Simi Winery, History in a Wine Glass
What would you do as an 18-year-old woman who inherits a winery in 1904?
Expand the winery, of course. Fast.
Isabelle Simi’s father, Giuseppe Simi, and his brother, Pietro, had arrived in San Francisco from Montepulciano in Tuscany, Italy, in 1859, hoping to find gold. Failing at that, they first grew produce in Pescadero, and then found their real gold mine: grapes.
First making wine in their North Beach San Francisco basement, the brothers bought their wine grapes from the Alexander Valley. Meanwhile, Giuseppe’s wife, Isabelle’s mother, apparently never learned English but served as wet nurse to the family of A. P. Giannini, founder of the Bank of Italy (now Bank of America).
The brothers Simi first produced wine under their own name in 1876, selling it by lots in San Francisco. The wine was transported by wagon and boats up and down the Petaluma River after they bought the old Depot Winery on Healdsburg’s Front Street.
Simi Winery stakes a claim as the oldest continuously operating winery in California because it didn’t close during the Prohibition era, which spanned from 1920 to 1933. Most wineries were forced to dump their wine at the start of Prohibition, many simply pouring it into local creeks. Legend has it that the townspeople of Healdsburg actually showed up with buckets to scoop discarded wine out of the water, likely slightly diluted.
Meanwhile, grape growing flourished in the Alexander Valley. The Simis constructed their first stone cellar from basalt quarried from the site’s hillside in 1890, employing Chinese immigrants to build the three-foot-thick walls, trading land to some of the laborers.
Queen of the festival
Giuseppe and Pietro both died from influenza in 1904, just four weeks apart, leaving the winery to Guiseppe’s daughter, Isabelle, who had just been crowned Queen of the Healdsburg Flower Festival (also referred to as the Healdsburg Water Carnival). Isabelle had already been named supervisor of the Healdsburg vineyards and winery.
Establishing what has become a long history of strong female leadership at Simi, Isabelle began to expand the cellars right away and insisted on reinforcing the stone structure with steel bars, still visible today, in case of an earthquake. While doing so, she also completed her coursework and graduated from what was then the Santa Rosa Business College.
In 1906 the great earthquake and fire hit San Francisco hard, felling buildings as far north as Sonoma County, but Simi’s then 2-year-old reinforcements and solid structure helped the winery stand virtually unaffected.
As early as 1908, Isabelle, then 22, was traveling the country visiting wine distributors and promoting Simi wines, way out ahead of the pack. She eventually married Healdsburg banker Fred R. Haigh, with whom she had one daughter, Vivien.
Isabelle carried the winery business through Prohibition by selling lots of “sacramental” and “medicinal” wine to the Catholic Church and a few others, as did Sebastiani Winery in Sonoma. Isabelle also sold off property to keep the winery going, continuing to employ a few workers, and avoided the closures suffered by other Alexander Valley wineries.
In a financially astute move, Isabelle stockpiled the 500,000 cases of Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel wine her team made during the alcohol ban, all of it quickly snapped up when Prohibition was repealed in 1933. The wines quickly graced some of the most elegant wine lists in the country.
Isabelle was also a rose collector, and planted a different rose for each president of the United States, save for Herbert Hoover, whom she blamed for Prohibition. Hoover found out about this omission and sent her a rose bush, hoping to be included in her garden of honor. Much to his consterna- tion, she sent it back. Her rose garden can still be enjoyed by visitors today at the south end of the original winery building.
In 1936, Isabelle had one of the winery’s 25,000-gallon redwood wine casks relocated to a streetfront location (Healdsburg Avenue), thereby creating Sonoma County’s first tasting room. The novel tasting room attracted visitors from around the world.
Leading the pack again, Isabelle helped found the Sonoma County Grape Growers association in 1946.
After Fred Haigh passed away in 1954, Isabelle and daughter Vivien ran their retail sales exclusively from the tasting room. Isabelle, wearing an apron covered with political buttons, uti- lized a sophisticated security system: a pet turkey that fiercely protected the cash register and Isabelle, permit- ting only its mistress to open the drawer.
In 1970, at the age of 84, Isabelle Simi Haigh retired and sold the winery to Alexander Valley grape grower Russell Green, a retired president of Signal Oil. Green’s grandson is one of the cooks at the winery today, crafting killer pizzas in the outdoor wood-burning oven.
Mary Ann Graf, the first woman to graduate with a degree in viticulture and enology from the University of California at Davis (in 1965), joined Simi Winery as winemaker in 1973, an enormous step for women into the wine industry.
In 1979, Graf was followed by Zelma Long, the second female graduate from the UC Davis viticulture and enology program, who left her position as chief enologist at Mondavi to become head winemaker and vice president at Simi. This marked one of the first instances of a woman running both the winemaking and business sides of a major winery. Long eventually became president and then CEO of Simi through the ’80s and ’90s. During this period Long led major renovations of the winery’s fermentation and barrel rooms with the same hurry- up spirit and personality-infused style that Isabelle Simi had demonstrated until her death at 95 in 1981.
Acquiring the appropriately named Landslide Vineyard in 1982 and planting more acreage soon after, Long focused on Cabernet Sauvignon, other red Bordeaux varieties and Chardonnay grapes in an effort to exert more direct control over the quality of fruit with which Simi made its wines.
Interrupting the tradition of strong female head winemakers at Simi, but certainly not the quality of its wines, Paul Hobbs succeeded Zelma Long as winemaker in 1999. Nick Goldschmidt followed Hobbs in 2001. Steve Reeder has been the general manager and vice president of winemaking at Simi since 2003.
But there are still women making wine at Simi. Susan Lueker joined Simi in 2000 and is now the director of winemaking. A onetime chemistry and medical child development major at the University of Missouri, Lueker switched to the study of enology at UC Davis. She says that, on her first visit to a vineyard with her enology class, she knew that she loved the people and being in the vineyard, nature and the science of it all.
Lueker’s first winemaking job was at the old and then-small and family-owned Hacienda Winery in Sonoma Valley, where she learned the winemaking process through hands-on experience, top to bottom. Eventually Lueker moved on to wine giant Kendall-Jackson, followed by eight years at Dry Creek Vineyard, where she further developed her passion for Zinfandel and Sauvignon Blanc wines, before moving to Simi.
Lueker jokes that she “works on the wrong side of the tracks,” referring to the fact that all of the winemaking at Simi happens on the west side of the railroad tracks that run straight through the property. But her wines are definitely on the “right side of the tracks” in terms of quality.
Constellation Brands, a publicly traded company which, according to its website, owns a portfolio of over 100 wines, beers and spirits, is the current owner of Simi.
Visitors to the Simi Winery Visitor Center can enjoy peaceful meditation under the redwoods that Isabelle planted decades ago, wine sipping, wood-fired pizza and other culinary offerings, tours and a great selection of books and kitchen and wine novelties. When you visit, be sure to check out Alfred Hitchcock’s entry in the guest book.
Kolin Vazzoler, a native of North Vancouver, British Columbia, recently became Simi’s executive chef. A second-generation American of Italian descent, like Isabelle Simi, Vazzoler learned to make wine and grappa in his grandfather’s cellar. Vazzoler grew up cooking with his mother and aunt using what was available in the family’s vegetable garden. His first cooking job was at the Four Seasons Hotel in Vancouver. Gary Danko spotted him and brought Vazzoler to San Fran- cisco, where he served eight years as executive sous-chef to Gary Danko at his eponymous restaurant.
During the summer and early fall, Chef Vazzoler and crew open Simi’s Landslide Terrazzo Pizza Kitchen, where they offer thin-crusted wood-fired artisanal pizzas on Fridays from noon to 6pm and Saturdays from noon until 4pm.
From May through September, Simi hosts “Keep on Truckin’ Wednesdays” on the second and fourth Wednesdays of each month with easily a dozen food trucks circling the winery’s parking lot, cool as cucumbers under Isabelle Simi’s redwood trees. I think she would be proud.