A Look Back at the Life of Isabelle Simi
In celebration of Women’s History Month, Wine Enthusiast examines the pioneering and dynamic vintner.
BY GEORGETTE MOGER
The legendary Isabelle Simi—once the vintner and mastermind behind one of Sonoma’s longest standing institutions, Simi Winery—passed away more than twenty years ago, but her legacy still lives on. A true pioneer for women in the wine world, Simi began to spearhead her family’s estate the tender age of 18, successfully navigating natural disaster and Prohibition’s crippling effect on California’s budding wine industry. In celebration of Women’s History Month, Wine Enthusiast caught up with Susan Lueker, Simi Winery’s Director of Winemaking, to talk about the life and times of the dynamic Isabelle.
WE: Isabelle’s father and uncle died weeks apart from influenza in 1904, flinging her into the heart of a wine making dynasty in its infancy. How was she able to cope with such an enormous undertaking?
Susan Lueker: From all the family stories of Isabelle as a young woman, up until her death in 1981 at 95, she was very determined and courageous. Isabelle knew she had a legacy to uphold and traveled the country visiting wine distributors to promote her family’s vineyard. She saw the vineyard through the Great Earthquake of 1906, which hit Sonoma all the way from San Francisco. Isabelle’s insistence of steel reinforcements and solidly built structures kept the winery from any great harm.
WE: Women married at such a young age back then. Did Isabelle?
SL: At 22, Isabelle married Fred R. Haigh, a cashier at the local bank, which on paper seemed like a wise move. As Isabelle was from one of the wealthiest families in town, he definitely got the better end of the deal. He also had a bit of an ego and would always interfere with her business and meddle with her connections and contracts.
WE: Was Simi the only vineyard open in California during Prohibition?
SL: In 1919, before Prohibition went into effect, Sonoma County had 256 wineries. Nineteen years later, 206 of them had closed—but not Simi.
WE: Was Simi actually producing wine or just cellaring?
SL: Prohibition meant Isabelle couldn’t make wine in general, but it didn’t mean she couldn’t make and cellar specially licensed sacramental wine. In order to hold onto the winery, Isabelle had to sell all of the vineyards. But making that savvy decision kept the business moving forward, and soon after Prohibition ended, Isabelle had a 25,000 gallon wine cask rolled out of the cellar and converted into a tasting room. The winery began selling her vast inventory, and although America was still in the depths of the Great Depression, the hard times were over for Simi Winery.
WE: Her demeanor comes across in every photograph taken of her.
SL: It does—even as a teenager when she was crowned Queen of the Flower Festival (now known as the Healdsburg Water Carnival). Isabelle was very welcoming and hospitable but could be positively cantankerous. You didn’t mess with Isabel. She’d be cleaning the sidewalk outside of the vineyard and if you got in her way she’d hit you with a broom.
WE: What were some of Isabelle’s other charms?
SL: She kept a garden of rare species of roses at the vineyard, and planted a new bush with each sitting president during her time, with the exception of Herbert Hoover. His strong enforcement of Prohibition did not gel well with Isabel—so much that when Hoover got wind that he had been excluded from the garden, he personally sent her a rosebush to plant. Isabel naturally sent it back. The rose garden still thrives at the winery, and the gardeners have kept it as close to the original species as possible.
Ladies of “The Dust”
An interview with Honig winemaker Kristin Belair
A few weeks ago I attended a private tasting focusing on Cabernets from the Rutherford, CA viticultural area. The Rutherford appellation located in the Napa Valley area of northern California is comparatively small but mighty. It is approximately 6 square miles, beginning just south of Cakebread Cellars and BV Vineyard #2 along Highway 29. It ends at Zinfandel Lane, 3.3 miles to the north, and stretches across the valley 2 miles at its widest point from Mt. St. John on the West to the Vaca Mountain Range on the East. There are 77 property owners and 48 wineries. Wines produced from the grapes grown here reflect a distinct Rutherford character. Commonality includes notes of luscious cherry, plenty of juicy blackberry, bright plum, elegant cassis and some agreeable black pepper, caramel and herbaceousness.
The term “Rutherford Dust” is often defined by sources as, “The legendary reason why Cabernet Sauvignon grapes grown in the soil of the Rutherford area produce such excellent wines.” In my opinion, one of the reasons this legend perpetuates is Kristin Belair, winemaker for Honig Vineyard and Winery. Among her many many (did I say m-a-n-y) awards is a recent Wine Spectator 93 point award for her 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon. It was also designated as one of the top 100 wines of 2013. Pretty much a walk-in-the park for Ms. Belair.
As you read through the interview below, you’re going to get a delicious peek into Kristin’s life as one of the “ladies of the Dust.” This is a light-hearted, but serious interview from a woman who makes magic in the vineyards and the bottle – a true dust to bottle kind of woman. I am thinking you’ll enjoy this chat as much as I did. As Kristen has been heard to say, “Wine has an extraordinary way of connecting together people, places and experiences.”
Name: Kristin Belair
Winery: Honig Vineyard and Winery
LK: When did your interest in winemaking begin?
KB: I was a struggling undergraduate biochemistry student at UC Davis, when a chance conversation with a classmate pointed me in the right direction. He had just entered the winemaking program and was very excited about it.
LK: How long have you been a winemaker?
KB: I experienced my first harvest as a cellar intern in 1981, so over 30 years.
LK: Which of your jobs has made the biggest impact on your success?
KB: I’ve been the winemaker at Honig since 1998, so coming up on my 17th harvest here. Prior to that I was at Johnson Turnbull/Turnbull Wine cellars from 1985-1997.
LK: Did you do an apprenticeship or go through a formal wine school, program or course? If so, could you tell us about it? If no, how did you learn to become a winemaker?
KB: I am still in wine school! LOL, I have a BS in Enology from UC Davis and gained practical experience from some great cellar and lab internships, mostly here in Napa Valley. Even though I have been out of formal school for quite some time now, I still attend seminars and classes so I can stay current on new developments and research. Every vintage offers opportunities to learn something new and refine my craft.
LK: What is your favorite part of your job?
KB: The creativity and the comradery. And, I am involved in making something that is tangible and ephemeral at the same time.
LK: Which one of your current wines would you recommend for a novice drinker? Which one for the aficionado?
KB: Honig Sauvignon Blanc offers an approachable experience for a novice and enough complexity to be enjoyable to an aficionado.Perfect! They can share!
LK: What is your favorite type of varietal or blend to work with?
KB: I don’t have a favorite per se, but we have a saying here at Honig, “Friends don’t let friends drink chardonnay.”
LK: How much time do you spend in the vineyards?
KB: Lots! With grapes being our raw ingredients, it is important to understand how the season is influencing the grape characteristics. This allows us to adjust our winemaking protocols to produce delicious wines year in and year out.
LK: What is your favorite time of the growing season?
KB: Winter! I love to ski…oh wait, growing season, Harvest! It is the most intensely creative time of year, full of surprises and challenges and comradery is at its best.
LK: What are the highlights of your career, your “ah ha” or “wow” moments?
KB: Tasting some older wines that I made and recognizing that there was a consistency of style and structure, even though the grape sources and production protocols were very different. Then, having a random winery visitor sharing the same observation without knowing my history.
LK: When you go out for a glass of wine, where do you go?
KB: A brew pub. I enjoy craft/micro brews and after working with wine all day it is nice to have a change. For wine, it is usually a special bottle chosen for a dinner with family and friends, often cooked at home.
LK: How do you work with local growers, if you do?
KB: I work closely with our growers throughout the season and as it gets close to harvest we talk a lot. We have worked with many of our growers for several seasons and some for more than 10 years. With that amount of time, they understand what we are looking for in the grapes that go into Honig wine. I always try to connect what happens in the vineyard and the growing season to the final outcome in the bottle.
LK: What is the one thing you haven’t done yet in your winemaking career yet that you would like to accomplish?
KB: My 65th Vintage!
LK: Anything else you would like to share about being a winemaker?
KB: I love knowing that I play a part in creating something that people are enjoying in many different settings with family and friends. Wine has an extraordinary way of connecting together people, places and experiences.”
LK: Would you share a recipe with us that incorporates one of your wines?
KB: Early fall simplicity: Honig Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc and Oysters (raw) under a full moon.
Honig Vineyard & Winery
850 Rutherford Road
Rutherford, CA 94573
Petite sirah can seem like a runaway Mustang, impossible to tame.
But Natalie West, winemaker of Healdsburg’s Foppiano Vineyards, apparently has what it takes to tame the spirited grape. West is behind our wine-of-the week winner — the Foppiano Vineyards, 2011 Russian River Valley Petite Sirah at $25.
“At first, the wine is rough and wild, with heavy tannins and huge acidity,” West said. “As it ages, all the different components start to mellow and blend together to create a beautiful, elegant, complex wine. It’s amazing to see the metamorphosis.”
At Foppiano, petite sirah has always been a focus, and West said she treats the grape like pinot noir to tease out its elegance.
“The biggest challenge about producing petite sirah is tannin management, both in the vineyard and in the winery,” West said.
“It is very easy to get an out-of-balance, over-extracted petite sirah. Gentle handling and monitoring of the wine in all stages ensures the right tannin balance,” she added.
What the uninitiated don’t know is that petite sirah is full of potential, a grape with limitless possibility, West said. “People don’t realize how complex and elegant petite sirah can be.”
“It is a big red wine, however it can have lovely acidity, beautiful fruit expression, excellent tannin structure and age-ability of the best cabernet sauvignons,” she added.
West, who studied at UC Davis, said she has been immersed in the grape culture since childhood.
“My parents have vineyards in the Dry Creek Valley that I grew up on, and of course there were always vineyard related chores,” West said.
“Winemaking is such a wonderful process — to be outside in nature, to follow the seasons, to use a scientific base (yet able to ignore the science if you wish), and to have a lifestyle that promotes great food and great company,” she added.
Wine writer Peg Melnik can be reached at 521-5310 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wine of the Week: Scouting for the tastiest red wines
Wine writer Peg Melnik had a blind tasting this week of red wines. The range of reds included pinot noir, petite sirah and Bordeaux red blends. The best quality for the price is our wine-of-the-week winner, and top honors go to the Foppiano Vineyards for its 2011 Russian River Valley Petite Sirah at $25. It’s a snappy petite sirah that’s turning heads.
Foppiano Vineyards, 2011 Russian River Valley Petite Sirah, 14.9 percent alcohol, $25. ★★★★
A sassy petite sirah. (Is there any other kind?) Its concentrated black fruit, coupled with its bold spice, make it irresistible. Notes of blackberry, herbs and cracked pepper. A standout.
Other impressive wines:
La Crema, 2012 Monterey Pinot Noir, 13.5 percent, $23. ★★★1⁄2
This is a refreshing pinot with bright red fruit and crisp acid. Aromas and flavors of plum, strawberry and mineral. Vibrant. The quality of the pinot makes this a very tasty find at this price point.
Seven Deadly Zins, N.V. Lodi Zinfandel, 15 percent, $16. ★★★1⁄2
This zin is edgy, loaded with fruit and spice. Notes of raspberry, blueberry and cracked black pepper. Juicy.
Coppola Rosso, 2012 California Red Blend, 13.4 percent, $12. ★★★1⁄2
A rustic red blend of zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon and syrah. A tasty range of flavors — cherry, plum, strawberry and mocha. Easygoing. A smart pick.
Frei Brothers Reserve, 2012 Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County Zinfandel, 14.8 percent, ★★★
A snappy zin with layered flavors. It has a great fruit component — blueberry and raspberry jam. This zin backs up the fruit with a kick of spice — anise and cracked black pepper. A good value.