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Simi's Wine Maker Stresses Style : For Zelma Long, Successful Reign 'Started in Vineyards'

May 22, 1986|NATHAN CHROMAN | Chroman is a free-lance wine writer and author who also practices law in Beverly Hills

When Zelma Long arrived at Sonoma's Simi Winery as its chief wine maker in 1979, she was more like a kid with a new toy than a historic figure as the first woman in American wine to be placed in command of a major prestigious 100,000-case winery. With carte blanche authority to fashion wines and styles as she pleased, she has consistently produced distinctive, interesting and exciting wines.

While increasing production to 150,000 cases, Long has concentrated on giving each Simi wine a kind of personal imprint.

"It all started in the vineyards for me; new vineyards, both for Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, where I can control grapes much like a painter selects colors for a painting," she said. "Without the acquisition of new acreage, I would be at the mercy of trying to make wines with preordained taste objectives. By 1988, we will control 178 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon and over 250 acres of Chardonnay, and by then I feel my imprint will be stronger yet."

For Long, the pressure to produce fine wines has been enormous. After leaving Robert Mondavi vineyards to join Simi, the consumer and industry spotlight was so intense it made a difficult challenge harder yet. She replaced Mary Ann Graf, a prominent woman wine maker in her own right who was not given the same degree of authority. Senior wine maker/consultant Andre Tchelistcheff offered advice, but to no avail. Simi wines then seemed stylistically ambivalent and without direction. There is no question who is boss today.

Three Style Objectives

Clarity of style direction at Simi today is without equivocation. From her very first day, Long emphasized three style objectives. "First is elegance and finesse," she explained. "The second is flavor concentration, with full and persistent flavors in the mouth, and a third is complexity, representing a diversity of aromas and flavors, especially in our Chardonnay and Cabernet."

Asked if that statement didn't sound similar to those of other competent wine makers, she replied, "Yes, I suppose it does, but let me use a metaphor: As several designers working with the same fabric would create individual fashions, so wine makers can tailor their wine to suit their palates. In designing a wine, the designer must take into account the nature of the fabric, how it drapes and if it is appropriate for the garment's intended function.

"The wine maker should know the grapes," she continued. "For instance, Cabernet and Chardonnay lend themselves better to making complex wines than do, say, Chenin Blanc or Gamay. But even more specifically, not all Cabernets, for instance, make complex wines. Some are best for rose, while others from very good vineyards can consistently produce wines with finesse, and with the addition of a great vintage, wines of elegance and power."

An outstanding example of Long's style theory is Simi Cabernet Sauvignon, 1982, from Alexander Valley, Sonoma County grapes. This is a complex, chewy Cabernet, silky in texture and lush with fruit. It is easily the winery's best Cabernet since the heralded 1974, which also came from a fine vintage year. Produced from 96% Cabernet Sauvignon and 4% Merlot grapes, the wine is drinkable now but four or five years of aging will surely make it a beauty.

Early Mellowing Mode

The '82 Cabernet is the debut for a Long Cabernet style featuring less astringency in an early mellowing mode. "We like silky, supple Cabernet," Long said, "and although we are frequently governed by weather patterns and an occasional innovative technique, we strive for Cabs with enough tannins to balance the fruit and to encourage age, but without excess astringency. To achieve our goal, we moderated our wine-making techniques on an experimental basis in 1982, and believe they have worked."

The style of soft texture is also reflected in one of the winery's most popular wines, Rose of Cabernet Sauvignon, 1985, a knockout blush-styled wine. Formerly it was a favorite at the winery, when it was a much harder, bigger bodied wine--so much so that it was considered a light-structured Cabernet. Now it is soft and sweetish with 1% sugar in a lovely, mellow mode accented by a small amount of carbon dioxide to heighten freshness. Blush fans will find the wine remarkable.

Sauvignon Blanc, 1984, is showing well, too. No aggressive, grassy aromas here; the nose is somewhat austere, but the round, soft texture and flavor are not. Full of fruit, there is a hint of toasted oak, and a taste so assertive that the wine appears to be without crispness, as if the flavor continues unabated. Made with 7% Semillon grapes, the wine is an effective effort to make a graceful round style rather than a strongly tart angular wine.

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