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Zelma Long

“ Northwest Native Zelma Long Returns to Her Roots
As Wine Consultant”

 


By Christina Kelly
Avalon Editor/Writer

Zelma Long may have left Oregon after she graduated from Oregon State University in the 1960’s, but the winemaker’s roots run deep in the Northwest and part of her never left.

In fact, Long returns frequently to Washington and Oregon, serving as a consultant to winemakers looking for an expert palate and the know-how to grow the best fruit possible.

She recently declared Eastern Washington Merlot grapes as among the best in the world.

Now in her 60s, Long’s career in the wine industry spans more than 30 years, including a stint as Robert Mondavi’s chief enologist for 10 years in the 1970s. In 1979, she became vice president of winemaking at Simi Winery and revitalized the 100-year-old winery, later becoming its president and CEO. Before she retired in 1999, she served as executive vice president of Chandon Estates.

For nearly 30 years, Zelma and her ex-husband Bob Long ran Long Vineyards in the hills of St. Helena in the Napa Valley. Both Zelma and Bob have remarried, and continue to run the winery together along with their spouses.

Return to the Northwest

Retirement brought Long back to the Northwest, although one would hardly refer to her schedule as retirement. In addition to consulting for Northwest winemakers, Long and her husband Phillip Freese started Zelphi, a wine company making wine in Germany and South Africa, and consulting in Israel and California.

“I’ve followed the Northwest wine industry every since I got into the wine business,” Long said recently while judging a wine competition in Salem, OR. “I grew up in The Dalles and graduated from OSU in general science. I’ve always been very interested in what the wine industry was doing in Oregon and Washington.”

Long says she likes the spirit of winemakers in the Northwest, most of whom are eager to learn and have a commitment to producing quality wine.

Abeja Winery

Her Northwest clients include a new winery, Abeja (ah-bay-ha) in Walla Walla, producing small lots of premium Cabernet Sauvignon and even smaller amounts of Viognier and Chardonnay.

Winemaker John Abbott, who left Canoe Ridge (owned by the Chalon Group) in Walla Walla last year to create Abeja Winery, is a veteran winemaker with extensive experience in enology and viticulture. He spent 10 years as winemaker for Canoe Ridge, three years as enologist for Acacia Winery and a season with Pine Ridge.

When he partnered with Ken and Ginger Harrison to create a winery and bed and breakfast, Long was already on board as a consultant to the Harrisons, who wanted to produce wine.

“Zelma was already working with Ken in the vineyards,” Abbott recalled. “I saw no reason to change that. Having her experience has been extremely beneficial to us. She has an incredible palate and she doesn’t sugarcoat her opinions. She has been invaluable.”

Worldwide Consulting

With an international reputation and enough awards to buckle any trophy shelf, Long is surprisingly unpretentious and matter-of-fact. She quite easily fits in the vineyard, rubbing soil through her fingers in blue jeans and a straw hat, talking the language of farmers.

Traveling the world as a consultant, Long is just as comfortable at a ritzy European reception, having quiet conversations with third and fourth generations winemakers from the royal winemaking families.

Bookwalter Winery

Her style made it easy for John Bookwalter to become an ardent student. Bookwalter joined his father’s Columbia Valley winery in 1997, after years in marketing and beverage sales. Although involved with the Richland, WA winery since its inception in 1983, Bookwalter had no formal training.

“She’s become the coach, and I’m her quarterback,” Bookwalter said. “Zelma was a huge bridge in my learning curve—the spanner, helping you get from one place to another.”

Her easy style made it comfortable for Bookwalter as they toured vineyards, spent time in blending trials and discussed growing techniques and strategies. Bookwalter learned more about which yeasts to use and developed a barrel program that suited the style of wines he wanted to make.

“In the past, I think our style was more rustic,” Bookwalter said. “With Zelma’s help, our current style is much more developed and sophisticated. We’ve created a completely different style of wine and converted the winery to 100 percent French oak.

“All of this has occurred under her guidance. We were Zelma’s first consulting client and we’re very proud of our association with her.”

Long’s Longevity

At a time when women were scarce in the production end of winemaking, Long was only the second woman in history to enroll for her master’s degree in oenology at the University of California, Davis, and the only woman in her class.

In the mid-1960s, she worked briefly as a dietician and soon realized she didn’t like the job.

After she married Bob Long, her in-laws started a winery in the Napa Valley and the couple decided to help with the project. Thus began Long Vineyards.

During her time in the trenches, Long didn’t think too much about trailblazing for the women to come. Even now, she doesn’t dwell on being a role model, although admits that she was involved in hiring the first tier of women winemakers in the 1970s and 1980s.

“In my own way, I’ve been mentoring women for years,” Long said. “However, I believe that most young professional women today don’t feel the same constraints as they might have in the 1970s.”

The Northwest Wine Industry

Long watched as the Northwest built its wine foundation and exploded on the world wide wine scene. In the beginning, Long said it was a slow, tedious process, and then suddenly, the industry found itself in a rapid growing curve.

“I’ve been incredibly impressed by the grapes grown in Washington,” Long said. “The raw material is excellent.”

Long said that Eastern Washington Merlot is far superior to what is produced in the Napa Valley and in the United States.

“It is exceptional and I think it rates very high in the world—number one or two,” she added.

She is impressed with Northwest Syrah, especially in Southern Oregon and Eastern Washington. One of her clients, Cuneo Cellars, is producing Syrah from Del Rio Vineyards in Southern Oregon.

Gino Cuneo, winemaker/owner, located in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, said Long’s assistance has been instrumental in improving his blends and the direction of his winery. Cuneo produces Bordeaux style blends, Pinot Noir, Syrah and a few Italian varieties, such as Nebbiolo.

At Buty Winery, in Walla Walla, Long consults on growing and blending Chardonnay. She also works with Connor Lee Vineyards in the Columbia Valley, advising on growing techniques.

Besides her Northwest consulting work, which brings her home every few months, she makes a few trips each year to Israel, South Africa and Germany, advising on the production of ultra premium wines that she says are under-developed or under-appreciated.

“With her involvement in the world wide wine industry, she brings a lot of credibility to the wine industry of Washington and Oregon,” said John Abbott. “We’re excited to have her.”

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Author Christina Kelly worked as a newspaper reporter on the West Coast for more than 20 years covering education, public safety, government, business, environmental issues, entertainment and minority affairs. During the same time, the Washington native began her lifelong interest in wine. After two decades in the news reporting business, Christina decided it was time to concentrate on her passion – the wine industry. She is our indispensable staff writer and columnist.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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