Patience and Polish.
“Piece by piece, bottle by bottle, case by case,” is how Tom Johnson describes building Silversmith Winery and his tasting room in Redwood Valley. Tom and Debbie Johnson are both longtime lawyers in Ukiah. Tom oversees the vineyards and production. Debbie does the gardening and many other tasks. “I get the credit and Debbie does the work,” laughs Tom.
Silversmith may have one of the newest tasting rooms in Mendocino County, but it belongs to a family which has been farming in Mendocino County going on six generations. All red, the Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petite Sirah wines are tended, shaped, and finished in the tradition of their namesake as the Johnsons continue a tradition of craftsmanship.
Tom’s great-grandfather Patrick Cunningham came to America from Ireland in the 1840s. “Just like kids today come from Mexico to find a better life and send money home, my great granddad’s family was beset by the potato famine. He was sent to Boston to find work and send money home,” says Tom. His great-grandfather had a hard time finding a job but eventually he lucked out and went to work for two brothers who, as family history has it, were descendants of Paul Revere. They trained him to be a silversmith.
When it was time to marry, Cunningham returned to Ireland and brought his bride, Maria, back to New York where he continued as a silversmith. Meanwhile, out in San Francisco the Shreve Jewelry Company was losing its artisans to the gold and silver mines in the Sierras. They sent a boy east with instructions to bring back silversmiths and goldsmiths. Patrick and his family were among those who came west.
The Cunninghams ultimately had nine children. When one was nearly run over by a horse drawn trolley, Patrick decided it was time to move to the country. He took the ferry across the Bay and a train to Windsor where he bought 80 acres. Tom Johnson’s grandmother Catherine was born in Windsor and was three when the family moved to Ukiah in 1873. The Cunninghams purchased a ranch in Ukiah where they grew hops and pears.
On the Johnson side of the family, Tom’s grandfather, J.C. “Bert” Johnson, came from Illinois by way of Oregon where he was in the sheep business. When he came to visit an uncle in Cloverdale he met Catherine Cunningham at a church event. They married and bought a sheep ranch on Sherwood Road. They also ran a stage stop where the roads from Fort Bragg, Eureka and Ukiah all intersected. Catherine did not like life in the wilderness and one day she caught the stage and suggested that her husband might like to sell the ranch and come down to civilization in Ukiah. He did and they continued to farm in Redwood Valley and Ukiah.
Tom’s father, Louis Johnson was the youngest of Bert and Cate’s children. Bill’s family still raises pears and grapes in Ukiah and Redwood Valley. Louis and his wife Margaret raised hops, pears, grapes and horses and seven children on Burke Hill Ranch.
“I went to St. Mary’s College and then to law school at McGeorge in Sacramento, says Tom. After getting his law degree in 1975 Tom returned to Ukiah and hung his shingle in the office above what is now the Ukiah Brewery. In the beginning he says, his specialty was, “if you open my door, I do it.” Over the years he has whittled that down to real estate, business, personal injury, wills, trusts and estate planning.
Debbie moved to Willits from southern California in the 1980s. She became a law partner in Tom’s office in 1990 and they married in 2002. She is now the Family Law Facilitator for Mendocino County Courts.
In 1989 Tom purchased a small Zinfandel vineyard in Redwood Valley. He replanted part of the property to Cabernet Sauvignon and two acres of Petite Sirah because of a trick he learned from long time Mendocino winemaker Dennis Patton. “Dennis told me you can’t always count on Zinfandel to be perfect, but you can come close to perfect by adding some Petite Sirah.” Tom attributes a lot of what he knows today about winemaking to Patton and his then partner John Dickerson, as well as Sam Gabrielli and Jeff Hinchliffe.
In the mid-1990s Tom started making bulk wine at Gabrielli Winery in Redwood Valley when the bulk market was really good he says. In 1998 he bottled some of his own Zinfandel under the Silversmith Vineyards label and “one thing led to another.”
In 2000 Tom, along with his friends, the late John Groth, and Luis Marin poured the cement and built the block walls for a winery on his ranch in Redwood Valley. Rolf Lysand, a local contractor did the framing and closed the building in. Then Tom, John and Luis finished it on weekends, and evenings one piece at a time. “We were all over 50 and it was hard to keep going,” he laughs.
While collecting the winery equipment, he and Debbie would go on buying trips and bring back a tank or a pump or something else they needed in their pickup truck. “The most wacky trip was when we loaded the press on a trailer behind the pickup and had to drive all the way home from Santa Rosa at 30 miles an hour,” says Debbie. They bought “near new barrels” from Hinchliff who works at Hanna Winery and selected the best of their wine lots to make their first 100 cases. “Case by case we started making a winery,” says Tom, adding that Debbie is always a willing good humored partner. “She does everything but drive the forklift.”
“Our kids and friends are our best customers,” laughs Debbie. Tom’s two grown children help out with sales and the website. Stephanie and her husband Torrey Lincoln (also from Ukiah) live in San Francisco with their son, Auggie. Matt and his wife Meghan live in Culver City, California, where he in advertising and a star of the HBO series “The Life and Time of Tim.” They are expecting their first child. Debbie has three daughters. Virginia is a lawyer who lives with her husband Karl and two sons, Joseph and William, in Palo Alto. Katie and her husband Bhodie live in Mill Valley. Julie, a CPA, and husband Eugene come up from San Mateo to help sell wine at the Taste of Redwood Valley.
When Tom and Debbie saw that the big two barns at Highway 101 and the West Road overpass were for sale they started thinking about a tasting room. In 2007, they purchased the big brown barn and started in again, one piece at a time, to convert part of the building to a tasting room. It took a year and a half to get the “never ending licenses, permissions and permits” but they finally opened the doors of the tasting room in time for the Taste of Redwood Valley in June of this year.
The tasting room was built to be an apartment but it morphs into a tasting room perfectly. Pale mocha walls in the front room make an inviting backdrop for the wine displays and for the art exhibits by local artisans that change regularly. Jack Piper is on board to manage sales and the tasting room. Right now the art exhibit features photographs of Southwest landscapes by Ukiah attorney Al Kubanis.
Silversmith Vineyards is the Johnson’s premium label under which they produce Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Cabernet Sauvignon. Goose and Toad Winery is the name on the value lineup which includes Rose of Zinfandel and Merlot. The Johnsons also bottle under the name El Primer Milagro, “our Hispanic label.”
In the inviting tasting room, you can find local food products such as Stroh Ranch’s marinade and cookbook, jewelry by Karen Crutcher, and pottery by Alec Thomas. The ambience is low key reflecting the personalities of Tom and Debbie, who is responsible for the garden, the giant pumpkins and the flowers growing in galvanized tubs out front. Their dog Zoe, a happy border collie with a ball in her mouth, is the welcoming committee and will most likely greet you with her unabashed enthusiasm.
Silversmith’s story reflects immigrant perseverance throughout our history. Not only is it a part of Mendocino, the Johnson family tale transcends the travails of the old country, embraces opportunities of the new and winds up making great wine in an amazing place. “We get up on a morning like this and look around, it’s tough to find a place more beautiful,” says Tom, “we live in a pretty spectacular spot.”
Tasting Notes: Grilled rib steaks topped with fried garlic slivers and fried capers were a perfect pairing as the meaty, aromatic and slightly salty flavors mirrored the lush, peppery and fragrant 2006 Silversmith Zinfandel.