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.