We don't just cover the North Bay. We live here.
Did You Know? In the first 10 days of the North Bay fire, nearly 1.5 million people used their mobile devices to visit our sites.
Already a subscriber?
Wow! You read a lot!
Reading enhances confidence, empathy, decision-making, and overall life satisfaction. Keep it up! Subscribe.
Already a subscriber?
Oops, you're out of free articles.
Until next month, you can always look over someone's shoulder at the coffee shop.
Already a subscriber?
We don't just cover the North Bay. We live here.
Did You Know? In the first 10 days of the North Bay fire, we posted 390 stories about the fire. And they were shared nearly 137,000 times.
Already a subscriber?
Supporting the community that supports us.
Obviously you value quality local journalism. Thank you.
Already a subscriber?
Oops, you're out of free articles.
We miss you already! (Subscriptions start at just 99 cents.)
Already a subscriber?

Tom Simoneau has been a fixture on the Sonoma County wine scene for some 25 years. But just recently he's started making his own commercially available line of wines, a cabernet sauvignon and a chardonnay, under the Simoneau Vineyards name.

Over the years people have gotten to know Simoneau, and his wife, Brenda, as Alexander Valley grape growers. And Tom's been an award-winning amateur winemaker, wine educator and judge. But probably he's been best known as the radio celebrity "Wine Guy" on his syndicated daily show on KSRO.

Simoneau spent his younger years as a professional musician, playing bass guitar in a country-rock band. On a gig back home he reconnected with Brenda, his childhood crush.

"I was a football player, she was a cheerleader; I was always in love with Brenda," he noted. "Finally, on my last road trip I went back to Maine and Brenda was there. It was Christmas weekend and we've been together ever since, 29 years now. Perfect."

They came back to California for Simoneau to pursue a record contract and play in and around San Francisco, settling in Healdsburg because it reminded them of Maine.

When in 1982 he decided he'd had enough of life on the road, he went to see an employment agency about a job. The agency asked him what he had been doing. He said playing bass for the last 10 years, and the agent asked what else? Manage the band, he answered.

She continued, are you good on the phone? He replied, yes, I sell music on the phone, booking gigs. She then said, Windsor Vineyards is starting a telemarketing thing, do you think you could sell wine on the phone? It was that or run canoes for Trowbridge Canoes, the Healdsburg canoe-rental company at the time on the Russian River.

"I decided, if I can sell music, I can sell wine," he said.

He knew a little but not a lot about wine, but learned quickly, tapping into his network of friends who were winemakers, locals who had followed his band for years.

"My favorite wine at the time was 1976 Simi (cabernet sauvignon) and they had it in half bottles and they'd give us a discount because we'd put the tasting room people on our guest lists," Simoneau said. "I can still taste that '76."

At Windsor Vineyards, a guy in the office with a vineyard had extra grapes one year and happened to ask Simoneau if he'd like to make some wine. He did, procuring a couple of garbage cans, picking the grapes and crushing them with his feet.

That wine won a bronze at the Sonoma County Harvest Fair, amateur wine division, in 1983. He earned the Sweepstake Award for his Meritage in 1990.

Still, it took Simoneau a long time to feel confident about going commercial.

"I always said I could make great homemade wine but if you're going to sell wine it can't be homemade," Simoneau said. "If I'm going to sell you a chardonnay, that better be the best darn chardonnay I can possibly make and I don't think by myself I could make the best wine possible."

So Simoneau enlisted the help of local friend and winemaker Margaret Davenport to make the first couple of vintages — a 2005 Simoneau Cabernet Sauvignon and 2008 Simoneau Brenda Lee Chardonnay (named for his wife and released each year on her birthday, May 23) — feeling it was important to have a trained enologist to ensure the wine was commercially viable.

Projects approved

Roofing: $15 to 18 million

Mechanical and HVAC: $7 to 10 million

Comstock Middle School/Cesar Chavez Language Academy expansion: $16 million

Montgomery High School classroom upgrades: $16 million

Piner High School stadium lights and improvements: $2 million

Maria Carrillo High School stadium improvements: $3 million

"I was ready for a new challenge," Simoneau said. "And we have the grapes."

Maine natives and childhood sweethearts, the Simoneaus started growing grapes in Alexander Valley in 1988, having bought a house with 10 acres of grapes in the valley's benchlands, just outside of Healdsburg.

"It made sense," said Brenda Simoneau. "We're planters, we grow as much food as we can and we always wanted to be grape growers."

Still, those early days were a challenge. The vineyard was planted to chenin blanc and chardonnay and though there were buyers for the grapes (Beringer and Clos du Bois among them), neither varietal was at its full potential.

The Simoneaus enrolled in Rich Thomas' popular viticulture class at Santa Rosa Junior College and enlisted the help of county agriculture advisor Rhonda Smith, who came out to the vineyard one day to take a look.

"Everyone would look at that chenin and say, &‘Man, this is good cabernet soil,'" Simoneau recalled. "And I go, &‘Yeah, I know. I'm growing chenin and I'm a cabernet guy.' Rhonda looks at the chardonnay and says you can pull it and plant tomatoes, or put your shoulder to the wheel, fertilize and irrigate, and it's going to take three to four years for it to come back where it should be."

They put their shoulders to the wheel.

"I'd be pushing the wheelbarrow and Brenda would be dropping fertilizer on each vine by hand," Simoneau said. "It was a labor of love, but we were young then and we had to do it."

They stabilized the chardonnay and eventually shifted the chenin blanc to Simoneau's beloved cabernet, selling grapes over the years to Silver Oak, Simi, Rodney Strong and Clos du Bois. Today the majority, about 20 tons, goes to Roth Winery, with 3 to 5 tons kept back for Simoneau to use.

"Brenda goes, you're drinking a $50 bottle of wine every night .<TH>.<TH>. What am I drinking?" Simoneau said. "Okay, we'll do a little chardonnay."

That Brenda Lee Chardonnay has been a hit, made in a lightly oaked, crisp style. It's even being served by the glass at the Playboy Mansion.

"I enjoy the chardonnay's minerality and balance, the length of finish on it. It's clean and refreshing with an excellent pedigree," said William Bloxsom-Carter, executive chef and food and beverage director for Playboy Mansion West, who first met Tom Simoneau as a fellow wine judge four years ago at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.

"People have high expectations when they come to the mansion," he added. "I'm excited and honored to serve Tom's wine. He's very meticulous, very focused."

Virginie Boone is a freelance wine writer based in Sonoma County. She can be reached at virginieboone@yahoo.com.

Show Comment