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Wine, Women and Songs of Praise : Distaff Vintners Honor Zelma Long of Simi Winery

March 19, 1987|NATHAN CHROMAN | Chroman is a free-lance wine writer and author who also practices law in Beverly Hills

Zelma Long of Simi Winery was honored as "Wine Maker of the Year" at the 14th annual wine seminar dinner of the Friends of the Junior Arts Center. It was the first time the group honored a woman and a first that all the wines served were produced by women.

The event honors California wine makers and vintners as part of a benefit, with proceeds directed to quality art instruction for children of Los Angeles. Past honorees have been men except in 1976 when Eleanor McCrea of Stony Hill Vineyards was a co-honoree with her late husband, Fred, and in 1982 when Jamie Davies of Schramsberg Vineyards shared honors with her partner and husband, Jack.

A list of previous honorees reads like a Who's Who in California wine making and includes Andre Tchelistcheff, Karl Wente, Brother Timothy of Christian Brothers, Louis Martini and Robert Mondavi. Last year's winner was Peter Mondavi Sr. of Charles Krug Winery.

When the event was first held, there were few women wine professionals. During the '40s, '50s and '60s there were virtually no women trained in enology at UC Davis and none who owned wineries independent of their husbands. Today more than 50 women throughout the United States are full-time, professional wine makers or vintners, and 50% of UC Davis' wine students are women.

It Might Be Fun

Long never intended to be a wine maker. After graduation from Oregon State University, with majors in chemistry and microbiology and a minor in nutrition, she worked as a dietitian in San Francisco. Later she went to the Sonoma and Napa wine regions, feeling it might be fun to make wine. She enrolled in the master's program at UC Davis, but did not complete it because of the industry's early recognition of her competence.

Her on-the-spot wine-making experience was acquired at Robert Mondavi Winery, where she started as a part-time laboratory technician in 1970. Without further formal education she rose to head enologist, a job she held for eight years.

The dinner at the Sheraton Grand Hotel in Los Angeles featured Simi's Chardonnay Reserve, 1982, one of Long's best, made totally under her supervision, from grape selection to utilization of innovative wine-making techniques. No question about it, this wine has a luscious flavor intensity, with fine assertive aroma and a delicacy that makes generous drinking. Also served was Simi Cabernet Sauvignon, 1979, an "oldie," made by senior wine statesman and former Simi consulting enologist, Andre Tchelistcheff, but finished by Long in an appealing, lean, easy-to-drink style typical of her later Cabernets.

Other women and their wines honored were Sandra MacIver for Merlot, 1984, Matanzas Creek; Allison Green for Johannisberg Riesling, Selected Harvest, 1981, Firestone, and Dawnine Dyer, Brut Reserve, and Demi-Sec Domaine Chandon.

As the owner of Matanzas, MacIver is a dynamo. She founded the winery on 212 acres of rich grazing land, chicken coops and sheds, which once functioned as a dairy. The Merlot is probably the best red the winery has produced since its start in 1971, featuring a huge (for Merlot), intense style that bodes well for longer aging and complexity. It is an exceptional wine.

Also exceptional was the Riesling, made more so because Green made it during her first year as Firestone's wine maker. Served appropriately with a chicken liver pate, in the French style of goose liver and Sauternes, the wine made from dried, selected, botrytised clusters is lusciously sweet with all the appeal and nuances of a German trockenbeerenauslese.

After apprenticing in Alsace, Green studied at UC Davis and eventually assisted Tchelistcheff, who recommended her as an assistant wine maker at Firestone, where he was consulting. Coincidentally, she is the daughter of Russell Green, Simi's proprietor in 1972. Russell Green was the first to hire a woman wine maker at a major winery, Mary Ann Graf, considered America's first woman college-trained wine maker.

Best to Date

Domaine Chandon's Brut, Reserve, may well be its best sparkling wine to date. Aged longer than the non-reserve, it is fermented and aged in magnums considered to be the ideal size for aging sparklers. Made with a blend of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc grapes, this wine has a unique delicacy and freshness, not unlike a well-made French Champagne.

Produced especially for the arts group, Dyer's personally fashioned Demi-Sec is not yet commercially available, but it should be, for it offered a well-styled, sweet end to the seminar, reflecting 3% residual sugar, nicely balanced and crisp, even though sweet. Obviously, she has a fine hand for sweet sparklers.

Dyer oversees day-to-day wine responsibilities at Chandon and works closely with Edmund Maudiere, consulting enologist for Moet & Chandon, parent company of Domaine Chandon. The wine bug hit Dyer during summer junkets to Europe and part-time employment at the Bargetto Winery. A 1974 graduate of UC Santa Cruz with a major in biology, she completed graduate work at UC Davis to become a member of the wine-making teams of Robert Mondavi and Inglenook Vineyards.

Accepting the award, Long said, "I couldn't be happier. The profession is nourishing my soul and all of my creative instincts." As a group, the women represent a formidable team, unquestionably deserving honors, not as women but rather as vintners who happen to be women.

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