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Updated: Apr 26, 2020

by Andrew Chalk

Ponzi Vineyards turns 50 this year and what a half century it has been. Dick Ponzi had made wine as a member of his Italian-American family in Michigan and he and his wife Nancy visited Burgundy many times on research trips after their marriage. In 1969 he and Nancy packed the family for a trip north to the Willamette Valley of Oregon from California where Ponzi was a structural engineer. They had bought 20 acres near Portland (which they anticipated would be their market) and were the fifth winery in a state that now reputably has over 700. In 1970 they founded Ponzi Vineyards which produced its first wine, four barrels of pinot noir, in 1974.

Ponzi used his engineering background to fabricate many of his own machines and other mechanical devices. He is also regarded as an innovator in winemaking technique that produced the elegant and generous fruit style of Oregon pinot noir.

As the wines improved they began to garner out-of-state recognition. Major landmarks are a front cover article in 1985 by the world’s most influential wine critic, Robert Parker, that pronounced Oregon to be America’s next world class wine region, for its pinot noir. Later, the imprimatur of Burgundy was implanted in 1987 when respected house Maison Joseph Drouhin established Domaine Drouhin in the state. And in 2013, Maison Louis Jadot found its legendary winemaker, Jacques Lardière, unhappy to be forced to retire at 60 the previous year, due to France’s restrictive labor laws, and moved him to the U.S. full-time at its Résonance property.

Ponzi was at the forefront of this recognition, receiving features in the New York Times in 1979, ranking in the Wine Spectator Top 100 wines in 1987, and Robert Parker naming Dick Ponzi Oregon’s top wine producer.

Ponzi family in the 1970s
Ponzi family in the 1970s

On the way Dick Ponzi helped found the International Pinot Noir Festival, he was a founding member and first president of the Oregon Winegrowers Association. It is also astonishing how many younger winemakers in Oregon and elsewhere worked earlier in their lives at Ponzi Vineyards (see Table 1). Luisa is now working on a new AVA, the Laurelwood District AVA, which will encompass 70 vineyards and 20 wineries. Approval is expected in the spring/summer of 2020.


Who worked at Ponzi Vineyards earlier in their career?

The wines won awards throughout this period and the winery branched out to chardonnay, pinot gris, and even arneis, as the first member of the winery’s Italian collection. These came not just from the estate vineyard but from a half dozen vineyards purchased over 40 years. A highlight of an increasing focus on sustainability was the establishment of a state-of-the-art gravity flow winery in 2006 designed by Dick Ponzi. It was followed by a new tasting room in 2013.

A prominent trend through this time is the winery’s succession planning. The Ponzi’s children initially left the winery for other professions. However, in 1991 Maria returned from a career in advertising as Director of Sales and Marketing. She assumed the position of President in 2014. In 1993 Luisa completed her first vintage as a winemaker, after several years studying in Beune at the winemaking technical school and Dick handed over the title of winemaker.

New winery at Ponzi Vineyards
New winery at Ponzi Vineyards

One of the best quality barometers of chardonnay and pinot noir wines is their ageability Dick Ponzi and Maria recently offered me the chance to taste lengthy verticals of their wines.

1998 Chardonnay Reserve.

Winemaker’s notes describe this vintage as “glorious wines, though not much of them”. The small crop was due to vine exhaustion from a huge crop the previous year and damp weather at bloom. However, this was followed by “a normal ripening season and no early rains” yielding “deeply extracted and highly structured wines”. This is “possibly one of the best vintages to date”.

I can imagine the giddy excitement around these wines in their youth. After 21 years these wines clearly show their age but there remains a core of pure fruit characterized by ripe apricots and lemon. Drink now -- in generous quantities;

2006 Chardonnay Reserve

Record yields following heavy winter rains that fed vine growth. Very dry summer and “hot and fast” harvest.This wine was barrel fermented;

Good acid and plenty of fruit give this wine the profile of a much younger example. A good choice to match with food on account of its good acid;

2012 Chardonnay ‘Aurora’

The Aurora vineyard is very important in Oregon as the site of some of the region’s first Dijon clones of chardonnay. Hitherto, Oregon growers had made chardonnay mainly from the Wente clone on account of its success in California. The results were disappointing. Dijon clones were essential in elevating Oregon to a national quality chardonnay producer. Ponzi planted 80 acres progressively from 2001 to 2006 at elevations of 300-600 feet on a southeast face. Pinot noir is also grown in the vineyard.

Winemaker’s notes “On the heels of the wet and cool 2010 and 2011, 2012 was a welcome sight!...Crops were low, due to the wet spring, causing the intensity of flavor to be increased. 2012 is being hailed as an “epic” vintage in Oregon wine history and the wines are proving that to be true.”

This wine echoes the plaudits for the vintage at the time. It still comes across as youthful with vibrant fruit, good phenolic backbone and, dare one say it, potential to age further.

2015 Chardonnay Reserve

Winemaker’s notes remark “Our earliest vintage since 1992…” and marked by exceptional conditions throughout with a notable cool September “allowing the pristine fruit to be picked at perfect ripeness with slightly higher yields than usual”.

A powerful, youthful chardonnay with firm acid and flavors of peach, apricot and mango that will either reward further ageing or show off itself in current consumption. A glorious wine to just quaff but can also be paired with lobster or poultry prepared with cream sauces.

Taking this flight as a whole, it showed the accomplishment of Ponzi Vineyards with chardonnay as well as how well the grape adapts to the Oregon terroir. It is tempting to compare the organoleptic properties of the result with California and perhaps Ponzi’s wines would be most similar in style to those that are lean and vibrant in style.

Pinot Noir

1988 Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley

“Excellent, small vintage” remark the winemaker’s notes. Continuing “Crop seriously reduced by winter drought-induced boron deficiency and poor weather bloom...Harvest began in last week in September and continued through first week in October in dry and moderate weather.”

At 31 years young this wine is showing its age but still has clearly-defined, raspberry fruit. Drink now.

1998 Pinot Noir Reserve

The winemaker’s notes remark “Glorious wines, though not much of them”, noting the “damp, cool weather at bloom...”. Eventually, the vintage produced “deeply extracted and highly structured wines...Possibly one of the best vintages to date”.

Tannins still in good shape. Complex flavors of raspberry, forest floor, and herbs. An impressive wine enjoyable now.

2016 Pinot Noir Reserve

“2016 jumped out of the gate with bud break a full three weeks earlier than what we are accustomed to...Harvest...was in full swing by early September.”

A bright, ripe, modern era pinot noir that tastes like a young with its forward fruit and soft tannins. Time will tell how it ages.

With its pinot noir wines, as with its chardonnays, Ponzi shows its skills and evolution over time as a winery. Now firmly under the direction of the younger generation (Dick Ponzi is an 85-year old youngster) the winery continues to be an example of the best in Oregon wine.

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