Zelma Long of Vilafonte
Illustration by Barbara Spurll
Wine Enthusiast Advocacy Issue Logo

One of best-known winemakers in the world, Long has been an icon of the vine and inspiration to many for decades. This pioneer in the California wine scene was one of the first women to study oenology and viticulture at University of California, Davis, in the late 1960s.

Her winemaking career started at Robert Mondavi Winery in Napa Valley, where she worked for a decade and rose through the ranks to become the winery’s chief enologist.

In 1979, Long was recruited as winemaker for Simi Winery in Sonoma County. During her 18-year tenure, she became president and CEO of the winery, which made her the first woman to assume senior management of a California winery.

In 1997, Long established Vilafonté winery in South Africa, where she focuses on high-quality Bordeaux-style red blends. She has also consulted for numerous wineries worldwide, including in France and Israel, and founded and was the first president of the nonprofit American Vineyard Foundation (AVF).

Why did you want to become a winemaker?

I decided to enroll in the UC Davis enology and viticulture studies after my in-laws bought property on Pritchard Hill, Napa Valley, in the mid-’60s and planted Chardonnay and Riesling.

I was a science graduate, a practicing dietitian and decided to put my science and interest in food to a different direction.

“I continue to mentor young women in all fields…suggesting education, including travel, problem solving and encouraging belief and confidence in one’s skills and abilities.” –Zelma Long

What is your proudest achievement?

I have two. Number one: hiring and mentoring and encouraging young women. Many early women winemakers had worked for me.

Diane Kenworthy, who worked with me at Simi as viticulturist, became the first woman president of the American Society for Enology and Viticulture. Dawnine Dyer became the long-term winemaker at Domaine Chandon. Genevieve Janssens became the first [woman] winemaker of Opus One. And so on.

I continue to mentor young women in all fields, when the opportunity presents itself, suggesting education, including travel, problem solving and encouraging belief and confidence in one’s skills and abilities.

Second is Vilafonté. With my husband, Phil Freese, we conceived of creating a wine of international significance, starting with buying land in South Africa, planting Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Malbec.

We acquired a local partner and 22 years on, our 2016 Series C this year won the Bordeaux Trophy in the Six Nations Wine challenge, an annual competition of New World countries.

Three partners, all stars in their area of expertise: me, winemaking; Phil, winegrowing; Mike Ratcliffe, wine sales and marketing. Very fun. I recently read a quote that applies here: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go with others.”

What was the most surprising experience or encounter you’ve had as a female winemaker?

The most unexpected and wonderful experience in growing and making wine is to see clearly, through the wine, the impact of terroir, and to experience, through blending, the nuance of flavors and balance, where small volumes, one or two percent, can alter the aromas and palate significantly, in a way undetectable by current chemistry—a tribute to our nose and palate, their perception and sensitivity and to the brain, which integrates it all.

What is your advice to someone interested in entering the wine business?

It helps if you are interested in agriculture, love nature and being outdoors, are fascinated by this ancient liquid, are attracted to the taste and nuances of wine, and want a complex life because wine encompasses science, agriculture, soils, sensory perception.

It is international, it is historical, it is endlessly varied, it is social. In short, it is fascinating.