Life Lessons with winemaker Zelma Long

Pioneering American winemaker and Vilafonté co-founder Zelma Long on her wish to host a dinner party for the ‘women of the world’, her passion for the arts and the sciences, and how she’s never been happier in life than now

Words by Adam Lechmere

zelma long

Zelma Long is one of the world’s most experienced winemakers. Born in Oregon in 1945, she worked at the top level in California before founding the Stellenbosch winery Vilafonté in 1997.

In the early 1970s Long was enrolled in the school of oenology and viticulture at UC Davis when she was headhunted by Mike Grgich, who was then head of winemaking at Robert Mondavi Winery. By 1973 she was Mondavi’s head oenologist; she moved to Simi in the Alexander Valley in 1979, becoming head winemaker and then CEO, a position she held until 1996.

Her list of awards – including James Beard Wine Professional of the Year – is impressive; her impact on the wine industry, particularly in the US, where she founded  the American Vineyard Foundation, and the American Viticulture and Enology Research Network, more so. In the course of her career she has consulted in countries and regions as diverse as Israel, Germany, the Rhône valley, the Pacific Northwest and South Africa.

vilafonte partners and zelma long
Zelma Long (centre) with her husband Phil Freese (right), and their Vilafonté business partner Mike Ratcliffe (left)

She is an equal partner in Vilafonté, along with her husband the viticulturalist Phil Freese, and South African Mike Ratcliffe, who was managing director of his family’s Warwick Estate when the three met. Their ambition was to create a ‘South African wine that would sit comfortably on the tables of the greatest restaurants in the world,’ in Ratcliffe’s words.

Vilafonté is a Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Malbec from a 42ha estate on the bench of the Simonsberg Mountains, whose ancient soils, called vilafontes, produce wines recognised as among the best in South Africa. From the start, Long, Freese and Ratcliffe agreed on sharp focus: they would separate their responsibilities in the vineyard (Freese), the winery (Long) and sales and marketing (Ratcliffe), and ‘we would work only from our own vineyard and neither buy nor sell grapes.’ Vilafonté – which won IWSC Red Wine Producer of the Year 2021 – has amply fulfilled the dream of its founders.

Vilafonté Series C 2017, which earned a Silver Medal from the IWSC in 2021

Now well into her seventies, Zelma Long is ‘winding down her consultancies’ to concentrate on the project. But wine, a vital part of her life, is by no means her only interest. She’s also just completed a PhD in Performance, with a particular interest in Native American studies. Her dissertation was on a six-generation family of Hopi artists – potters and sculptors – going back to the mid-1850s. She and Freese are serious art collectors (their Native American art collection is earmarked for permanent loan to the Gorman Museum at UC Davis). Indeed, there’s something of the artist manqué about the veteran winemaker. As she says below, she envies her designer friends their ‘streak of creativity’.

Blending can be taught, but the way you put things together is an art, and that is where my creativity resides

When she was deciding on which course her life might take, science won: she was always fascinated by ‘biochemistry, and biology and molecular biology’. But her creative urges too are satisfied by winemaking. ‘Blending can be taught, but the way you put things together is an art, and that is where my creativity resides. When I’m tasting I’m in another world, totally engrossed in how to taste, and how the different parts might go together.’

Winemakers frequently talk about how they are not owners but stewards of the land, cherishing it for the generations to come. Long speaks of art in the same way. It has ‘a sense of responsibility to it,’ she says. ‘You may own it, but you are also a keeper of the work, and it will move on. It has a history and a life that transcends yours.’ And like the Hopi potters, who understand intimately the properties of the different clays available to them, the winemaker has to understand the biology of vine and the grape in order to get the best from them. ‘Science allows you to discover new things. This is what makes the Vilafonté project so deeply satisfying.’

Read on for Zelma Long’s life lessons…

What was your childhood ambition?

My ambition evolved when I found my calling, in my twenties. Before that, my desires were to have friends, to explore new sights, to be active, to ride my horse; to achieve good grades, visit our forest campsite, spend summertime in a houseboat. I also hoped to be able to go overseas once in my life. My goal was to make the most of who and what I was.

What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you were 21? 

That life is long, and it offers many opportunities.

What exercise do you do?

For 30 years I have worked with a personal trainer, at home, once or twice a week, doing what she felt was appropriate for me at the time. I also do Pilates when the opportunity presents itself; I love this discipline. I should walk more.

What is the character trait you most wish you could change in yourself?

I would like to add that larger streak of creativity that I see in my artist and designer friends. With regards to ‘change’, at my age one is accepting of oneself and has a big context for the world of people, personalities, and traits. I particularly value beauty and integrity.

zelma long and mike
Zelma Long and Mike Ratcliffe enjoying the finer things in life

What is the most expensive thing you’ve ever bought (apart from property)?

Art. A few works were expensive when I bought them; one became expensive when it was sold. That piece, a beautiful 18th century Tibetan thanka [a traditional Buddhist painting on cotton or silk] was not particularly expensive when we purchased it. When we sold it at Christie’s we made enough to pay off our mortgage.

If you could live anywhere, where would it be and why?

I have been blessed to live in great places: The Dalles, my birthplace on the Columbia River in Oregon; Berkeley, San Francisco, Napa Valley, Healdsburg in Sonoma, Stellenbosch in South Africa, and Santa Fe in New Mexico. All are culturally rich, with beautiful landscapes and mild climates. I prefer to live in small towns or small cities, I need nature and greenery. I know there are many places in the world that meet these criteria and if I could, I would live in each of them for a year.

If you could do any other job, what would it be and why?

I could have enjoyed scientific research if it involved nature or agriculture. I majored in general science and am inclined that way, due to the potential for discovery. I found agriculture, and particularly viticulture, to be fascinating; to see all the different ways a crop outcome could be flavour-influenced; to see the relationship between the site and the food or wine flavours. That linkage, between the ‘terroir’ and the food flavour outcome, needs more understanding and appreciation. I could work on that.

What luxury item would you take with you to a desert island (apart from wine, whisky or spirits)?

I am not sure luxury items are suited to a desert island. I would take superlative bread and magnificent cheeses. And some books that would add to my understanding of the world and its people. Two of those books might be Home Deus, a Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari, and The End of the Myth by Greg Grandin.

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Zelma Long: 'I have been an early leader and supporter for women in wine'

What haven’t you yet achieved that you want to?

Wow. What a question. I have had a great wine career, based in California but working in many countries. I have been an early leader and supporter for women in wine. I have had a small, fine Chardonnay winery in the Napa Valley. My most satisfying achievement is the creation of Vilafonté in South Africa and its development over 25 years, making delicious red wines. I have an undergraduate degree in science and a PhD in the humanities (Performance of Art, Native American studies). And I have a wonderful, loving, brilliant partner and husband. I am blessed. What next? Caring for my body (walking, hiking, yoga, Pilates etc), my health, expanding my mind; certainly, exploration of the world figures large.

If you were king or queen of the world, what’s the first law you would enact?

I would like to see a deep appreciation of and respect for all cultures and genders, and development of their individual talents and skills. I would like to see healthy masculinity without the need for war, violence and extreme aggressiveness to bolster it. I’m afraid, though, that I don’t believe any laws could achieve this goal.

Who would you invite to your fantasy dinner party – and why?

I would like a dinner party that would explore what the women of the world are currently achieving, so:  a great woman writer, a successful politician (a Nancy Pelosi); two research scientists, one studying the universe, one studying the human brain; two women artists in different fields of art; a financial expert and leader in her field, and a spiritual leader who could bring an intuitive sense to the table.

What’s your guilty pleasure?

Chocolate. And I don’t feel guilty about it.

What’s your secret talent?

Flower arranging.

When were you happiest?

Now. Consider all the wonderful places I have lived; a list of accomplishments; deep satisfaction for an enriched life; a wealth of experiences; financially comfortable but not rich; a small but wonderful circle of friends built up over decades; 30 years with a superb partner and husband. And finally, all the beauty I have seen in my life.

zelma long with partner mike and husband phil
Freese, Long and Ratcliffe (left to right)

Whom do you most admire?

Einstein, because, so long ago, he could see the makeup of the universe in ways we are still discovering and confirming. An extraordinary mind. And others whose work echoes down through the ages… Plato, Mozart, Leonardo da Vinci. Nelson Mandela for his commitment to his country and its peoples.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

Usually positive words: love, lovely, wonderful, exciting, interesting, fun, fascinating, amazing, gorgeous, beautiful…

What’s your greatest regret? 

That I never understood my mother, and who she was as a person.

What album, boxset or podcast would you listen to on a night in alone on the sofa?

On the sofa alone at night I read a book and look at art. Art is my music. I love reading about artists or musicians, how they do what they do and how they came to be who they are. For current information, I use the internet, magazines on my interests, and I still love newspapers. I love the Financial Times Weekend. Spending time listening to podcasts is something to achieve.

What’s your favourite item in your wardrobe? 

a) Something comfortable: sweatshirts in winter, t-shirts in summer; b) Something fun: the silk art coats created by a friend. I have a dozen or so; c) Something modern: Zuri dresses, from a young women’s business that sources clothes from Africa and has it made at an atelier in Nigeria; d) Something beautiful and irreplaceable: an antique noble Chinese woman’s robe, with beautiful embroidery on the outside and inside the sleeves, a rich, deep crimson colour.

What time do you go to bed?

Between 10pm and midnight. I’m usually up at 7am.

What’s your favourite restaurant?

Jardine in Stellenbosch. The winelands of the Cape have many great restaurants; it’s a feast here. Jardine (chef George Jardine) has made refined, delicious inventive meals for some time. We like to spend Valentine’s Day with him.