Balance and Bouquet

Over the course of more than three decades, Sam Simon and his family researched and built a winery that today is savored by critics and connoisseurs alike.
Simon family in front of grapes.
Sam and Nada Simon, and their twin sons, Michael and Peter, have each played a role in winemaking — including the selection of varietals and fruit, the fermentation process, and bottling design and distribution — at Simon Family Estate in Napa Valley. // Photo by Suzanne Becker Bronk

Sam Simon’s journey from developing an appreciation for wine to establishing Simon Family Estate, a well-regarded winery in Napa Valley, took him all over the world — Italy, France, specifically Bordeaux and Burgundy, the Mendoza region of Argentina, and various wine regions in California.

Simon, who at a younger age had developed a taste for cognac, namely Hennessey, says he encountered his first “true” bottle of wine in the late 1980s while buying diesel in New York City for Atlas Oil, a fuel distribution company in Taylor he established in 1985 with one truck and a driver — namely, himself.

“I was meeting with one of our suppliers, the Koch family, and following our discussions they took our small group out to dinner and they opened up a bottle of wine, and I remember just loving it,” says Simon, founder and chairman of Simon Group Holdings in downtown Birmingham, which today includes Atlas Oil, Simon Sports, Soaring Pine Capital, and Canopy Insurance Group, as well as partnerships with two aerospace businesses, ETI Tech and Starwin Industries.

“I even took the cork home. From there, I began educating myself. I would learn about the different grapes, different soils, different elevations. Basically, I learned everything I could, and how to do winemaking with best practices, develop a palate, and really listen to and learn from the experts.”

The bottle that kindled his passion was a 1982 Beringer “Private Reserve” Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. The vintage Simon enjoyed that night at dinner in New York City, from one of the few wineries born in Napa Valley when Jacob and Frederick Beringer set roots across 215 acres in 1875, showed, according to its producer, “clarity of fruit concentration with aromatic violets on the nose, cherry, spice and mint flavors, and considerable tannin.”

Maayan Koschitzky — winemaker at Simon Family Estate and director of winemaking for Philippe Melka, a wine consulting firm in Napa Valley — and Simon source fruit from pedigreed vineyards to craft small-production, luxury wines. // Photo by Anastasia Blackman

In a place where seemingly every square inch has been scored for its elevation, soil, sunlight, and climate, securing prime land to grow grapes in Napa Valley isn’t a walk in the park. What’s more, while Simon envisioned producing his own wine in the region one day, he wasn’t going to rush.

“People have been making wine and spirits for centuries, so that tells you that patience is called for,” he says. “If I was going to put our family name on something, it better be of the highest quality, otherwise why do it? I wanted to create something special and, as it turned out, bring my family into the process.”

As he learned more about the business and pondered his next move, Simon followed a suggestion and was invited to join The Napa Valley Reserve, a private club of winemakers that’s made up of some 600 couples from 37 states and 16 countries. In addition to enjoying their shared passions together, members can create wines they can call their own on small plots spread across 80 acres.

In 2003, Simon secured five rows of vines at The Reserve that he and his family — his wife, Nada, and twin boys, Michael and Peter — cared for throughout the growing season before learning to pick, crush, and destem the grapes, and select the French oak for barrels prior to bottling and labeling. In the first year, they produced around 30 cases of cabernet sauvignon that they would enjoy themselves or give away as gifts.

Simon Reserve bottle
Simon Reserve bottle

In 2017, as the family continued to produce wine, Simon met Maayan Koschitzky, the director of winemaking for Philippe Melka, a prestigious wine consulting company in Napa Valley specializing in small-batch, handcrafted wines. Gathering for the first time over dinner, the pair became immediate friends, “almost like brothers,” Koschitzky says.

After growing up on a produce farm in Israel, Koschitzky attended the University of Tel Aviv in pursuit of a degree in mechanical engineering, which led him to focus on wine equipment. During his studies, he became an intern at a winery and, from there, he never looked back.

First drawn to Napa Valley 20 years ago, the young winemaker learned the craft by joining Screaming Eagle Winery, followed by Dalla Valle Vineyards, before taking on his current role. As Forbes magazine noted last November: “Koschitzky is one of the most highly regarded winemaking consultants in the valley.”

As the dinner went into the wee hours, Simon and Koschitzky decided to take the family’s winemaking prowess to another level, and Simon Family Estate was born. In 2019, the estate produced 80 cases of Simon Family Estate Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, which was aged in new French oak.

The wine, now available for sale, “over-delivers on its $125 price tag with beautiful dark fruit (made up of) complex aromas of blackberry, plum, spice, and earth, (which) give way to a fine-textured palate with appealing acidity,” according to a recent article in the Robb Report.

“When I first met Sam and his family, you could tell they were very passionate about wine, and I really saw it as a journey of fun,” Koschitzky says. “We get together every few months, and if one of us calls the other, we call back right away. Everyone agrees we want the winery to be here for 100 years and beyond.”

While 2019 proved to be a good year for winemaking in the valley, no wine was produced the following year, due to the fires that swept through the region. The next year brought better weather and the return of production, while 2022 saw a severe heat wave in early September. As a result, last year’s output was 1,500 cases.

During its first four years, Simon Family Estate has spread its wings, debuting a 2021 Tigress Rosé of Grenache, which is favored by Nada, along with a 2019 Golden Ore Sauvignon Blanc, a 2019 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, and for the Simon twins, Double Blessings — two distinct cabernets that reflect each son’s personality.

“We’re working on a cabernet Franc, and Michael will be staying in Napa for three months following (spring) graduation from college to better learn the wine business,” Simon says. “What I would say overall about our shared passions (is) where else but America could you see two immigrant families from the Middle East come together to make wine?”

As a final toast, and taking license with the famous Paul Masson commercial starring Orson Welles, Simon hopes his family’s wines are enjoyed as a cherished pastime, all manner of playtime, and most of all, for peacetime.