By JAMES NOKES
Phil Long knew it could be one of the last walks he could take with his wife, Debra.
The couple switched careers to forge a path together in the wine industry, and founded Longevity Wines in Livermore Valley, California.
In 2016, Debra was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer, and the brand they’d built together and their lives would be forever changed. She was there to celebrate when Longevity was named the Livermore Valley Winery of the Year in 2018. She saw that the rebranding of their label, a heart made of vines and grapes, was an homage to their relationship, in which Phil always gave Debra a glass heart on Valentine’s Day.
But when Phil walked into a tattoo parlor with Debra to get art inspired by the Longevity label on his left arm, it was so Debra knew “she’d always be with him.” She passed away in 2019, but Longevity, one of just two dozen African American-owned wineries in the United States, has carried on and is now available nationally.
“When Debra and I started out, we weighed heavily on the customer experience,” said Long, who started as a recreational home winemaker in 2000 before opening a commercial winery in 2008. “That’s where we got a lot of family. We treated guests like family, not a customer. That benefited us as a winery with a tasting room, and led to a lot of our following. Now that I’m learning to scale what it’s like to distribute a million cases a year, it’s a whole new customer.”
When Phil studied architectural design at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona students in agriculture were “the guys with the cowboy hats.” Little did he know they would one day become colleagues in the wine industry. As his professional career progressed, he was “embedded in wine country,” which led him to a new hobby.
As his winemaking passions grew, both Phil and Debra kept their corporate jobs, which offered guaranteed salaries and reduced the risk every winemaker feels when they take the career-change plunge.
“When we first started, we kept our jobs for years,” Long said. “Making wine stayed hobbyish for us, so it didn’t matter how much profit there was. If I needed equipment, I could afford it. My wife let go of the umbrella before I did. But to rely on wine for our career as income was scary.”
Being a winemaker in Livermore, an area Long said is a “cool, quaint valley” that was “Napa before there was a Napa,” has taught him how to make great wines with the resources he had available. At the turn of the 20th century, critical acclaim came to the region with a pair of gold medals at the 1889 Paris Exposition.
Yet, even as glory headed about 60 miles north to Napa Valley, and later considerably south to Santa Barbara and Paso Robles, Livermore quietly carried on in the shadows of its neighboring wine regions, and Long said that today there are between 50 and 60 wineries.
It is here that Long turned out a pair of affordable, everyday wines. There’s Longevity Chardonnay 2018 ($15.99) and its tropical flavors, toasty almond and round mouthfeel. The Longevity Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 ($15.99) is an easy drinking wine with flavors of cherry, cedar, cinnamon stick and anise.
To transition from a regional winery to one widely available meant an increase in production – a task for which Long felt well-prepared.
“Going national the way the partnership is structured wasn’t scary, it was exciting,” Long said about pairing with Bronco Wine Co. “It was a way to get to a broader audience. This opportunity doesn’t just happen. It’s been really exciting, and Bronco has treated me like family.”
Whether it’s with customers or visitors to the tasting room, Long has focused on family with Longevity. While Debra isn’t here to celebrate his latest achievements, her impact on Longevity remains.
“I want to keep her legacy and memory alive,” Long said. “I wouldn’t be where I am without her. It is terrible that she doesn’t benefit from the success. But our kids and grandkids will. I’ll finish what we started, so there’s something for them as well.”
• James Nokes has been tasting, touring and collecting in the wine world for several years. Email him at email@example.com.