SIMI IN SONOMA
THESE ARE NOT THE BEST days for California wineries caught between excess production around the world and a strong dollar that has attracted inexpensive wine to America. They have been further hampered by the high cost of operating capital and a stagnant domestic market. Some wineries have gone under, or into the bellies of larger fish, and a lot of those corporate giants have seen red ink.
Moet-Hennessey, owner of Domaine Chandon, can claim a profitable Sonoma winery, even if that profit is marginal. "We're in the black now," says Simi's winemaker, Zelma Long, herself part of the corporate strategy of a winery with a long and instructive history. Long came to Simi from Mondavi, a primary force in the evolution of California wine and its public relations. Long is described in a press release as "a tall, vigorous blond," which means that not only does she know her business but she also presents the right face in a trade that has become glamorous as well as highly technical.
Simi was founded more than a century ago by two Italian
brothers. The winery survived Prohibition, but the vineyards were
sold off or lost through foreclosure.
With Repeal in 1933, Simi was able
to enter the market immediately
with some older, better wines than
most of the competition's. In 1941
Simi's cabernet, zinfandel and
"burgundy" won gold medals in a
California state fair tasting, putting
Simi on many a nascent wine list in
California restaurants and establishing its notoriety. However, it languished in family hands during the '50s and '60s, and was sold to a former oil company executive named Russell Green in 1970.
Green bought stainless steel tanks for Simi and hired Andr,e Tchelistcheff as a consultant -- two symbols of serious intent. He also hired Mary Ann Graf as winemaker, the first academically trained woman to hold such a position in America and Zelma Long's precursor. Green sold out to a brewing company based in Scotland, which in turn sold out to Schieffelin & Co., the New York wine and spirits importer. Schieffelin invested millions in expansion and installation of modern equipment essential to California's enological renaissance, including a huge cellar, elevated tanks and a bladder press. Long was hired away from Mondavi. Then in 1981 Simi was acquired by Moet-Hennessey, the second largest wine and spirits conglomerate in France associated with luxury products from champagne to perfume.
Talented winemakers, sophisticated equipment and established marketing have tended to keep Simi in the black even in difficult times. But during the winery's corporate progression the managers forgot to plant their own vineyards. Simi bought, and still buys, grapes from all over -- Sonoma, Mendocino and Napa. Finally in 1983 it planted 175 acres of its own, some of which are just now coming into production, but it takes much more acreage to produce 150,000 cases of wine every year.
Competition for quality fruit grows as emphasis switches from the laboratory to the vineyard. Simi could find itself in a proverbial press, but now it offers good wine at good prices and manages to make some money in the process.