Breaking Down Barriers and Building an Empire with Phil Long of Longevity Wines
In 2002, Phil Long and late his wife, Debra, uprooted their life in Southern California and moved to the Bay Area. Phil, who worked in design and architecture, had received a job offer at a company based in Union City—and the couple jumped at the opportunity. The move ended up setting Phil and Debra on an entirely new and unexpected path: wine.
“Everywhere we went, there was wine,” recalls Phil. “The more we experienced it, the more we loved it.” The couple eventually started making small quantities of wine in their garage. A few years later, the Longs had obtained a wholesale distributor’s license and opened a production facility in the nearby Livermore Valley. In 2008, they launched Longevity Wines.
Over the next decade, Phil and Debra continued making high-quality Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, among other wines, earning them the title of Livermore Valley Winegrowers Association’s Winery of the Year in 2018. Sadly, the next year, Debra lost her battle with pancreatic cancer. Today, Phil and his son, assistant winemaker Phil Long Jr. are building on Debra’s legacy by continuing to grow Longevity Wines, now the third largest brand in the Livermore Valley.
When he’s not tending to his grapes, Phil is helping open doors for a new generation of African American winemakers through his work at the Association of African American Vintners (AAAV), where he serves as president—a role he took over from friend and former president Edward Lee “Mac” McDonald of Sonoma’s Vision Cellars.
We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Phil for a laughter-filled conversation about his start in the wine world, what’s new at Longevity Wines, and the future of the AAAV. Read on.
Katrina René: Why did you choose the Livermore Valley as the site of Longevity Wines?
Phil Long: When Debra and I moved up here, we first settled in a little town called Dublin, then the neighboring city of San Ramon, where I still live to this day. While we looked at a few other areas like Sonoma and Murphy, Livermore is the closest wine region to these towns, so convenience was the number one factor. Second of all, it’s a beautiful valley with beautiful people. That was key. The people are very friendly and very helpful. At first it was more or less ‘Who are you?’ But I think I’ve solved that issue over the years.
KR: What do you want people to know about Livermore Valley?
PL: The Livermore Valley is one of the oldest wine regions in California. There were grapes here in the late 1700s. Everybody raves about Napa winning [The Judgment of Paris] in 1976, and that’s great. But we won it first in 1889. People don’t know about it because there wasn’t a whole lot of press back then. When Napa won there was TV and radio and almost the Internet. In 1889, what was there? There was ‘As the crow flies.’
KR: People seem to overlook Livermore Valley because it doesn’t have a signature varietal like many other regions. Do you see this as an issue?
PL: The lack of a signature varietal has always been an issue for Livermore. I remember becoming involved with the Livermore Valley Winegrowers organization and everyone trying to figure out what our signature varietal was. A lot of people wanted to hang their hat on Petite Sirah because Concannon was the first winery to bottle it as a single varietal. Recently, Bordeaux-style wines have recently come into play. Steven Mirassou got two 100-point scores for Cabernet Sauvignon in the same month from Wine Spectator. There’s some rustling that Cabernet Franc should be our signature varietal. There are a lot of good things that grow well in the Valley. I don’t want to hang my hat on trying to establish a signature varietal. Let’s just make good wine and see what does well.
KR: Was there a distinct moment where you realized winemaking was something you could do for a living?
PL: It was never, ‘Yeah, I could do this for a living.’ It was basically something Debra and I did for fun together. That’s really all it was. But because I’m not a guy who does things on a small scale, it just kept growing and growing. At one point I said ‘We’re either going to have to stop making wine, or we’re going to have to figure out where to keep making wine and how to sell it.’ So we jumped in head first. We never had the goal of becoming a Gallo. We just wanted to get to a point where we could be comfortable and love what we did day to day.
KR: Tell me about the recent expansion of the Longevity brand in partnership with Bronco Wine Company.
PL: I met Mr. Franzia of Bronco Wine Company for the first time in the fall of 2017. It took us two years to agree on what we could do together. We signed a partnership deal in 2019 and bottled our first white label wines with Bronco in November that same year. We launched nationally on March 1, 2020, of all times to launch anything! 2020 was a struggle, but we were able to pivot and learn how to do virtual launches with distributors. Today, it’s on a massive rocket ship. We’re distributed in every state. We’re selling in Puerto Rico and the U.K. under the ‘Longevity’ brand. We just launched a third SKU for the white label line—a Rosé of Pinot Noir called Debra’s Cuvée. They’re sold in Target stores, certain Total Wine stores, and a couple of other places.
KR: How else are you collaborating with Bronco?
PL: I just bottled and released a single varietal line called Phil Long. The first wine was an Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, which retails at about a quarter of all Total Wine stores throughout the U.S., as well as Sam’s Club in the eastern region of the country. After that, I did a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon under the Phil Long label, which is marketed in Midwest Costco stores and will branch out from there. There’s other labels in our stable that are under my winemaking umbrella, so to speak, that will be coming out and launching soon. So, we’re on a really good trajectory right now.
KR: You recently became the president of the AAAV. Congratulations! When did you first become involved with the organization and how did you end up succeeding former president and founder Edward Lee “Mac” McDonald?
PL: When I first started in the wine industry, I used to see all these publications with Mac in them, and I wondered why he was getting so much recognition. I hadn’t met Mac yet. I later learned that it wasn’t because Mac was a Black winemaker. It was because Mac was a phenomenal winemaker making mid-90-point Pinots in Sonoma. Being an African-American winemaker was just a cherry on top, so to speak, in terms of contributing to his rarity. He and I first met at a Black History celebration at a restaurant. We exchanged numbers and kept in touch. One year during the AAAV symposium, Mac called and asked if Debra and I would come and pour our wines. We weren’t members yet, but we went anyway and poured. He then called me the next week and said ‘Look man, we need you.’ So we joined.
KR: So Mac talked you into becoming a member. How did you go from being an AAAV member to being the president?
PL: There was some sort of a government thing on the state of the wine industry that they invited two AAAV members to speak at. And Mac asked me to go. So, we both went down and spoke at this committee meeting. The funny thing, you know, was that I was just going as Phil Long, owner and winemaker of Longevity Wines. When Sacramento sent the paperwork back to make sure everything was accurate, it came back as ‘Phil Long, Vice President of AAAV.’ I called Mac and said ‘Hey man, they got it wrong.’ And his response was—and I quote—’Hey man, just leave it alone.’ They even called me from the state and were like ‘We looked on the website and we don’t see you listed as vice president anywhere.’ So I told them the story and they introduced me as the ‘newly appointed’ vice president. Driving back to Northern California after the meeting, Mac called me and I was like, ‘Look, this was all fun and games, but how do I really earn this title?’ And Mac was like ‘Look man, you’ve earned it.’ I was in this role for a year and a half. Mac decided to step down January 1, 2020, and here I am.
KR: How are things going at AAAV?
PL: We’ve grown a significant amount over the last year. We’ve gained a lot more support. Like my own business, I’m really trying to set it up to be sustainable for future generations. I want to make sure that it’s a strong organization that continues to make progress in creating diversity in the industry. Membership has grown 500% in the last year alone, and there’s a lot of reasons for that. I don’t take credit for that. Black Lives Matter and other things had a lot to do with it.
KR: Who are some of the people providing support?
PL: We’ve gained support from major organizations like Wine Enthusiast magazine, which is our media partner now. French winemaker Jean-Charles Boisset has earmarked fifty percent of the proceeds from his “Unity” wine to AAAV. John Legend is a member of AAAV. I think it’s done well over the past year. The job is to make sure that its success continues. That’s all of our jobs. The goal is not to have a Black-dominated wine community, it’s to have a diverse community where there is a mix of everyone from minorities, people of color, all genders, everything.
KR: Can you tell me about some of the specific things AAAV is doing?
PL: We have a scholarship program with many entities including Sonoma State University, United Negro College Fund in conjunction with Urban Connoisseurs, and Napa Valley Wine Academy. And we’re constantly looking for other opportunities. There are many reasons why the industry isn’t as diverse as it is. From my own personal experience, I didn’t even know wine was made in this country when I was in college. It just wasn’t a thing where I grew up. So it’s a matter of awareness that this is a career that you can move into and be a part of. Back in my school, they had courses on hotel and restaurant management and they also had agriculture. I had no idea that either one of those things had anything to do with wine. No idea whatsoever. So we’re trying to create awareness that this is a career path that young students can pursue. In conjunction with the awareness, we are also trying to help pave and ease the path.
KR: What does the future look like for you and Longevity Wines?PL: My son is now the assistant winemaker. As reality has it, he is the next ‘Phil Long’ because he’s Phil Long, Jr. It’s kinda cool, we posted a picture with his oldest son, Conor, who’s seven years old. He came one weekend, and the three of us bottled wine together. That’s three generations [involved in] bottling. So yeah, there’s definitely more Longs coming up along the way. He’s going to take it over someday. I’m just trying to set it up for the next generation and his kids’ generation to prosper.