Bob Long believes that Napa Valley winemakers are blessed.
Pioneers in the development of single vineyard wines, Long and his wife Zelma started their eponymous winery in 1977. Although they divorced years ago and both have remarried, the Longs remain business partners. Their 121-acre property is on a prime Napa Valley site: Pritchard Hill, east of St. Helena. With their longtime associate Sandi Blecher, the Longs produce consistently good and reasonably priced Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese, Pinot Grigio and a late harvest Riesling.
Napa winemakers during the 1970s and '80s, Long says, modeled their wines on classic French techniques because they thought the same factors affected their vineyards and French grapes.
"But the climate in Napa is very stable," Long points out, "and we rarely see wide fluctuations in temperature or significant rainfall during our growing season." Since the weather is so good for grape growing, he adds, "it is less influential in the quality of the grapes." Instead, wine quality is determined mostly by the "physical characteristics of the soil and, very importantly, by the skill of the winemaker."
Similarly, says Long, applying French marketing techniques to California wines is a "mistake since few people know what the various American wine regional designations really mean. And most California wines are blends of grapes grown in different places anyway."
Long, who defines his role as "CEO and janitor," says his vineyard keeps production small, about 3,000 cases a year, so the focus can be on quality, on making wines that are "very food friendly and also develop in the bottle over time."
"The idea," Long says, "is not to establish a house style as much as allow the wines to express what the grape variety will do in a specific location."
When the Longs first started growing grapes, experts at the University of California, Davis, come to their vineyards to observe and offer advice. Among the first grapes Long was told to grow was Riesling, which, he says, "was like zucchini since it grew well and was hard to hurt." It took some time to understand the Riesling's nature and create a wine that "is basically Alsace-like, lighter but not too sweet." The Long Late Harvest Johannisberg Riesling 2002 has beautiful botrytis honey flavors and pineapple notes balanced with good acidity.
Also made from their own grapes, the Long Chardonnays are known for consistent elegance. Their regular bottling, the Long Chardonnay 2001, has a core of apple and citrus flavors and a nice finish, while the limited production Long Old Vines Chardonnay 2001, aged in French oak for two years, is fuller and more complex with pear and melon notes.
Napa is known for Cabernet Sauvignon and the Long property is no exception. The Long Cabernet Sauvignon 2001 is big, with moderate tannins, and cassis and blackberry flavors.
Made from grapes purchased from Seghesio in the Sonoma Valley, the Long Sangiovese Seghesio Vineyards 2002 is made in "Chianti Classico" rather than "super Tuscan" style. It is wonderfully fruity and balanced, with a good finish, making it an excellent wine to pair with food.
Long trusts Napa's luck will continue.
"2004 had a steady, prolonged, somewhat cool growing season," he observes, "that will make even less adept winemakers have good grapes to work with and therefore, good wine. It is the kind of vintage that makes everyone look good."