Ab Simon, Bordeaux Importer, Dies at 88

Immigrant founded Seagram’s import arm and became leading source of premium French wine

Ab Simon, the most influential and successful importer of Bordeaux wines to the U.S., died on New Year’s Day. He was 88.

From the 1970s through the end of the century, Simon dominated the American market for the great wines of Bordeaux, first at importer Austin Nichols, then, beginning in 1974, as chairman of Seagram’s Château & Estate Wines Co., which he ran until retiring in 1999. In 1988, Simon imported more than one in every five bottles of Bordeaux’s five first-growths, according to the New York Times.

Abdallah H. Simon (or «Ab» as he became known) was born in Baghdad, Iraq, in 1922, and attended American University in Beirut. He emigrated to the U.S. in 1944 and served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army in occupied Germany. After his discharge in 1946, he moved to New York, where he worked with his older brother David in the textile business and met and married his wife, Francine Iny.

In the early 1950s, Simon took a job with a small food-and-wine importer in New York, moving to Austin Nichols, an established wine importer and distributor, in 1965. In 1974, the Bronfman family recruited him to create a wine-importing arm within Seagram & Sons Inc., their massive spirits business. Soon, Seagram Château & Estate Wines Co. became the major player in the U.S. market for French wines, especially classified-estate Bordeaux.

In 1980, the French government awarded him the Legion of Honor medal to recognize his contributions to the French wine industry. In 1987, Simon earned Wine Spectator’s Distinguished Service Award.

“Ab Simon was a brilliant star in the wine sky,” said Marvin R. Shanken, chairman of M. Shanken Communications and editor and publisher of Wine Spectator. “More than that, he was kind, intelligent and the epitome of goodness. He will be greatly missed.”

In 1996, on the occasion of Wine Spectator’s 20th anniversary, Simon reflected on his time in the wine trade. “From my vantage point, the past 20 years in the world of wine haven’t had a single turning point as much as they have had a single touchstone—quality. Virtually every bottle of wine produced and consumed today is significantly better than its predecessor in 1976. Technological and scientific advances have benefited grapegrowing and winemaking just as they have every other aspect of our lives. And Bordeaux has never ceded its pre-eminence because the great châteaus keep raising the standard for all the world’s top red wines.”

After his retirement, Simon involved himself in philanthropy. He championed many causes in Israel, among them the Tel Aviv Foundation and Hebrew University, and was involved with several other charitable activities. Besides his wife, Simon is survived by his sons Jamil and Michael, a granddaughter and two sisters, Rachel Sopher and Juliette Elias.

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