Ponzi Wines and Vineyards Pioneered Oregon Wine
Ponzi Vineyards is a pioneer Oregon winery founded in 1970 by Dick and Nancy Ponzi. The Northern Willamette Valley winery is now under second generation management of their children, Michel, Anna-Maria and Luisa.
Dick Ponzi now makes the wines in collaboration with his winemaker daughter, Luisa, who was awarded a degree in Oenology and Viticulture from the CFPPA in Beaune, France. Her formal Burgundian education brings the latest techniques from Europe to Ponzi winemaking. She has a unique perspective incorporating her love of Burgundy with the opportunity to explore and innovate in Oregon, unbound by tradition.
In 1988, Dick Ponzi was recognized as one of the world's finest winemakers, one of only three Americans so distinguished by Robert Parker, Jr., of The Wine Advocate:
"Everything I have tasted from Ponzi Vineyards and everything I have read and heard about them, I like. First and foremost are the wines which are made very naturally and in an elegant, subtle style...past tasting experiences have led me to conclude this is Oregon's best winery... Ponzi Vineyards continues to make Oregon's most complex Pinot Noirs... Oregon's greatest producer, the de facto leader of the quality wine movement in Oregon."
Ponzi Vineyards maintains its original philosophy of pioneering and innovating, while consistently achieving excellence in the creation of its wines. No expense is spared, nor experimentation left untried.
Luisa Ponzi- Second Generation Oregon Winemaker
by Cole Danhower
Oregon Wine Report
© OWR 2002 all rights reserved, June 2002
It is one of the first nicely warm days of Spring as Luisa Ponzi settles comfortably into an outdoor chair near one of the family's vineyards. With an understated yet authoritative air, she reflects on her unique position in Oregon's wine industry.
As one of Oregon's increasing number of second-generation winemakers, Luisa faces perhaps more daunting challenges than some: following in the footsteps of a famous father, and being a member of one of the Oregon wine industry's "Founding Families."
"I see my role not as redefining Ponzi, but as continuing and extending the reputation that my father established for making great wines years after year," she says. "But at the same time, putting my own kind of imprint or style on the wines."
Finding Her Own Way
In 1970, Luisa's parents Dick and Nancy Ponzi established Ponzi Vineyards as one of the earliest modern wineries in Oregon. Over the years, Dick Ponzi created critically acclaimed wines (including accolades from Robert Parker, Wine Spectator, and The New York Times) that helped establish Oregon as a legitimate and promising region for winegrowing in general and Pinot noir in particular.
In 1994 Luisa took over winemaking duties from her father, though the two still work closely together. "Obviously, the majority of my education came from my father," she notes. "A lot of the ways I approach winemaking are the same as his-very hands off, paying attention to the vineyard, not a lot of meddling."
And yet, Luisa is hardly a self-taught winemaker as her father was. She has spent time in Europe understanding Old World winemaking techniques, and received a degree in Oenology and Viticulture from the C.F.P.P.A. in Beaune, France. By adding academic knowledge to her unparalleled experience learning from her father, Luisa Ponzi has become one of the most formidable winemakers in the country.
Even so, the path hasn't always been easy! "I think it's been a little harder for me than for some," says Luisa, "because a lot of people are only looking for me to fail. Sometimes any changes I make are seen as only negative."
And sometimes the wine press just won't let Luisa be Luisa. Stories about Ponzi wines often seem to describe Luisa's role with unwarranted qualifiers like "daughter of winemaker Dick Ponzi," or even "wife of winemaker Eric Hamacher." All this when Luisa has been making Ponzi's wines for eight years!
Perhaps this is because Luisa feels no need to make dramatic changes in Ponzi's wines. "Don't fix what isn't broken, works well here," she says. Still, it's a fine balancing act to both respect the heritage of the Ponzi name and establish her own stylistic identity. "My main goal with Pinot noir is to express the variety," she explains, "but also to show some complexity. I would say that I have maintained my father's style, which is my style as well. I think we prefer wines that have more black fruit character, more powerful wines that will age for years and years."
But Luisa is also adding a few nuances of her own. "I'm very interested in texture," she says. "I love the Burgundy wines from Chambolle-Musigny with their silkiness, and Volnay with their pretty mid-palate. If I'm trying to obtain something, that's what it would be-which might be a little different than what he's been doing."
"I certainly feel that these are my wines," says Luisa."I don't feel like I'm creating something that is not what I want to create-they're certainly my style!"
Meeting the Challenge of Old Vines
Achieving her stylistic goals has meant recognizing the challenges of dealing with older vines (something that didn't face her father), and bringing incremental changes to the winemaking process at Ponzi to maintain the consistency of quality and character that Luisa seeks.
"I'm working with some of the oldest vines in Oregon," Luisa explains, "some are as much as 33 years old. There are a whole set of different challenges learning how to balance the vine with its age."
For one thing, the vines seem to be producing more tannins and less fruit as they get older. "They are changing the character of our wines," she says, "and I don't want to see our signature wine style change drastically because the vines are aging and changing-so it's a real issue we have to deal with."
Adjusting to this reality requires Luisa to alter both vineyard management and winemaking techniques.
"We've got to take into consideration that we've been asking a lot of these vines-and these soils-for the last thirty years," she says. "From my experience in Burgundy I know that vines of this age should be giving us something special-they start looking at replanting after 40 or 50 years. But in our vines I'm seeing that the balance in the grape is changing, and there's now more astringent tannins to deal with, and the vines don't want to produce as much fruit."
Luisa believes that a key area of improvement is in the soil. "For a long time in Oregon you could farm without thinking about giving back to the soil because everything is so fertile."
But with her older vines, Luisa is having to look at soil amendments and natural fertilization as strategies to help balance the health and vigor in the vineyard.
"In the winemaking, I've been changing things so as not to extract too much tannin," she says. For instance, she presses early, does not do post maceration, and is working with cooler ferments. Luisa is also a proponent of wild, or at least indigenous, yeast, which is a departure from previous years.
"I really don't know if I'm using truly wild yeast, since we've been making wine here for 30 years! I do think it adds another level of complexity in the wine. In trials year after year I think we get a certain silkiness to the wine that we weren't getting before."
To Designate or Not?
A related issue to vine age for Luisa has been the question of when to designate a single vineyard wine-which she did for the first time in 1998.
"The Abetina designation is a huge deal for us," she explains. "I know the vineyard designate thing is very popular right now, but I just feel in general it is very premature. "
"When I see a vineyard designate-and I'm coming from a Burgundy point of view-that name needs to mean something that you can taste in the wine year after year. I just don't think most of our vineyards are there yet. "
But Ponzi's Abetina Vineyard is there, Luisa believes.
"We did Abetina because we were seeing that kind of consistency year after year. You could count on getting the same white pepper, really dark black cherry nose, and intensity, even in different vintages," she explains.
A two-acre plot on Chehalem Mountain, part of Abetina was once an Oregon State University clonal selection test site. Over 20 different clones of Pinot noir were planted there in the mid 1970s, making it one of the most diverse vineyards in the sate.
"The characters we saw in the wine were just undeniable, and that only happened after 23 years. I'd rather see people hold off designating vineyards until we see that kind of age and consistency in the wines."
Balancing the Blends
In keeping with her philosophy on vineyard designations, Luisa has carefully managed the distinctions between her two versions of Pinot noir-the Reserve and the Willamette Valley blends.
"I think at one time the Willamette Valley label was more of what we didn't want in the Reserve label," says Luisa, "but now it is made to be very much its own wine. It is our wine to buy and drink now," she emphasizes, "so I make it soft, fruit forward, and appealing, pressing off early to maintain a soft sweet center."
The Reserve Pinot noir-in some ways Luisa's flagship wine-is a differently styled wine. "The Reserve is structurally bigger and tends to have a lot more going on than just fruit," says Luisa. "On release they're not the most giving wines. I'll forgive a little tightness and structure because five years down the road they are going to be gorgeous!"
A portion of Abetina grapes go into the Reserve wine, along with a good proportion of Ponzi-owned grapes, making it a true "old vine" Pinot noir. Luisa describes the Reserve as having lots of black fruit and spice characters, built for ageing.
The Charm of the Second Generation
Luisa Ponzi is constantly cognizant of the heritage she is now heading. "I think part of the charm of the second generation is the consistency we offer. There is a reputation behind our label that I want people to know they can count on,"she says.
She's also proud of the way her family runs their business.
"What's behind the wine is very important," she says. "Consumers want to know that the people running the business are giving back to the community, are farming to sustain the ecology, and are treating their workers well. I think we do a really good job in all these areas!"
For consumers who have more great wine choices than ever, Luisa offers a personal perspective: "It's fun to try wines from all the different Oregon producers, but I think it is also important that consumers be able to have faith in what the Ponzi wines will give them year in and year out. That's what my parents built, and that's what their children are continuing."