By Christina Kelly
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
“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
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.”
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.
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
“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
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
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
“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
“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.”
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.