Isabelle Simi: Inspiring a Legacy of Women in Wine

Kathryn Tully

Isabelle Simi, generally considered to be the first female commercial winemaker in the U.S., ran California’s SIMI Winery with such determination and tenacity that not even a major earthquake or the even more devastating blow of Prohibition could get in her way. “Luckily, making wine is thirsty work,” she once quipped, and her hard work, business foresight, and innovation at the helm of SIMI Winery meant that it survived tough times, and thrived in their aftermath, while other local wineries shuttered.

Isabelle owned and successfully ran SIMI Winery for nearly 70 years, an achievement that is even more remarkable considering that as recently as 2018, women made up only 13% of CEOs at California wineries, according to a study that year by the American Association of Wine Economists.

An 18-Year-Old Winery Owner

Isabelle’s father, Giuseppe, and his brother, Pietro, founded SIMI Winery in 1876 after the brothers both immigrated to the U.S. from Montepulciano, Italy, in the 1840s. By 1904, their winery in Healdsburg, Sonoma County, was one of the most successful in California, but disaster struck when both Giuseppe and Pietro died a few weeks apart from a flu outbreak that year.

Isabelle Simi, just 18 at the time and newly bereaved, could have found the idea of taking over the winery overwhelming, particularly at a time when women were largely shut out of the business world and denied access to credit. Instead, she took the reins at the winery and immediately set about its expansion, insisting that its cellars were reinforced with steel bars in case an earthquake struck.

That decision proved prescient when the 1906 earthquake hit Sonoma just two years after she took the helm. The earthquake destroyed many buildings in Sonoma County, but SIMI Winery didn’t suffer any significant damage.

When Prohibition began in 1920 and the ban on alcohol production meant that many local wineries dumped their finished stock of wine, some simply pouring it into local creeks around Healdsburg, Isabelle took a different path. She took advantage of a loophole in the law that allowed specially licensed sacramental wine to be produced and sold to churches, so SIMI wine was sold throughout the Prohibition years to religious organizations around the country.

Isabelle had to sell some of SIMI’s property at that time in order to stay afloat, but her astute business strategy meant that, although more than 200 wineries of the 256 operating in Sonoma County closed as a result of Prohibition, Simi Winery was able to stay open. Just as critically, when Prohibition was repealed in December 1933, SIMI was already stocked with 500,000 gallons of wine ready to sell to a public that was desperate for a drink.

Setting the Standard for Sales Innovation

Isabelle had always been ahead of her time when it came to sales. Even in her early twenties, when she was newly married to Fred Haigh, a cashier at the local bank, she had traveled the country visiting wine distributors and promoting SIMI wines.

To help sell her inventory when Prohibition was lifted, she decided to take another radical step, which was to sell wine directly to consumers. In 1936, Isabelle had a 25,000 gallon redwood wine cask rolled out of the cellars at SIMI Winery, set out on Old Redwood Highway, then part of Highway 101 North, and converted into Healdsburg’s first tasting room. From this novel tasting room, which became a well-known stop for tourists, Isabelle sold wine directly to her visitors.

Even though the U.S. was still in the depths of the Great Depression, SIMI’s wines sold quickly as the wine market surged back following Prohibition, strengthening the SIMI name and national reputation. After Fred Haigh died in 1954, Isabelle and their only child, Vivien, ran the winery’s retail sales right out of the tasting room.

Isabelle finally retired in 1970 when she was 84, shortly after her daughter Vivien died, aged only 56. Isabelle sold the winery in 1970 to Russell Green, another local grape grower, but she carried on working in the SIMI tasting room well into her 90s, wearing her signature apron covered in buttons bearing slogans such as “Love wine not war”

and “Don’t ask me. I’m in charge.”

“I shall always cherish the memory of Isabelle Simi, the grande dame of the Simi family, sitting on a tall chair in her nineties greeting guests with stories of how red wine flowed in the streets of Healdsburg during Prohibition,” Marie Gewirtz, a former wine columnist for the paper, told the Healdsburg Tribune in December, 2022.

The First of a Succession of Female Leaders

Despite the winery’s change of ownership, Isabelle was just the first in a long line of female leaders at the company, which has since employed other pioneering women in the wine industry. Maryann Graf, the first woman to graduate from an American university with a degree in enology, joined SIMI in 1973. She was followed by Zelma Long, who left her position as chief enologist at Robert Mondavi Winery to become head winemaker and vice president at SIMI in 1979. Long eventually became president and CEO at SIMI, extensively modernizing the winery and acquiring and planting new vineyards during her tenure.

Isabelle herself died in 1981 at the age of 95 and her famous wine barrel tasting room was eventually replaced by a new facility, which opened in 1990. As part of a consolidation by its current owners, Constellation Brands, SIMI Winery’s tasting room finally closed its doors on February 12, 2023, to walk-in visitors after a nearly 90-year run.

Despite these changes, the legacy of Isabelle Simi lives on. Wine production at SIMI Winery is still going strong, 146 years after its founding, which makes it one of the oldest continuously operating wineries in California. The story of its pioneering female leader is a key part of SIMI’s brand and its Goodness from Grit ad campaign, launched in 2021, which tells her story.

Today, among SIMI’s current collection of regular and reserve wines, which includes cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, rosé, and other varietals, wine lovers can shop for petit sirah and malbec from the Isabelle Collection. The winery is still run by female winemakers – Rebecca Valls became SIMI’s Winemaker in 2021 and Lisa Evich became SIMI’s Director of Winemaking in 2022.

In November 2021, SIMI Winery announced a collaboration with Reese’s Book Club, which was founded by Reese Witherspoon to elevate and celebrate women’s stories. To mark the partnership, SIMI Winery created a special Editor’s Collection of SIMI wine for Reece’s Book Club readers to enjoy. “Inspired by the legacy of their female founder, Isabelle Simi, and perfect for pairing with your next read, it’s our way of inviting you to sip away as you dive into your next great story,” Witherspoon wrote at the time.

Over forty years after her death, Isabelle Simi’s impact on the wine industry and on wine lovers across the country endures, and her inspiring story is as potent as ever.

This Women’s History Month, raise a glass to Isabelle Simi.