The tale of how a Black-owned boutique winery came to be in the Livermore Valley is, first and foremost, a love story. Phil Long never imagined becoming a winemaker while working on his architecture degree in Southern California. His romance with wine blossomed after he met the woman he would marry and moved north for a new career opportunity.
“You can’t drive in any direction in northern California without ending up in wine country. That’s how dense it is,” says Long, winemaker and founder of Longevity Wines. “As Debra and I got out to explore, the love for wine continued to grow.”
Wine Lovers’ Life
Their love for the artistry of crushing grapes and making wine grew into a garage hobby in the early 2000s. “Neither one of us had any idea what we were doing, but it was something that we did together as a couple. It was really, really special to the two of us. And that’s how it started,” Long says.
The African American vintner outgrew the garage wine-making operation while he and Debra were still working full-time jobs. They formed an online wine club, obtained their wholesale distributor’s license and opened a production facility in the Livermore Valley in 2008. The Longs poured their hearts and souls into Longevity Wines. “During harvest, I’d get up at four in the morning. I’d go to the winery and punch down. Then I’d go to work, and she would come down during her lunch hour and punch down and go back to work,” says Long. “After work, I would go back to the winery, punch down and crush any grapes that were picked that day and get home about midnight and repeat.”
The Longs worked as a team for more than a decade, creating high-quality wines. They received the Livermore Valley Winegrowers Association vote for Winery of the Year in 2018. The next year, pancreatic cancer took Debra’s life, ending the couple’s successful partnership. Long carried on without her to keep Longevity in business through social justice protests, California wildfires and a coronavirus pandemic.
Potential of Partnerships
“We had to close our tasting room. We had to stagger our sales to be pick-up or online only. We’ve always sold our wine online, but most people would prefer to sit under the umbrella outside across from the vineyards and enjoy a glass of wine,” Long says. The Livermore Valley winemaker just started promoting the national launch of Longevity’s classic white label wines in partnership with Bronco Wine Company when COVID-19 postponed all travel and sales meetings. The potential of the partnership Long has with a legacy wine company lifted his spirits despite the setback. “I’m still trying to figure out if I’m dreaming or not, let alone to be in a partnership with them. I will say working with the Franzia family, they’ve just taken me in like I am family and that’s been a really, really great experience.”
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The Inglewood, California native appreciates the value of connecting with the Franzia family to expand his company’s reach in the marketplace. “That partnership allows me to produce wines in their facility and distribute them on a national basis. Longevity is one of the few minority certified wine brands in this country,” says the winery’s founder. The classic white labels are produced at the Bronco facility in Ceres, California. Longevity’s black label reserve wines are still produced at the Long family’s Livermore Valley winery. “My son and I are still the winemakers for both brands. Whether we blend wines in my lab or blend wines in Bronco’s lab, we still have an absolute say on what goes in the bottles,” says Long.
When the Black Lives Matter movement went global, the winemaker and his son, Phil Jr., saw a significant surge in the interest taken in Black-owned wineries. Priority Wine Pass suggested a new avenue for partnership. “They reached out to us to be a partner in virtual tastings. At the same time, we were developing our own virtual tasting program,” Long says. Longevity will now offer virtual tasting packages through its winery as well as through Priority Wine Pass. The packages include three bottles of wine shipped to customers along with a virtual hour spent with Long discussing wines and current events.
Black Winemakers Matter
The social justice movement’s impact on Longevity Wines showed up in the first two weeks of June. “We saw more sales in those two weeks than we saw in 2019. There was a huge surge of support,” Long says. Statista reports almost 11,000 wineries are operating in the U.S. this year. Long estimates less than a tenth of one percent of those winemakers and brand owners are Black.
The Longs relied on guidance from successful Black vintners and the close-knit wine country community to get started in the business. Mac McDonald of Vision Cellars and other great mentors shared valuable information and advice. “Everybody, for the most part, is willing to help. It really is more community-like than competition-like.”
McDonald is the founder and current board chairman of the Association of African American Vintners (AAAV) established in 2002. The media spotlight on Black Lives Matter focused attention on AAAV. Membership in the organization has jumped more than 200% since January. Partnerships with well-known wineries also helped boost interest. “There is a winery here in Napa known as Artesa. When they had a reopening weekend, they dedicated a portion of their proceeds to AAAV just to support us,” Long says.
AAAV’s New Mission
As the new president of AAAV, Long recognizes the importance of keeping the momentum going for Blacks and other minorities in the wine industry. The work McDonald and other original members did to unite Black winemakers will be expanded by the growing number of vintners, growers, industry professionals, friends and students joining AAAV.
“We are also working with Wine Enthusiast Magazine. They reached out to us, and we’re now in partnership with them to put on at least two virtual events a year,” Long says. Wine Enthusiast will promote the events where AAAV members will speak on different topics. The first one is scheduled for October 28. “Not only are they promoting it through all of their channels, but they’re also actually promoting membership in AAAV. They’re partnering with us long-term.”
Long expects the benefits of being an AAAV member to attract other Blacks and minorities in the wine industry. A newsletter features one member each month. The development of a new one-stop-shop option on the organization’s website now lets customers buy wines from Longevity, McBride Sisters, Vision Cellars, Theopolis and other AAAV members. “Selling their brand on our website will not mean that members have to give up any other outlet,” says Long. “If you want to support African-American owned wineries, seek us out. A great place to start is the AAAV website.”
The nonprofit’s president is also enthusiastic about a new mission: changing the diversity picture by encouraging younger generations to seek wine careers. “Our mission today is more focused on the awareness that Black winemakers do exist. Awareness that it is a career path for young African-American and minority students, and helping to pave that path through scholarships, mentorships and internships,” Long explains.
AAAV established the Black Winemakers Scholarship Fund in partnership with the United Negro College Fund and Urban Connoisseurs. The goal is to increase young minorities’ knowledge of and interest in wine production, from growing grapes to research. “The big prize is creating diversity in this industry. That includes women. That includes other minorities. That includes everybody,” says Long, whose own staff is 75% female.
Longevity’s Lasting Passion
No woman or man can survive, let alone thrive, in the wine industry without a passion for making, tasting and sharing wine. “For me, it really is a lifestyle. It really is about being out in the vineyards. It is really about the process of coaxing grapes to be as in balance as you can get them before harvest. And then taking those grapes and making a finished product people enjoy,” Long says.
On Labor Day weekend, passion for the winemaker’s lifestyle meant enduring smoked-filled skies from wildfires and 112-degree temperatures to reopen the Longevity tasting room. General manager Shiena Avila shouldered the responsibility of implementing safety protocols and procedures. “She’s been very diligent about learning the rules of the CDC and the state. We formulated our own processes and procedures for cleaning and how we serve,” says Long. The winery accepted reservations for outdoor seating and sold its award-winning wines by the bottle or in govino disposable glasses.
“We make pretty good wine. We have multiple 90-plus scores and gold medals,” Long says. “If you want to succeed in this industry, everybody has to buy your wine. The only way they’re going to buy your wine is if they enjoy your product.” Longevity Wines has a library full of medals and awards from wine competitions.
The winery took home four awards from the 2020 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition held in February. They include a gold medal for the 2016 Vintner Select Philosophy and silver medals for Longevity’s 2016 Vintner Select Cabernet Sauvignon, 2015 Vintner Select Barbera and the 2017 Vintner Select Blanc de Blanc Sparkling Wine. The winery produces about 3,000 cases a year, and its 2019 Pinot Blanc received 90 points from Wine Enthusiast’s critic Jim Gordon.
Longevity competes in several top wine competitions each year. “For me as far as competitions are concerned, I think we get just as fair a shake,” Long says. “They’re judging on the wine’s merit, not on who made it.” The Livermore Valley vintner says Black winemakers have to compete to get recognition for their best wines.
Long’s top sellers include a pink pinot grigio, a cabernet sauvignon and the Philosophy Bordeaux blend. The classic white labels distributed in every state offer a new closure method called Helix. “It’s like a champagne cork. It allows you to twist it off without a corkscrew,” Long says. Unlike screw caps, the cork is 100% recyclable. It can also be put back in the bottle to drink more of the wine later.
The African American vintner hopes more people will buy wines produced by Blacks. Some of the other national brands include Maison Noir by Andre Mack, Theopolis Vineyards, the McBride Sisters and Brown Estate. “From my standpoint, we’re not saying buy our wines because we’re Black. Buy our wines because you like them.”
A Heartfelt Pledge
People who love sipping Longevity wines can do so outdoors on Saturdays and Sundays. But they will have to wait until it’s safe to enjoy them inside the tasting room where a mural of Phil and his late wife Debra is on display. A decade ago, he redesigned the winery’s label with a heart to represent who they were as a couple. “When I was dating Debra back in Southern California, I used to give her these glass hearts for Valentine’s Day, these artist’s hearts. Everything about her became hearts, heart jewelry, heart rocks on the beach, heart everything.”
Television viewers may have seen Longevity’s heart label on wine bottles displayed during many national shows, including “Big Bang Theory” and “Grace and Frankie.” The winemaker showed his devotion by having the heart and vines design tattooed on his arm. “The important thing to me about the heart is she knew that was us. So before she left us, she went with me, and I had it tattooed on one of my arms as a sleeve. She’ll always know that she is with me.” Long made a pledge to go with the tattoo. “I made her a promise that she’s always going to be the face of the winery no matter what.”