Two years ago I posted an interview that I’d had with Chris Silva, CEO of St. Francis Winery in Sonoma. I was, as always, on a quest to speak to wineries that had abandoned, and then gone back to, natural cork closures. Not only did I get the information that I’d hoped for, but Chris and I had a lively conversation on all things wine, and I was charmed by his kind and outgoing personality.

St Francis Winery Sonoma

St Francis Winery Sonoma

He made me promise that the next time that I visited Sonoma that I’d stop by the winery to see him and enjoy the wines. And, by the way, he loved the article!

Well, real life takes over and things just happen. Last year The Wineaux Guy™ lost his youngest son which was devastating to both families. I decided that it was time to get my forever home and spent the greater part of the year looking for, and finally finding and buying, Casa Wineaux.  Needless to say, there was no Sonoma in the foreseeable budgetary future.

You can imagine how happy I was to find out that the Wine Bloggers Conference would be having their annual event in Sonoma this year! If I can make it, I told myself, visiting Chris is at the top of the list!

You can also probably imagine how stunned I was to find out that my new friend had passed away a few days ago at the age of 52.

I have no words. The only thing that I can do is to send my thoughts, wishes, and prayers to his family and his winery family, and wonder again at the vagaries of the universe.

For more information about Chris’ passing, there’s a wonderfully touching tribute on the St. Francis website. Meanwhile, I hope that you enjoy revisiting the wonderful interview that I had with him, and how much losing such a warm and gentle man affects us all.

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ChristopherSilvaI was honored to have a great interview with Christopher Silva, the CEO of St. Francis Winery & Vineyards in Sonoma. We had been introduced because of my interest in one of several recent articles which noted that wineries are moving back to natural cork and beginning to eschew “alternative” closures such as synthetic corks and screwcaps.  Naturally, this piqued my interest and I began reaching out to some of the wineries that had moved in that direction.

Mr. Silva is animated, personable, and deeply passionate about what’s going on at St. Francis. He’s a fifth generation Sonoma County native and was raised in a farming environment.  He remembers how his grandfather always talked about the importance of stewarding the land, not only because it was the right thing to do, but because it would be preserved for the next generations.

“Once upon a time,” Chris quipped, “that was called ‘farming.’ You didn’t need special certifications to show that you were natural.”

It was in 1971 that the founder, Joe Martin, established the vineyards. In 1979, Mr. Martin opened the winery and in 1983, their first winemaker began to make world-class Merlot.  It during this time that St. Francis began to acquire more vineyards and work towards establishing what would become its unassailable legacy.

St. Francis started using synthetic corks in 1993 when they rejected natural cork as a viable closure because of the TCA issues that were relatively rampant at the time. Cork producers were either a.) using bleach to process corks and which was a natural magnet for the 2,4,6-trichloroanisole molecule, or b.) shortcutting their way through the cork process because of the increasing world demand for wine corks. As a result of the hiccup in quality control, alternative closures began appearing, and not just on MD2020 or Ripple-level wine-like substances.

But St. Francis did something interesting. While most of their wines destined for the retail and restaurant markets were largely sealed under synthetics, they kept aside a few cases of wine sealed in natural cork.

“We learned something that was interesting and unforeseen,” he commented. “The wines sealed under synthetics fell off between four to six years. The wines sealed under natural cork continued to evolve, develop, and improve.”

The Boomerang Effect

Poll Results from informal Wine Spectator survey.

Poll Results from informal Wine Spectator survey.

The overall migration back to natural cork actually began to be detected about 2010. Wineries started to notice that the cork producers were getting their act together and that the quality of cork was rising exponentially. Many of those who had moved to synthetics and screwcaps began to reverse their practices and move back to natural cork. The trend continues today and is actually picking up steam.

While at one time the percentage of “corked” wines was about 5 to 10% (a figure disputed by Patrick Spencer, Executive Director of Cork Forest Conservation Alliance), that number has fallen to ~1%, which is the same as alternative closures. Because the risk of having such a large ratio of their wine ruined by its closures has been reduced to such a small amount, many wineries decided that the perception of closures does matter and that customers overall prefer cork.  That’s not just a guess; a recent informal poll on the Wine Spectator website showed that 93% of the wine-drinking respondents still prefer natural cork. (Click Poll figure above)

Organic certification and full team

Organic certification and full team

St. Francis’ green initiatives are legendary.  In 2004 the winery installed a 457 kilowatt solar system which provides about 40% of the winery’s energy needs from the sun. In addition, they installed retrofitted lighting with 221 motion-sensor units, which reduces their energy usage by 55%. The roof structure for the winery and barrel building is built from recycled steel. “There’s enough energy generated to power about 450 homes,” Chris stated.

For their energy efficiency efforts, the winery has been federally recognized by the EPA Green Power Partnership.

St. Francis Winery Solar Installation

St. Francis Winery Solar Installation

The estate vineyards are sustainably farmed in Sonoma Valley and Russian River Valley, and the winery has also developed relationships with other top grape growers which allows them access to those varietals that they do not grow, such as old-vine Zinfandel.

St. Francis vineyard

St. Francis vineyard

The inevitable question about the problems with the ongoing drought was asked.  They are tackling this head on, first by hiring Jake Terrel, formerly of Gallo and who brings his expertise about sustainable farming to St. Francis. Chris stated that in vineyards that are being replanted, there will no longer the “just in case” style of watering – that is, watering everywhere whether it’s needed or not – but the  “spot by spot” style, which, by using an iPhone app, is able to tell them when a particular part of a vineyard may need watering.

Their current vineyards are watered according to their needs by using thermal photography which tells them which specific blocks, down to specific rows (!), need watering.

“We don’t do dry farming, but we’ve reduced our watering  by 30%.”

“We’re a values-based organization,” said Chris. “We believe that excellence, like mediocrity, is contagious.”

Redefining Sustainability

Their efforts and definitions of sustainable don’t stop at their environmental practices.

Christopher Silva 2“All employees of St. Francis have the same benefits package,” Chris stated.  “As the CEO, my healthcare and retirement benefits are exactly the same as the field worker.  This is one of the reasons why we’ve won recognition as one of the best places to work by the North Bay Business Journal.”

Because of its ongoing sustainability efforts, St. Francis is Certified Sustainable through the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance.

St. Francis Winery & Vineyards

St. Francis yard and vineyards

As noted before, the decision was made to go to synthetic corks in 1993. Over the years, however, the winery discovered that those bottles that had been set aside and sealed under natural cork evolved better, tasted better, aged better, and lasted longer than those sealed under the synthetics.

“We realized several things. One was that wines weren’t lasting as long or evolving as well as those under natural cork. The difference was significant enough that we made the decision that beginning with the 2015 bottling, 100% of our wines would be sealed under natural cork. No more synthetics.

St. Francis Wines

St. Francis Wines

“But it’s more than that. It’s the idea that our bottles are glass and our corks are natural. Having a bottle lay on its side for years against a petrochemical-based substance just didn’t sit well with us. We’re trying to make sure that everything we do is green, and the synthetics no longer fit into our core values.”

Because glass is completely inert, non-leaching and recyclable, and cork is biodegradable, the decision was an easy one for St. Francis.

The importance of the customer experience is key to the decision to go back to cork. It breaks down into three key points.

1. Efficacy – using empirical data, does it protect the integrity of the wine in the bottle? The years of testing the wines sealed under the synthetic cork and the natural cork answered this question. Natural cork was the clear winner, and with the improvements in cork processing by the cork growers, the contamination risks of using cork had all but disappeared.

2. Ease of extraction – is the cork easy to remove? One of the oft-heard complaints about synthetic corks is that they are difficult to remove from the bottle. Not only can they dull corkscrews, but pulling the cork from the bottle itself can turn into a wrestling match. Natural cork, on the other hand, tend to be easier to remove.

3. Experience for the customer – the customer experience is very important, and customs cannot easily be dismissed. The appearance of the natural cork, ease of extraction, the satisfying “pop” when removed from the bottle, and the perception that natural equals higher quality are all key points for using natural cork. If the customer perceives the cork as being cheap (as in synthetic corks and screwcaps), then the perception will be that the wine is cheap, too.

St. Francis Winery and Vineyard

St. Francis Winery and Vineyard

My conversation with Chris was well over 45 minutes, so I can’t possibly write everything we talked about here. Let’s just say that this interview did nothing to disabuse me of my natural preference for and fondness of natural cork. Like the folks at St. Francis, having my wines in contact with synthetic substances for sometimes years on end just doesn’t sit right with me, and I will always prefer cork even if that’s the only reason. But, of course, there are many more.

Unsurprisingly, this wasn’t my first experience with St. Francis wines. While writing this article, for instance, I snagged a bottle of 2009 St. Francis Merlot from my wine cooler.  Alas, it was one of those sealed with a synthetic cork, but the wine itself was delicious and proved a perfect foil and muse while writing. Plums, chocolate, cranberry, and yum!

St. Francis Winery, 100 N Pythian Rd, Santa Rosa, CA 95409
(707) 833-0242

It’s already booked on my vacation schedule for next year!

Note: All photos are Creative Commons