead St. Francis.

Achievements since that time include getting the winery’s 400 planted acres in three vineyards certified sustainable by the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance. A 457-kilowatt solar-energy system was installed in 2004 and provides up to 40 percent of the winery’s electricity demand.

Outside the winery, Silva was elected chairman of the board of trustees of Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital for 2011 and chairman of Santa Rosa Junior College’s wine studies advisory board in 2014.

St. Francis Winery produces 200,000-plus cases annually. Most are distributed in all 50 states plus Canada, the Caribbean, Asia and Europe, with some small-production, mostly single-vineyard wines available only in the tasting room, to club members and to food-pairing guests. The business owns three Sonoma County vineyards that total 400 planted acres, all of which are.

Silva talked with the Business Journal about how the business has grown in production and national acclaim while staying true to the environmental principles of St. Francis, for whom the winery is named.

How has the winery grown over time?

CHRISTOPHER SILVA: Our founder, Joe Martin, and wife Emma purchased the original 100-acre estate in Kenwood in 1971, planted merlot, and sold their St. Francis Vineyard grapes to other wineries until Joe and business partner Lloyd Canton built a winery on the site in 1979. We slowly increased production and let the ability to scale our wine quality dictate slow growth.

We are still very much a medium-sized Sonoma County winery. Right now we’re enjoying the best sales year in our history, so we have much to be thankful for. This has been driven by our entire team’s focus on grape and wine quality and adherence to our winemaking mission statement: “St. Francis Winery will consistently produce luscious, elegant, fruit driven wines that best interpret the richness and distinct varietal characteristics of Sonoma’s unique, diverse terroir.”

We also continue to establish a strong Sonoma brand identity and sense of place on wines that do particularly well for us. An example is my personal favorite, “old vines” zinfandel, made with grapes grown on vines over 100 years old. Another is our cabernet sauvignon with its distinctive, layered style that reflects the well-drained, mountain and hillside volcanic soil upon which it is grown.

This year, our internal tasting group blind-tasted over 800 semifinal blends, in which we evaluated, discussed and fine-tuned every blend until each one met our mission statement. I am a fifth-generation native of Sonoma County. We live in a magical place, and we couldn’t grow or make wines quite like these anywhere else. Every bottle of St. Francis wine is an authentic reflection of that.

What are most significant achievements of your time at the helm of St. Francis Winery?

SILVA: Higher wine quality and a culture of excellence in everything we do. I am proud that every member of our team is performing at the highest levels of their careers. Our two winemakers, Katie Madigan and Chris Louton, received 13 separate Robert Parker scores of 90 points or higher this year, including four separate 95-point scores and four separate 94-point scores on our current vintage wines, the highest scores in St. Francis history.

St. Francis Winery & Vineyards

Category: Winery CEO

100 Pythian Rd., Santa Rosa 95409

707-538-9463

www.stfranciswine.com

Our St. Francis Dining Room under Executive Chef Bryan Jones was named No. 1 Restaurant in America this year by OpenTable for our daily wine and food pairing, and we aren’t even a restaurant!

In the past two years, we have successfully launched a limited-production reserve line, focused on high-end restaurants in seven U.S. cities, as well as nationally distributed sauvignon blanc and pinot noir lines. Simply stated, we are making wines we have always dreamed of, and the public is embracing them.

This is such an exciting chapter for us, made even better by the fact that we are the only winery ever to be named one of North Bay Business Journal’s “Best Places to Work” for six years in a row, a reflection of our incredible team. I wouldn’t trade this for any other place or time.

What are the biggest challenges the local wine business faces?

SILVA: Each of us as business leaders needs to find that balance between running a profitable business while at the same time embracing causes that support and give back to the community. One of those areas is environmental responsibility and eco-friendly business practices. Our winery and vineyards are certified sustainable and green practices have always been at the core of our values, but we hadn’t always done the best job explaining this to the outside world.

Joe named our winery after St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint and protector of animals and the environment. So we are telling people about longstanding practices that we think add to the value and authenticity of our wines.

This year, our entire team celebrated our first annual Joe Martin Day, during which we close the entire business — offices, tasting room, cellar, vineyard, everything — on the Tuesday closest to Joe’s birthday, and all 70 of our employees report to a local nonprofit for a day of service and hard work helping others. This past June, we all spent the day at Kid Street Learning Center, painting and repairing and cooking and building an outdoor pavilion and talking to these amazing at-risk kids who are turning their lives around in some pretty incredible ways.

What does it take to remain an independent operation of that size in this industry these days?

SILVA: We have to make a better product that is a better value than anyone else is currently offering. Value does not necessary mean lower price. It means consistently offering something the customer agrees is both high quality and worth more than the price charged. People are seeing us focus on over-delivering at each price point, and they are coming back for more.

I often remind our team that people we will never meet, in every city in this country, will be enjoying our wines tonight in the presence of family and food and good friends. Maybe it will be in their dining room or in a good restaurant. Maybe they will be celebrating something or talking about important things or creating memories. And through that bottle of wine we created, we get to be part of that. Isn’t that wonderful to imagine? We never forget that we do this for our customers, and we are very grateful to them.

How are changing consumer behaviors and new marketing and production technology changing how you do things?

SILVA: This is the future, and we are certainly taking advantage of technology and evolving consumer behavior to market and sell our wines. At the same time, the guest experience here at the winery is our best way to build a long-term customer relationship, second only to the quality we put in the bottle.

So we have worked to create unique experiences that build memories and relationships between each guest and our really terrific customer service team. Our daily five-course wine and food pairing got the No. 1 in America rating by OpenTable. It is offered three times a day at a 16-person community table overlooking the Mayacamas mountains and our Sonoma Valley estate vineyard.

We also offer seated wine and charcuterie pairings on the terrace. That has become quite popular, especially with locals. People can book private estate dinners for eight to 16 people and are drawn to the idea that our entire winery is theirs for the evening. We offer self-guided tours with printed guideposts here in our certified sustainable estate vineyard just outside our tasting room.

We embrace the fact that people come here to soak in the wine and world-class scenery and escape everyday life. That includes local residents’ getting away for just an hour or two. Among the reasons our guest experiences have been so successful is because they are authentic and reflect Sonoma and farming and who we are.

What makes a great winery CEO?

SILVA: That is a very good question. I can tell you what I try to do, and that is work with the entire team to define the culture and our mission, drive higher quality, and set and achieve measureable goals—while always focusing on our unique Sonoma identity. We discuss our culture and our wine quality and safety and integrity a lot.

Actions matter a great deal, but words do too. So we talk about our values and our goals and how we help each other achieve them. An effective leader also looks outward and connects the internal organization with the outside world, thus ensuring that the business and the products it creates are relevant to the customer. That means listening to our customers, wherever they may be, which is one reason I spend a lot of time on the road.