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Simi Winery - Healdsburg - Sonoma County


Simi Winery in Healdsburg proudly traces its history back to the decade immediately following the Civil War.

Among California’s earliest surviving wineries, Sonoma County’s highly proclaimed Simi Winery in Healdsburg proudly traces its history back to the decade immediately following the Civil War.

It is 1876, and the brothers Simi, Guiseppe and Pietro, produce their first wines in San Francisco using grapes grown around Healdsburg that are shipped by wagon to Petaluma and then barged across the Bay to San Francisco. The basement of Guiseppe’s newly purchased 3-story Victorian on Green Street in Little Italy serves as the initial winery and the Simi brother’s initial customers are San Francisco’s thriving restaurants that suddenly became enamored with locally produced wines.

The transition from farmer to winemaker was a natural for Guiseppe who, in 1848, had left his medieval hilltop home of Montepulciano in Tuscany to seek his fame and fortune at the calling of California’s fabled gold rush. Lack of success in mining had turned Guiseppe Simi to cabbage farming and finally to his boyhood passion for fine winemaking. In the early 1850’s, Guiseppe’s brother Pietro joined him and the decision was made to begin their winery operation.

The Simi brothers forays into the wine country and to Healdsburg in particular, produced in their mind a remarkable similarity to their native Tuscan hills, and a plan was formulated that provided the basis for the expansion of their winery. By 1881, the brothers’ savings consisted of 2,500 dollars in gold coins that were used to purchase a winery on Front Street in Healdsburg, in close proximity to the train depot. Pietro remained in San Francisco with the established business and Guiseppe moved to Sonoma and immediately increased the winery’s capacity to over 100,000 gallons, making it the third largest winery in the region.

In 1883, the new winery acquired 126 acres just north of Healdsburg, naming the vineyards “Colinas de Florenza,” or “Little Hills of Florence”. By 1890, work was begun on the first of two stone cellars, large picturesque caverns that are still the main components of today’s Simi Winery.

In 1904, a deadly influenza epidemic claimed both Guiseppe and Pietro, and the horrendous earthquake two years later seemed to spell the end for Simi Winery. Incredibly, Guiseppe’s 14-year-old daughter Isabelle took charge of the winery operation and by her eighteenth birthday the business was back on its feet.

Prohibition caused Isabelle and her husband Fred to sell off much of their original property, but in 1933, at the moment of Prohibition’s repeal, Simi found itself in a position to sell a half million gallons of wine that had remained untouched for over 14 years.

Even through reestablished, Simi’s fortunes slowly declined over the next three decades, until Isabelle was forced to sell the property to longtime friends Russ and B.J. Green, who promised to carry on her father’s dreams and traditions of quality. True to their word, the Greens modernized the winery, provided stainless steels tanks, refrigeration equipment and the winery’s first automatic bottling line. The new Simi complex also included a huge ornate bar rescued from the basement of the Sonoma County Courthouse—a bar where judges had once stopped for a drop before ascending the bench.

Nearly a decade later, 1979 to be exact, innovative winemaker Zelma Long joined Simi and the old winery’s fortunes took a giant leap forward. In addition to a major renovation of Simi’s winery fermentation and barrel rooms, Long pioneered a number of novel breakthrough techniques that focused the eyes of the wine world on the Healdsburg facility.

Simi and Long became the champions of Chardonnay, certainly in California and arguably the entire world, and the winery became the target of large multi-faceted corporations intent on capitalizing on Simi’s successes. After a succession of corporate owners, Simi’s Constellation Brands, formerly Canandaigua, or more specifically, the Franciscan Estates division of that company provides modern administration.

This bodes particularly well for Simi, for Franciscan is a well-run company whose Napa properties could easily serve as a model for multi-faceted wine companies. Simi continues to be well focused, producing over 140,000 cases from their 700 wholly owned acres in Sonoma and from the winery’s outside sources.

Simi’s direction seems to be talking a step towards the smaller, with increased production of estate and single vineyard wines taking the forefront.

And finally, the all-important pursuit of quality, so important to founder Guiseppe Simi, is most certainly alive and well at Simi, a concept that somehow seems comfortably at home in the historic place.



Ebullient winemaker Nick Goldschmidt

At the relatively youthful age of 39, Simi Winery’s ebullient winemaker Nick Goldschmidt seems to have it made. When you also consider that the lively New Zealander has held the position for the past twelve years, you begin to understand the reason for Simi’s continuing success.

Goldschmidt admits to being in the right place at the right time regarding his early success. Attracted to Sonoma by Simi’s heralded innovatrix winemaker Zelma Long, Goldschmidt first applied to Simi for a job opening in 1988 but was turned down. Goldschmidt sustained his interest in the winery when Winemaker Paul Hobbs left Simi in 1989, Goldschmidt was inserted as the new winemaker.

His career in New Zealand had actually begun in viticulture, so Nick Goldschmidt feels that he took the back road into the wine business. His original intention was to spend a specific amount of time in viticultural endeavors in South America, California and France. After completing South America, his stint in California was so inviting that Goldschmidt never made it to France.

‘I had read about Zelma Long and her innovative techniques at Simi,” he recalled. ‘She was something of a legend around the world. She was doing some real breakthrough stuff at Simi. I wanted to come to Sonoma and see for myself.”

Even though Long had left Simi in 1988, much of her influence and direction remained and Goldschmidt was immediately smitten. He was particularly impressed with the winery’s attention to its vineyard holdings, a key element to his viticultural background. He was equally attracted to the winery’s keen determination and drive towards quality, an essential ingredient of his personal goals. Goldschmidt feels that it took him his first five years on the job to make correct grape decisions and the next five years to affect the grapes outcome with correct winemaking decisions. For his part, he feels that Simi’s wines have now arrived at a quality level he has always sought after.

To that end, Goldschmidt has thoroughly utilized his viticultural background and today considers himself as much a grower as a winemaker. He calls his job at Simi a ‘sight specific winemaking position.”

‘After ten years here, I can walk into any of our vineyards,” he explained, ‘and I can tell you exactly what each part of the vineyard will contribute to the final wine. It’s all subtlety and style. If I am correct in my picking decisions, different blocks will contribute significantly to enhance the wine’s overall quality.”

Goldschmidt also sees Simi continuing its direction towards smaller, vineyard-designated wines in the foreseeable future. He expects Simi to acquire additional vineyard land (the winery currently owns over 700 acres) in the near future thereby allowing Simi to more carefully control its own destiny.

Concerning his accomplishments, Nick Goldschmidt is quite candid. ‘I’m very satisfied with the fact that practically every one of the people who started with me a decade ago is still here. That continuity of people speaks to continuity of product, and for me personally, the two go hand in hand.

I know that Simi’s wines of tomorrow will feature basic differences in style, not quality, and will be highlighted by a great deal more vineyard designation. These are truly exciting times both for me and for my staff.”

Goldschmidt is also aided by the fact that his parent company’s management gives him the freedom to pursue such expressed aims. Even though Simi is owned by wine Constellation Brands, Nick Goldschmidt is permitted boutique status for most of his wine projects. Such autonomy is one of the main reasons that the youngish Kiwi has chosen to remain in his position for such a prolonged period of time in an industry where job permanence is a rarity rather than a norm.

‘I feel that we have reached 90% of our quality potential,” Goldschmidt added, ‘and that figure took a great deal of effort to achieve. The remaining 10% will take huge exertion on everyone’s part to achieve, and that’s what makes the challenge at Simi.

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