A trip north
In early March 2012, a family member generously invited us to explore the diverse wineries of Mendocino County. Mendocino is a rural county located about 90 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge, just beyond the rolling hills of Sonoma County. Its western borders rest delicately on the untamed coastal bluffs of the Pacific Ocean. Daytime temperature highs on the coast hover somewhere in the 60’s, with a heavy marine layer always just an arm’s length away. However, a mere fifteen miles inland, the entire landscape changes. Anderson Valley, the undisputed king of coastal Pinot Noir, is home (among others) to Duckhorn’s famed Pinot Noir house Goldeneye, Roederer Estate, Toulousse Vineyards, and Navarro Vineyards, as well as sourcing vineyards for non-local wineries such as Williams Selyem, Twomey and Littorai.
In this valley, wine is a central component of the ecosystem. It is not just part of the landscape, but instead is intrinsic to the local economy and, most importantly, the community identity. Tractors roam the sloping hills, redwood trees intersect vineyard plots, pickup trucks line dirt driveways, cowboy hats are in abundance, and if you stay long enough, you’ll quickly get on a first-name basis with the local grocer, postman, soccer coach, and produce farmer.
Anderson Valley is just far enough from the bustling roads of Highway 29 in the Napa Valley, that it requires a particularly adventurous soul to set foot here. It’s not uncommon to scope out a tasting room, only to arrive and find that it’s a small red barn (for production), with a picnic table out front (for tastings). Local apple juice is served to those who opt out of wine. Oh, and the person pouring your wine? Yeah, that’s often the proprietor and/or winemaker. That’s just how they roll in Anderson Valley.
Many of our previous exploits here have been spent exploring the valley floor, sampling complex and unknown wines, hand-picking the abundant local apples, throwing back libations at the much-beloved local micro-brewery, digging into mouth-watering Mexican food, and kicking it at the Boonville Beer Festival (yes, the “largest” town in Anderson Valley is called Boonville).
However, as Anderson Valley’s notoriety has grown amongst adventurous oenophiles, so has its sister valley, the Ukiah Valley. Inland further (over yet another mountain range) rests the calm of this valley. Straddling the northern reaches of Highway 101, it is warmer here than in Anderson Valley, yet it still benefits from a soft morning marine layer, as well as cooling evening temperatures. Known for its Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, and more recently, Coro, a blend coined by the Consortium Mendocino (a minimum of 40% Zinfandel; a maximum of 70% Zinfandel; a percentage of any one of the following (not to exceed the percentage of Zinfandel): Syrah, Petite Sirah, Carignane, Sangiovese, Grenache, Dolcetto, Charbono, Barbera, or Primitivo), its stature as a visitor destination is slowly rising.
Taking all of this into account, our trip back in March was focused on the Ukiah Valley, as opposed to our usual “go to” wineries in Anderson Valley. We tasted through the Fetzer family off-shoot wineries (Saracina and Jeriko), joined the McFadden wine club, met the Canadian proprietors at Rivino, and then, shockingly, hit the proverbial mother lode: Simaine.
On the southern edge of the town of Ukiah, sits a nondescript industrial storage unit. Built directly adjacent to the western banks of this rural portion of Highway 101, most motorists would never pay a second glance to this diminutive structure of neutral paint and muted trimmings. However, inside this building, in unit number 42, lies Simaine Cellars. To say that this is a surprise is an understatement of the highest regard. Simaine is, quite simply, unlike any other winery out there.
Victor Simon, the affable proprietor and winemaker, is a man of many surprises. Dressed in his usual uniform of dark jeans, “707” sweatshirt (wine country’s area code), vest, and baseball cap, he’s quick to make a joke and invite new friends into his humble abode. Inside the three permanent walls of this unit (the fourth, remember, is the rolling door of the unit), Victor is in his element. He’s equally comfortable hosting friends, families, curious onlookers, and eager wine enthusiasts. Regardless of your background, when Victor’s “on,” he’s in full form. Winemaking might be his craft, but hospitality is – most definitely – his game.
Just as permanent a fixture as his wine barrels are his famous and hearty homemade frijoles, tortillas, and salsa. Because what’s wine tasting without some grub to balance the stomach? That’s the thing with Victor: a visit to Simaine is not a quick pop-in, get a 2 oz. pour, purchase a bottle, and be on your way. When visiting Simaine, prepare to stay for a while. In fact, clear your calendar and just enjoy the ride.
After our first visit in March, we knew that we had struck upon a truly unique experience. When we learned we would be heading back North in December, we called ahead and requested an interview with Victor. What was initially scheduled for a two-hour visit (one hour for interviewing; one hour for tasting), quickly morphed into a six-hour stay. And we were not the only ones. During the course of our day, a steady flow of wine club members and fans trickled in to drop off Christmas presents, pick up shipments, or just to say a quick, “Hello.” The one constant? No one left. As the numbers swelled, more wine glasses appeared, as did handmade plates of Mexican food. Departing from just bottle pours, things morphed into an impromptu barrel tasting and, by day’s end, a full-on cook-off topped off with Peking duck that Victor’s nephew picked up personally from San Francisco’s Chinatown.
That’s the thing with Simaine. Once you get over the surprise that you are tasting wine in a industrial storage unit, you realize that you have somehow been transported to a previous time and place where strict timelines and expectations have been discarded. The whole point is to be in the moment, relish in the product, and allow yourself to abandon pretenses.
Hospitality aside, the real question is: how do the wines stand up? If the wine was simply glorified vinegar, would so many patrons continually flock through the roll-up door? The obvious answer: No. But more technically speaking, do his wines merit special recognition? The indisputable answer: Yes.
Victor exudes passion when speaking about his wines. His exacting focus and finesse when selecting his fruit is unparalleled. His wines are truly an extension of himself. His labels are all single-vineyard sourced and 100% varietal. When evaporation naturally occurs in the barrel, he tops off with exactly the same juice, whereas many other wineries do not. Everything in his winemaking, relates back to the source of his juice: the fruit.
Victor’s history in the Mendocino County wine growing community is well-known. After spending many years as cellar master at Fife, Victor decided to strike out on his own. Partnering with his wife, Brenda, who had experience running local tasting rooms, he decided to strike out on his own. He figured that he already had working knowledge and relationships with the local grape growers and, most importantly, he knew how to make wine. Really, really good wine.
As he set up shop, he leveraged all of his wine industry contacts and started convincing the best local fruit producers to sell special blocks of grapes to him. He stuck to the varietals and the producers he knew best. His impetus for going single vineyard with the varietals lay in his belief in the quality that comes from dealing with a uniform input (he closely monitors everything that happens to a particular vineyard in a given year and, as such, knows exactly what to do with each vineyard block once they make it into his press).
With an annual case production of 3500, each bottle is truly an extension of Victor’s passion. In total, he makes Sauvignon Blanc, Sangiovese, Merlot, Carignane, Zinfandels (two labels), Syrah, and Petite Sirah. Ranging in price from $18 to $50, the quality of these wines far exceeds their price point. In fact, in a blind tasting amongst some local Napa Valley wine experts, these wines surpassed their Napa peers in nearly every category (wines selling for twice their price point).
One of the big reasons Victor’s wines are so enjoyable is that they are made to maximize the expected flavors of the ingredients. He has never believed in the ways of some new winemakers who seek to surprise and delight their drinkers by making a Petite Syrah with the flavor profile of a Zinfandel. Instead, he creates wines whose ingredients are the star attractions. Being single vineyard and single varietal, his wines exude the characteristics of the vineyard, the cellar room, and his wine making prowess. Even in the dead of winter, the 2011 Sauvignon Blanc had bright acidity and good overall structure and caused us to yearn for the short sleeves and swimsuits of summer. Also a resounding success was the 2010 Larry Venturi Vineyard Zinfandel. Moderate tannins and lush flavors of blackberry and cranberry synonymous with Mendocino and Russian River Valley fruit explode on the palate and make you consider never drinking an overly woody and peppery Lodi Zin again.
In sum, if you are adventurous and looking for something new and totally unexpected, give Simaine a shot.
3001 South State Street No. 42
Ukiah, CA 95482