Skip to main content
You have permission to edit this article.
Zelma Long: A winemaker on the path less traveled

Zelma Long: A winemaker on the path less traveled

  • Updated
  • 0

Zelma Long is one of those people who seem to thrive on the path less traveled. Someone who, when asked why, replies “Why not?”

In 1968, Long decided against her intended career as a dietitian and entered the enology and viticulture program at UC Davis — one of the first women to do so. A year and a half later, she worked the harvest in Napa Valley and was offered a job as enologist at Robert Mondavi Winery. In 1973, Long further cracked the then male-dominated profession to become Mondavi’s chief enologist. During the next six years, Long garnered a reputation for being a pioneering and innovative force in the Napa Valley wine industry. Then, in 1989, Long broke another glass ceiling when she was named CEO of Simi Winery, becoming the first woman to head a California winery.

Today, after a winemaking career spanning four decades, Long has gone back to UC Davis to quench a different thirst. Sure, she is now 68. Never mind that she is still fully immersed in the wine business. And “why not” pursue an advanced degree in a subject that seems to have little to do with her celebrated expertise.

“I’m never one to think about the constraints,” Long said, “so I said to myself ‘I want to go and get a Ph.D. in art.’ Now, granted, I’ve never studied art, I don’t have a master’s degree in fine arts. I have none of the basis, you would think, for a Ph.D. in art.”

Nonetheless, in 2009 the indefatigable Long began working on an art Ph.D. in the relatively new field of Performance Studies. As the name implies, the discipline focuses on the study of the performance of widely varied activities as an art form.

“Performance Studies is extremely interesting,” Long said, “because it grew out of theater and dance but it’s now extremely broad. It deals a lot with what is called “embodied knowledge,” knowledge that’s not written down but knowledge that you learn, that your body learns and your mind learns — almost unconscious knowledge that we all have. Writers, photographers, artists have it. Looking through a performance lens you could say that I performed wine-making.”

Indeed, Long’s performance as a winemaker and industry leader is a study in itself. Her wine career began in the early 1960s after meeting her first husband, Bob Long, when she was interning as a dietitian at a Bay Area hospital. The two married after she graduated from Oregon State in 1965, about the time that her new in-laws bought property on Pritchard Hill east of St. Helena, planning to plant a vineyard.

“After I graduated,” Long said, “I did a dietetic internship at UC Medical Center (San Francisco) and then (worked) a year at the Alameda County Hospital in Oakland. Then I decided that that was not the career for me because, at that time nobody thought that nutrition was important. So it really wasn’t that much fun, and I thought, well if they (Bob’s parents) are going to have a vineyard maybe I’ll go to school and learn winemaking.”

She was accepted in the masters program at UC Davis in 1968. As she was preparing to return to school in 1970, Long got a call from Mike Grgich, who was then winemaker at Robert Mondavi.

“He asked if I’d like to come work harvest, which I did and it was incredibly fun,” she said. “That was how it happened. It was serendipity but I was prepared from an educational perspective to be able to go into winemaking fairly easily.”

After playing a key role at Mondavi during the 1970s Napa Valley wine boom, Long crossed the mountain in 1979 to become winemaker at Simi Winery in Healdsburg. A decade later, she was named CEO of Simi, then a subsidiary of Moet Hennessey. During her tenure at Simi, she spearheaded modernization of the historic winery brand by upgrading the winemaking process and acquiring new vineyards. After leaving the Simi post in 1996, Long returned to Napa Valley as executive vice president of Chandon Estates, another Moet Hennessey subsidiary.

But Long’s legacy in California’s wine industry extends beyond the barrel and boardrooms. In 1978, she founded the American Vineyard Foundation as a means to finance research in enology and viticulture. Long has also served or headed many other industry organizations through the years and received a long list of professional commendations, including the James Beard Award and the Outstanding Alumni award from UC Davis. She has also mentored or inspired a slough of today’s winemakers, many of them women.

In 1990, Long and her husband, Phil Freese – another Robert Mondavi alumni and famed Napa Valley viticulturist – were invited to South Africa to speak at a technical conference. Despite the apartheid-related strife, the two quickly became enamored by the country.

“We were there the month before Nelson Mandela was released from prison,” Long said, “just to put it in a social/political perspective.”

After a few more trips to the cape, Long and Freese were approached in 1997 by a South African winemaker interested in developing a vineyard and winery.

“We fell in love with South Africa from the standpoint of the cape,” Long said — “the very old soils — very different from ours — and the marine environment, the two oceans impacting the wine country. We thought, ‘You know, you could make great wine here.’”

The two were also intrigued by the idea of creating their own vineyard and winery from the ground up.

“I think most winemakers have in their hearts the desire to make their own wine,” Long said, “and we did. Knowing my time at Simi was coming to an end and that we’d always wanted to make wine elsewhere we thought, yeah, let’s do that.”

Long and Freese, and South African Mike Ratcliffe created Vilafonte, purchasing 100 acres in the Paarl region east of Cape Town. Freese directed the planting of a 40-acre vineyard of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot and malbec. The first vintage was harvested in 2003 and in 2007 Vilafonte opened its winery designed by Long in the town of Stellenbosch.

“It’s an urban winery,” Long said, “and we bought a flat right across the street from it so we go two or three times a year. We spend about three months a year in South Africa.”

Long said that she and Freese recognized early on the close similarities and big differences between the Paarl region and the Napa Valley.

“Cape Town is much like San Francisco. It has a small center with a wide diaspora,” she said. “It’s a port, and it has this fog bank that moves in like in San Francisco. And it has a deep European history in addition to an African history so it’s so interesting.”

Wine production in the cape region predates American wine production by 300 years, Long said, and the area is also rich in other agriculture.

“Our (Vilafonte’s) soils are very, very old clay with very tiny rocks in them,” she said. “We have, in our vineyard, stone-age tools that range from about three-quarters-of-a-million to one-and-a-half-million years old. You’re going along and you see this stone … and it makes you think. It almost gives you the shivers.”

After decades in the wine business, the South African venture, Long said, has invigorated both her and Freese.

“We wanted to take a piece of ground somewhere else in a new fine wine-growing environment and start from the ground up,” she said. “We (wanted to) plant our own vineyard, oversee the growing of the vines in such a way to make really fine wine and then do the wine making and the sales. It’s been incredibly gratifying and extremely fun.”

Back in California, Long serves as consulting winemaker for labels in Mendocino County, Washington state, Israel and France. Preparing for a trip to South Africa for Vilafonte’s harvest in January, Long noted that she and Freese have settled into the role of dual-hemisphere vintners.

“It’s been an unexpected benefit to be able leave an area that has short days and go to nice, sunny weather,” she said. “We make wine year- around.”

During all of this globetrotting, Long has managed to make time to chip away at her Ph.D. in art, which she plans to complete in the next few years.

“I drive over to Davis twice a week,” she said of her scholarly commute. “I drive four hours to go to a three-hour class. You don’t even think about the logic of it, you just do it. And if you keep doing it, pretty soon you’re making real serious progress.”

“I’ve always had this other interest in art,” she continued, “and to some extent the creative part of winemaking dovetails with that. And I thought at one point – because I like to get deep into things — that if I don’t go back to school and study art I’ll miss the opportunity.”

The opportunity presented itself during a chance meeting with the UC Davis Performance Studies department head, who suggested that Long study art “through the performance lens.” Now four years into the program, Long is narrowing that lens to focus on Native American art, a subject that has captivated her since childhood.

“I’m a Sagittarius,” Long said. “I have a December birth date and my mother gave me a turquoise and silver bracelet because turquoise is the December stone. So I developed kind of an interest in turquoise jewelry and it’s sort of grown into a larger interest in Native American Art.”

For her dissertation, Long said she plans to study the performance of Native American artists who have a family lineage of creating art.

“I’m looking at a family of Native American artists that has about a 100-year history of artists within that lineage. To see how being in a family (of artists) has influenced what they do.”

She said that, like fine wine, artists and their craft are influenced and shaped greatly by external forces such as how they were raised, living environment and personal connections. Long hopes to study how these influences affect the creative process and the performance of the artist.

“I consider myself an artist with wine but it’s not my desire to actually do art,” she said, “I’m more interested in artists. I think art is so extraordinary. Where does it come from? What is it about people that allows them to sit down and produce something?”

Asked if her study of art is an escape from the day-to-day stresses of the wine business, she said it is instead a natural extension.

“I think in life you never want to go away from something,” she said, “you want to go towards something. It’s much more creative. I didn’t go (back) to school to get away from wine. I went to get more in-depth knowledge about art.”

This story has been corrected. Long no longer works at Long Vineyards in any capacity. The vineyard closed in 2006, according to Long.

Be the first to know

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

Most Popular

  • Updated

Merlot is not lying low anymore. If the #MerlotMe movement has anything to do with it, the much-maligned variety will rise like a phoenix.

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.


News Alerts

Breaking News