Obituary - Chris Johnson
Chris Johnson's cowboy boots and down-to-earth demeanor belied his position as a key winemaker in the Kendall-Jackson wine empire, as well as an inner fortitude his friends said carried him through an extremely difficult year.
Despite the ravages of pancreatic cancer, the 46-year-old father of two was still at work last week overseeing production of the winery's Bordeaux blends.
But after being admitted to UCSF Medical Center on Friday, Johnson's health deteriorated Saturday and that evening he died with friends and family by his side.
In a letter announcing the news to employees, Jess Jackson lamented the loss not just of an "extremely talented winemaker, but a good friend and colleague."
Randy Ullom, head winemaker for Kendall-Jackson, said Johnson possessed a rare knowledge of both grape growing and winemaking that led to his rapid rise within the company. At the time of his death, Johnson oversaw the production of all of Kendall-Jackson's red wines, as well as several white varietals.
But Johnson never let that go to his head, and was always willing to mentor young winemakers through the company's viticulture enology program.
"He was the most down-to-earth, warm, friendly, aw-shucks guy who had a sparkle in his eye and would take everyone under his wing," Ullom said.
Johnson had a vineyard of his own at his Silverado Trail home in Calistoga. He had two daughters, Jennifer and Emily. When he wasn't working, Johnson enjoyed swimming, which kept him physically fit.
He was born Dec. 10, 1962, in Reno and raised in the Sacramento Valley, where he spent summers working in pear and plum orchards, according to Jackson's letter to employees.
Johnson graduated with a winemaking degree from Fresno State University and began his career in 1984 on the Niagara Peninsula of Ontario, Can. He traveled from there to the Finger Lakes region of New York and to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, all the while gaining valuable experience in the art and skill of producing world-class wines.
In 1996, Johnson returned to California after accepting a job with Kendall-Jackson. After only two years with the company, he was appointed winemaker of the Lakeport operations, and in 2001, winemaker of the Napa Valley winery in the Oakville district.
There he was responsible for the winery's most esteemed lots of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot.
Johnson also helped oversee the establishment of the company's operations in Chile. The first clues to his impending health problems occurred about a year ago after he returned from a South American trip.
As the cancer took its toll, Johnson displayed few outward signs of his struggle with the illness.
"He wouldn't admit anything was even wrong," Ullom said. "Sometimes he'd look a little off, but heck, he was right here up until last week."
Besides his two daughters, Johnson is survived by the girls' mother, Kristi Johnson of Calistoga; his parents, Greg and Patricia Johnson of Auburn; and a sister, Rene Marie Richardson.
A memorial service will be at 11 a.m. Saturday at Johnson's Calistoga home. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations toward pancreatic cancer research at UCSF or the Selby Creek Restoration Project.
- April 09,2009