One of the more enjoyable things about living in wine country is taking a moment to appreciate the scents that fill the air: lavender in the summer, citrus flowers in the spring, and rosemary all year long. We came across a fellow lover of scents last year at an event and have been smitten ever since. Wine Country Botanicals's elegant exterior matches the equally beautiful scents that fill the soaps, candles, scrubs and lotions from this local gem. With a choice of three signature scents, Napa, Sonoma or Santa Barbara, each one evokes a very fragrant part of California wine country.
We sat down with Nicole Simpkins to hear how she likes to spend her harvest season and why she founded Wine Country Botanicals.
Q: What are your favorite wine country harvest rituals?
A: I moved to Sonoma County, Chalk Hill Road on August 1, 2000. I had been in love with the wine business since the late 80’s and having my little cottage in the vineyards was a dream come true. At that time our manufacturing facilities at Lancaster Estate were about 100 feet from my front door. Fast forward to my last year on the property…2009…we had built a winery, a cave and a house on the hill. Oh, and we had twin daughters- vintage 2004.
I’m not sure who started it, but our ritual at Lancaster Estate was to celebrate the beginning of harvest with our neighbor Gene dressed up in toga gear, throwing some wine on the sorting table and saying some kind of prayer to the Grape Gods, with every employee enjoying a glass of Dom Perignon.
My nickname with the harvest crew was Nicki the Rake because I was the first one to volunteer to rake the fruit from the bin to the sorting table. I stood on a 6 foot ladder and raked the fruit, as gently and as evenly as I could from a half ton bin onto the sorting table where the rocks and the leaves and the bugs would be discarded and the fruit sent off with love into the hopper. After five harvests, I was finally given the title of Raking Master.
Now that I have kids, harvest time coincides with Back to School and all the fun fall activities life with kids brings. One of my favorite things to do is dress up for Halloween with the family and head to downtown Healdsburg. The shopkeepers dress up and hand out candy and the community comes together. As life goes on and people head in different directions, this is one thing that brings us back together.
There is SO much energy around here during harvest! The roads are filled with trucks transporting fruit, the kids are headed back to school, and our guests from near and far come to be part of the action - it is absolutely my favorite time of year. The sun sets a little earlier, the days are a little cooler and it seems magic is happening
Q: Top three wine county restaurants and why?
A: Willis Seafood, Healdsburg: Lunch or dinner, cocktails at the bar or dinner at the table, Wednesday lunch or Saturday dinner…this restaurant DOES. NOT. FAIL. Food, service, ambience….YES!
John Ash, Santa Rosa: I celebrated my engagement, the news of my pregnancy and many other special occasions at this restaurant. Special place in my heart but, again this restaurant never fails. Menu items feature local vendors and seasonal specials, an incredible wine list and service that is spot on.
Campo Fina, Healdsburg: Dressed up for a girls lunch or just getting done with a bike ride this is my SPOT! Sit outside (especially in the fall when the weather is perfect), order the burrata cheese plate, a Campari Spritz and go from there. Bocci court on site if you really want to make a day of it!
Q: Being a longtime local, what are some hidden gems you can share?
Arista Winery - Located on Westside Road in Healdsburg, this little gem of a property is run by the McWilliams family and the property has not only vineyards but a beautiful garden that they use to source seasonal food for their wine pairing dishes. There is even a brood of American Heritage hens! This is the old school classic vineyard lifestyle made of many people’s dreams. Their standards for food, wine and service are impeccable so you get the coziness of family with the experience of a five star hotel.
Spud Point Crab Company in Bodega Bay - Yep this place is a little touristy but my goodness the clam chowder is amazing! The vibe is quintessential Bodega Bay (not fluffy and kind of down and dirty) but sitting at a picnic table, meeting new friends and smelling the ocean breeze while eating FRESH seafood is a moment for the memory books.
Noble Folk Ice Cream and Pie Bar in Healdsburg - Pick your favorite flavor - they are house made and change daily. Then head across the street to the Healdsburg Square. It sounds cheesy but you WILL be transported back in time.
Q: What made you start Wine Country Botanicals, and how does terroir influence your line?
A: I had fallen in love with wine in my early twenties and knew very clearly it’s what I wanted to do with my life. While the early part of my career was spent in wine sales and marketing, I met a man, fell in love and next thing you knew we were building a winery - Lancaster Estate - together. We lived in a small cottage on the property and I couldn’t have been happier. Being able to watch the vineyards change throughout the seasons and having the opportunity to experience winemaking from grape to glass in my own backyard was an education that I will forever appreciate.
I discovered essential oils, in part out of a desire to keep my kids healthy in a natural way. The idea of using plants to heal our bodies seemed like a no brainer and the more I studied, the more I realized wine and essential oils had a lot in common. Whether we are talking about terroir, blending, ageing or processing methods - the concepts were the same whether we were talking about grapes or herbs.
The passion I had for wine easily translated to essential oils and, of course I wanted to share my enthusiasm with the world so I started Wine Country Botanicals - a line of bath and body products using wine country inspired and locally sourced ingredients. It has been really fun working with lavender growers in Sonoma, Napa and Santa Barbara. Their struggles are the same that we had at Lancaster Estate: being at the mercy of Mother Nature can be quite challenging!
One of my favorite moments on this journey has been sharing a “lavender experience” with consumers. Like a wine tasting, we line up the lavender from our different growers and smell how different they are. Our Sonoma grower has a cooler environment and a rockier soil as compared to our Napa grower; our growers have different size farms and farming methodoliges; they have different ageing and blending methods. You might be quite surprised that each lavender has a distinct aroma and if you are one of those people who is great at blind tasting this is a really fun exercise.
We also use winemaking concepts within the WCB brand, specifically the idea that “blending is better.” It is really rare to find a bottled wine that is 100% of a certain varietal because part of what makes a wine good is BALANCE and 100% of anything oftentimes lacks balance. When I created our essential oil blends I knew that lavender was great, but lavender with other essential oils that provided different sensory notes and different skin care benefits would be even better. I was able to use my expertise in knowing a good wine blend to find a good essential oil blend - one that was therapeutic for your mind AND your body.