Join my Conversation and Tasting with Phil Long, owner and winemaker at Longevity Wines and President of the Association of African-American Vintners
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There’s nothing worse than being a winemaker with allergies.
I am friends with many winemakers who suffer from springtime allergies and we all think they are awful. Ironically, I truly believe that I am allergic to the flowering of grapevines. So, when I set off this past Thursday to visit vineyards in California’s Central Coast, I knew I had a long day in front of me. Actually, when I left I wasn’t certain if I would be gone one day or two. I had all of Friday free as well – so I was hoping to get everything done on Thursday and have a leisurely drive back on Friday.
At 4am, before I left my house in Sonoma County, I made certain I took my Claritin, knowing that the vines were right in the middle of flowering. My first stop was the vineyards of the Santa Lucia Highlands – a little over 3 hours south. There, I walked between vineyard rows in the Rosella’s, Garys, Soberanes, and Sierra Mar Vineyards – checking on the nascent fruit for Clarice Wine Company, Beau Marchais, and also for Siduri Wines (I still consult for them). I could tell it was going to be a difficult day based on how often I sneezed during the subsequent 2 1⁄2 hours as I drove from the Santa Lucia Highlands to Cambria Winery in the Santa Maria Valley. There I stopped and saw my winemaker friend Jill Russell and checked on some additional Pinot Noir vines before heading another 30 minutes south to the Sta. Rita Hills. More vineyards there – John Sebastiano for Siduri and Clos Pepe for Beau Marchais (a partnership with famed French vintner Philippe Cambie). Finally, I headed over to Peake Ranch Winery, where I tasted through the recently bottled 2018 wines and also the 2019 Pinots destined for a new project called Babs.
Tasting wine when you’re in the middle of an allergy attack isn’t easy, but I soldiered through. The day ended with a wonderful dinner on the back porch of the house of John Wagner, the owner of Peake Ranch. We spent the evening with friends; eating, drinking and inevitably talking about the issues of the day – especially the protests that have taken over cities throughout the United States. Finally, after enough sneezing and nose-blowing and more than enough wine, I decided to call it a night.
All in all, it was a very successful day – but damn those allergies! They made it hard to taste, made my skin itch, my eyes water, and they plugged my ears and nose. I went to bed feeling bad, but with every intention of sleeping in. I’d gotten it all done; there was no rush to get back to Sonoma County. Of course, I woke up at 4am, completely stopped up and my first thought was, “I can’t breathe.”
And then those three words hit me. I can’t breathe.” Words I’ve said dozens of time every spring for the last 25 years of my winemaking life. Words spoken 16 times in the last five minutes of George Floyd’s life.
I like to consider myself a socially conscious person. I blacked out my Instagram account that Tuesday and have expressed the appropriate amount of outrage at some of the things occurring in our country. But, for some reason the true gravity of what is happening didn’t hit me until I spoke those words on my own at 4am on Friday morning. I can’t breathe. Shamefully, up until that morning I hadn’t watched the George Floyd video. I didn’t think I had to – I knew it was awful. But that morning I sat on the edge of John Wagner’s guest bed and watched George Floyd die and found myself in tears.
As a winemaker I live a very privileged life. I get to spend my days in vineyards and wineries. I get to eat magnificent meals and drink remarkable wines. I sit on porches and watch the rising full moon and calmly discuss protests and racial injustice. I have the privilege of complaining about things like allergies. I am a white male in a white male dominated profession. I don’t even truly know what additional struggles the few winemakers and winery owners of color must endure. But I do know that I can’t allow my ignorance to continue. It is important for me to ask questions and understand why there are so few people of color in the wine industry.
It turns out here’s nothing better than being a winemaker with allergies. They woke me up one morning and I can’t allow myself to go back to sleep again.