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February 7, 2023

Tasting Room Closing Ending Area’s Longest Run

Simi hospitality center faces closure as Constellation consolidates

Simi Winery, whose signature wine-barrel tasting room was a landmark on Old Redwood Highway when it served as 101 North, will close its tasting room in February, Constellation Brands announced this month.

“As we focus on evolving SIMI into a leading premium consumer lifestyle brand, we have made the decision to cease hospitality operations at SIMI Winery early next year,” wrote Alex Wagner, Constellation’s vice president of communications in the wine division. “We will retain ownership of the property in Healdsburg, and winemaking, viticulture and production operations will continue onsite.”

Several other once-venerable brands have seen their tasting rooms close in the course of consolidation—Clos du Bois, Ravenswood, Sebastiani come to mind. But the changes at Simi seem particularly poignant. 

“Simi Winery was the second winery in the region—and the first in Healdsburg—to promote wine tourism,” said Holly Hoods of the Healdsburg Museum and Historical Society. “Simi’s Montepulciano Winery began entertaining visitors in 1934 in a tasting room made from a 25,000-gallon cask attached to the stone winery.” 

“Proprietor Isabelle Simi Haigh entertained and educated visitors about winemaking and the pleasures of wine and food…. Old-time locals fondly recall turning 21 and enjoying their first taste of wine with Isabelle at Simi,” added Hoods.

Montepulciano was the original name of the train stop, after the Italian village where many area immigrants came from, including the Simi clan. Asti, home of Italian Swiss Colony, was another such railroad stop, close to what is now Cloverdale. The winery at Asti was the region’s first, said Hoods. 

The first wines that carried the Simi name were produced by Giuseppe and Pietro Simi in 1876. As noted in a recent story on the River Belle Inn, Isabelle Simi took over the wine business at the age of 18 when her father and uncle died within weeks of each other. She later married Fred Haigh, and the two of them ran the business until the widowed Isabelle sold the winery in 1970, though she continued to work on site. She died in 1981 at the age of 95.

That wine-barrel tasting room opened in 1934, and from the first Isabelle Simi Haigh held court here, introducing travelers to the wines of the region, even after her retirement in 1971. It was demolished in the 1980s to make room for a new hospitality center. 

“I shall always cherish the memory of Isabelle Simi, the grande dame of the Simi family, sitting on a tall chair in her 90s greeting guests with stories of how red wine flowed in the streets of Healdsburg during Prohibition,” remembered Marie Gewirtz, long a Healdsburg resident and a former Tribune wine columnist.

Simi Haigh set a standard for women in winemaking at Simi that they continue to promote, listing the series of women who have made the wines at Simi, including Maryann Graf, Zelma Long, Lisa Evich and today’s winemaker, Rebecca Valls. The company refers to them as “the legacy of Isabelle Simi, SIMI Winery’s original female boss.”

Production Facilities to Remain Open

The news that the production facilities will be kept active is reassuring; retaining winemaking facilities including crush, fermentation and barrel storage, and the necessary staff to operate it all, should assure the brand’s future. In that sense, Healdsburg dodged a bullet.

The substantial, and equally historic, stone production building on the property at 16275 Healdsburg Ave. was first used in 1890 and is still a robust operation, even though the rail line that once serviced it is no longer in use. The location also provides redwood groves, patios and creekside seating, and has been available for weddings and other “personalized events,” according to the website at simi.com. 

Whether or not the other hospitality features and services of the Healdsburg site continue to be offered is an open question. “The future is ever changing,” said Frye.

The closure of the tasting room will have an impact on the several local employees of the tasting room. Manager Brandy Frei, who has been with Constellation for 18 years, was noncommittal when asked if she would continue working with the company, referring all questions to corporate officers, including Wagner. 

“Our people remain our top priority, and we intend to retain any impacted employees within our business if they so choose,” wrote Wagner in her statement to the Tribune

Yet one hospitality worker was overheard to say brightly, “We’re all out of a job.”

Such was not the case when Clos du Bois was purchased by E. & J. Gallo along with about 30 other Constellation wine and spirits brands in January, 2021. In May of that year, Clos du Bois, originally a Healdsburg winery but more lately identified with Geyserville, laid off almost all employees as its tasting room was closed, and its production, i.e. winemaking, was moved to other Gallo sites in Sonoma County. 

Corporate Consolidation

Simi was purchased by Constellation in 1999 (the family sold it in 1970 to local grower Russell Green). Other wineries currently in Constellation’s portfolio include Robert Mondavi, Mount Veeder, Meiomi, Kim Crawford, The Prisoner and more. Constellation also owns several beers (Corona, Modelo, Victoria) and spirits (Casa Noble and Mi Campo tequilas, Svedka Vodka).

Those remaining wine brands survived two major sell-offs by Constellation of its smaller labels, the first in 1981 when they discarded a portfolio of more than 30 lower-priced brands to E. & J. Gallo Winery for $810 million. Earlier this year, Constellation sold a number of its smaller wine brands to The Wine Group, a Livermore company that also owns Sonoma’s Benziger Family Wines, among other labels. 

Those developments indicate Constellation’s decision to pare down its operations and focus on a core premium marketplace. Following the sale to The Wine Group, Robert Hanson, EVP & president, wine and spirits division, at Constellation, said at the time, “This transaction will enable us to focus and shift our portfolio towards the higher end, positioning ourselves to continue delivering industry-leading growth and shareholder value with the right portfolio for our ambitions.” 

But that approach unmoors a wine from its local identity—one might say its roots. That a tasting room and event space is closing, a tasting room that exposed countless visitors to the essence and history of Healdsburg at a time when interest in the town is soaring as a premium destination not only for wine but food and hospitality, raises inevitable questions. Are tasting rooms really necessary? And for whom?

“Losing tasting rooms and real people who pass along stories of what came before is an irreparable loss,” said Gewirtz.

According to manager Frei, the Simi tasting room will close for good on Feb. 12, 2023.

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