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.