Phil Long at work in his Longevity winery (Photo by Ron Essex Photography)

By Mary Orlin

In early 2020, vintner Phil Long was on the verge of something big. The founder and winemaker for Livermore Valley’s Longevity Wines had inked a major deal to make and distribute his wines nationally just as he stepped into a new role as president of the Association of African American Vintners (AAAV). This was never the path he expected to follow.

“First of all, I never wanted to be a Black winemaker,” says Long.

Growing up in Southern California’s Inglewood community, Long was jamming on sports, and winemaking was not remotely in his plans. In fact, wine was not even on the table, save for his father’s basket-covered bottle of Chianti.

“I didn’t even know . . . did we make wine in this country?” Long says.

Even as an architecture student at Cal Poly Pomona, Long didn’t realize there was wine being made right next door in the agriculture department. He calls this unawareness, “the first stumbling block, not even knowing what wine is at all in the culture.”

That changed when he and wife Debra moved to Northern California and began developing a taste for wine. As this passion grew, the Longs started making wine together in their garage. They upgraded their operation by renting space at Livermore wineries, obtained a wholesale distributors license, and started an online wine club.

“At some point we were either gonna throw the hat in or pull it out,” Long says.

In 2008, they threw the hat in with their first commercial vintage. Calling the Rhône-style blend “Longevity,” they also gave that proprietary name to their winery. The label’s logo is made up of vines intertwined with hearts inspired by the glass hearts Long gave Debra each Valentine’s Day.

As Long began pouring Longevity wines at Black History Month events, he was struck by how few African American winemakers and winery owners were represented, and he wondered if the wine industry was even less diverse than he had wanted to believe. What would it take to address that diversity gap, increase awareness about African-American wines, and encourage more BIPOC to participate in the wine industry? Could he and others embrace a commitment to making that change?

“I decided to embrace it,” says Long.

However, that would not be his only challenge.

On a Sunday morning in 2011, Long was working alone in the winery when a barrel fell from the top of a four barrel–high stack and landed on his head, cracking his skull open and leaving him paralyzed on the floor. Fortunately, Debra arrived shortly, as did paramedics, who took him to the local ICU. Once stabilized, he was transferred to Santa Clara Medical Center, where he spent three months and two days in rehab before he walked out.

“We were about to expand [wine production] to four times the size, and right at that moment, that [accident] happened,” Long says. “At some point during rehab I realized as long as I can still taste, I think we should move forward, so we did.”

The Livermore wine community rallied around him, and good friend and mentor Thomas Coyne showed up with his lunchbox and told Long, “Let’s get to work.”

As Longevity grew, Long became more involved in minority-focused events. He developed a friendship with fellow African American winemaker Edward Lee “Mac” McDonald of Sonoma’s Vision Cellars, who was also the Association of African American Vintners founder and president. Long didn’t realize McDonald was grooming him as his AAAV replacement, and it was only after McDonald invited the Longs to pour at one of the association’s wine symposiums that he called Long to say, “Hey man, we need you.”

Tragedy, however, struck again. Debra was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer in 2016 and passed in January 2019. Before she died, Long took her with him as he got their heart logo tattooed on his arm.

When McDonald retired as AAAV’s president in January 2020, Long took on the role. He embraced the association’s mission of raising awareness that African American winemakers exist and helping pave new paths to wine industry careers. Long says young people of color have little idea that making wine, owning a winery, or working in the wine industry are even options. To that end, AAAV offers scholarships with an emphasis on candidates’ plans for making the industry more diverse. Long is adding events, such as the April 13, 2021, Wine Enthusiast magazine Paths to Success webinar.

When the Black Lives Matter social movement erupted in summer 2020, Long says the world changed.

“It wasn’t just a color issue, it became a human issue to a lot more of the public who weren’t comfortable talking about it before,” he says. “It is not just support from African Americans, it is support across the board, from human beings who are wanting to support what is right.”

Membership in AAAV ballooned from less than 20 to more than 100 members. Donations increased as well. Long is looking for long-term partners who want to keep this conversation and momentum going.

On a parallel track, Long is expanding the Longevity wine brand. The opportunity to work with Fred Franzia’s Bronco Wine Company (of Charles Shaw wines fame, aka Two-Buck Chuck) came about thanks to Long’s and Bronco’s cork supplier, Amorim. That’s how Long found himself in Franzia’s office surrounded by photos of California’s great wine families, the Gallos, Seghesios, Martinis, and Rossis.

“How did I get here? A kid from Inglewood,” Long wondered.

That face-to-face meeting with Franzia led to a new Longevity label, increased production, and national distribution as Long became winemaker at Bronco’s facility in Ceres. (Long continues to make his reserve label wines in Livermore Valley along with his son and assistant winemaker Phil Jr.) The national launch, which began in March 2020, was stalled by Covid-19, but now things are picking up, and white-label Longevity Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon have become available at large retailers. During February 2021’s Black History Month, Longevity wines, along with Long’s photo, were on displays at every Total Wine & More store in the country.

As Long looks ahead, the view seems to keep getting brighter.

“What gives me hope is seeing these larger companies making serious commitments,” he says of how they are making space for an increasingly diverse set of winemakers. “These are the kinds of efforts we haven’t seen before. But you can’t rest on your laurels.”

The following local winemakers come from backgrounds as varied as the wines they craft. None started with a fortune. Financing and distribution obstacles, the glass ceiling, and racial bias still exist. But these makers are contributing to the conversation about diversity in our local wine communities, and they serve as role models for many who wish to follow.

 

Aaliyah Nitoto put her background in biology and herbalism to work in creating her Free Range Flower wines. Her artistic labels reveal the flowers that are part of the recipe. (Photos courtesy Free Range Flower Winery)

 

Free Range Flower Winery

Wine isn’t just made from grapes. All manner of fruits, plus rice and honey, have long been made into wines, so, why not flowers?

That’s what biologist and herbalist Aaliyah Nitoto thought as she learned about wines made with flowers in ancient Chinese, Greek, and Roman cultures. Sourcing local, organic flowers such as lavender and rose, Nitoto developed her craft and launched Free Range Flower Winery in 2018 with a lavender sparkling wine. Today, marigold, rose petal, and rose-hybiscus wines, all with striking floral labels, come out of her urban Oakland winery.

Navigating the grape-based wine world hasn’t been easy for Nitoto. Finding a custom crush partner ended up in sexual advances. Deals were dropped at the last minute for no apparent reason.

“When Black representation in the industry is something like a fraction of 1%, that’s not diversity,” Nitoto says. “We’ve had to deal with sexism, racism, even grape supremacy, if you can believe that.”

She found resistance at local bottle shops and wine bars whose owners professed to be progressive and small business supporters yet were anything but. Nitoto persevered, and now her flower wines are headed for Total Wine & More.

Nitoto sees change coming about in the wake of Black Lives Matter. To address the lack of diversity, she envisions hiring and mentoring more BIPOC and women who want to work in wine.

“There seem to be more and more wine lovers looking to actively support Black-owned wineries and Black-owned businesses in general,” she says. “I hope the majority of people in this country understand the value of diversity, and hopefully they will show up for us in the wine industry.”

 

Rosa Fierro of Rosa Fierro Cellars (Photo by Ron Essex Photography) Rosa Fierro’s artistic photographs of wine sediment grace her wine labels.

 

Rosa Fierro Cellars

There was no wine in Rosa Fierro’s blue-collar upbringing. Her heritage is Spanish and Mexican, and she grew up in New Mexico, later moving with her family to San Lorenzo. While working as a young legal assistant, this avid photographer took portraits on the side.

Fierro was assisting a friend at a Livermore Valley winery tasting room when the owner, who noticed Fierro had a good palate, invited her to blend wine with him. She launched her own label, starting with cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, and zinfandel grapes purchased from Livermore Valley vineyards and processing them at local custom-crush facilities.

Her photographer’s eye remained active as Fierro discovered an interesting subject in the sediment left at the bottoms of just-emptied wine fermentation tanks. Those photos, with their bold colors and unique patterns, grace the labels of her Rosa Fierro Cellars wines.

In 2020, Fierro moved into her own tasting room and winery, a shared space with Livermore’s Favalora Vineyards. As one of a very few sole-female wine proprietors in the valley, she also takes pride in her small, all-female crew, though she didn’t plan it that way.

“I look for inspiration as a woman from other women,” says Fierro, who also launched a local women’s winemaker group.

Instead of numbering her wine tanks, Fierro has named them for strong women, so on a walk through the winery, you’ll meet up with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Harriet Tubman, Maya Angelou, Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Jane Goodall.

“In my head, it gives strength to the wine,” Fierro says.

 

Dr. Christine Wachira of Wachira Wines. Each Wachira Wine label tells a story of how the wine resonates with the winemaker’s Kenyan background.

 

Wachira Wines

Alameda-based Wachira winery was born of a winemaker’s quest: Dr. Christine Wachira wanted wines to pair with her native Kenyan cuisine.

Wachira’s family immigrated to the United States in 1998 seeking better opportunities and education. Growing up in Kenya, Wachira says everybody looked like her, talked like her, had hair like hers. However, it wasn’t until she came to the U.S. that she learned she was a Black woman.

“I had all the disparities ascribed to me just because of my race. That was new to me,” she says.

While pursuing a doctorate in nursing practice at the University of San Francisco, she and her girlfriends made weekend jaunts to Napa and Sonoma. Wachira began seeking wines to match the bold flavors of Kenyan dishes like nyama choma (grilled goat meat), pilau (a fragrant, spiced rice), and mutura (grilled blood sausage). Finding none, she began blending her own wines with muscat, cabernet sauvignon, and zinfandel. Years later, her Wachira Wines emerged as the first Kenyan-American wine label in the United States.

Wachira notes that many would-be BIPOC winemakers experience challenges with access to capital and options for distribution. Since she succeeded in raising her own money and becoming her own distributor, Wachira realized she could help other BIPOC makers, which led her to open the Karibu Wine Lounge by Wachira in Alameda.

“I am a strong believer in, ‘If they do not invite you to their table, create your own,’” Wachira says. ♦

Mary Orlin is a James Beard Award– and Emmy Award–winning wine writer and TV producer. She is a certified sommelier and WSET Advanced certified. Most recently she was the Mercury News wine writer and was executive producer of NBC’s national wine show “In Wine Country.”