Monday, September 9, 2013

about face : pioneers of pinot noir : dick + nancy ponzi

It's impossible not to be inspired by the Ponzis. 

Even those that work closely with the couple are often surprised and impressed by their respective resumes. And while it's easy to distill Dick and Nancy Ponzi's story down to their successes—one of world class pinot noirs that helped put Oregon's wine industry on the map—their prosperity is firmly grounded in two core principles: family and education.

As history will show, the Ponzis were definitely in the right place at the right time. Naturally, their drive for lifelong learning and a tireless work ethic contributed as well. But when the Ponzis settled outside of Portland in the late '60s, their intent—to grow pinot noir grapes—was assured, but other than that, there were no assurances. No one was making pinot noir wine. And in reality, there was no wine industry in Oregon.

With the family in mind first and foremost, the Ponzi's honest intention was simply to get back to the land and work in a way which would sustainably support their growing family. When the first batch of wine turned out well, the "aroma," as Dick puts it, may have sparked something inside of him, taking him back to a distinctive place in his childhood.

Thenceforth, the perfection of their craft—learning the pinot noir grapes—became a passion for the Ponzis as did promoting the burgeoning wine industry alongside a group of likeminded innovators and risk-takers like themselves.

Always looking to push the boundaries of their own experience and palate, Dick is constantly looking "to expand to see what else will grow." Today, "There's one varietal that no one else is growing [in Oregon]," he says of the Italian white Arneis (which is even quite unique across the entire U.S.), while Nancy adds: "We have learned everything from reading—if you can read, you can do anything."

Collina del Sogno
With 43 of hands-on wisdom as well, Dick personally engineered and oversaw the construction of Ponzi's new eco- and eno-friendly home: Collina del Sogno, a sustainable, 30,000-square-foot, four-tiered, gravity-flow winery built in 2008.

The tradition of award-winning wine continues at this new facility where daughter Luisa, who's held the winemaking reins for two decades, anchors the agricultural side of the winery while son Michel and daughter Maria work on the business side. Via the example set forth by their parents, the founders' established principles of family, education, craft and sustainability are now practiced by a second generation of Ponzis.

What was your experience with wine before moving to Oregon? Better yet, what's your family's history with wine?

Nancy: Dick is first-generation Italian so he has wine culture in his background.

In your blood?

Dick: In my blood, yeah.

Nancy: I, on the other hand, am from Southern California so I knew nothing. After we were married, we moved to Northern California and were living in the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains where there are substantial wineries. Dick thought it would be a very nice idea to introduce these little children to the culture of wine—not just having it at the table but doing the whole thing.

Did you have any experience making wine prior to that?

Dick: My family made wines in the Midwest. They would get an annual supply of grapes from California and then the community would get together, make the wine and that would be their supply for the rest of the year—and vinegar, it turned out, later on. [Laughs]

Nancy: The end of that story is: The wine was terrible. [Laughs] We happened to have a vineyard practically in our backyard in Los Gatos so we got permission to go pick some grapes.

And this was in the '60s?

Nancy: Oh yeah, everything is permeated by this is the '60s [laughs]—we didn't have to make wine. At that time, Dick was designing rocket engines. With the Vietnam War, we wanted to disassociate from the government so he quit his job [in aerospace]. We dabbled in a few things, had another child, and, in the meantime, had been playing around with this idea of—not really making wine—but going back to the land—the idea of moving someplace, planting a vineyard. Then Dick got this job with Disneyland designing rides, but we still had the idea of the back-to-the-land thing. So we did. We packed up one day, quit the job, and moved up here.

Dick: I remember when I left home [in Michigan], I said: "I'm going to California, I'll have all the wines I need, and I'll never make any homemade wines." And here, I found myself with these little kids [wanting to] give them an experience—the experience was really was the fermentation of the wines that I remembered as a child. While we were making the wines as an experience for the kids, that aroma really caught hold of me again. And this time, the wines turned out fairly well—that was a surprise. [Laughs]

You two came to the Willamette Valley knowing that you wanted to make pinot noir wine, but honestly, what was going through your head at that time? The Pacific Northwest was not known as a wine producing region at that time? No one was growing pinot noir grapes. What made you think that you could do it?

Dick: We got wind that there was someone [Richard Sommer of HillCrest Vineyard] in Southern Oregon dabbling in wine grapes. We felt that maybe we could do the same thing. We came up here and realized that there were a couple other people doing something similar [to Sommer] but [no one] had gotten very far.

You've been in business for 43 years, so that in itself is quite a success. But you've also been very instrumental at putting the Northwest on the map as a place to produce pinot noir. How did you do what you did?

Dick: First of all, it's the climate—and the climate lent itself well to pinot noir. It felt like Alsace and Burgundy [in France]. But to take on a project like this, it wasn't like imagining: "This is going to be a killer industry. But, it's a possibility that we can make wine and sell it in Portland." 

You just wanted it to be sustainable for yourself and your family.

Dick: That's right, and it was just that. That's why we're located very close to Portland—we didn't want to get too far away. It was safe to find ourselves here, and then when we landed, we found other acquaintances who made us think that this may be a possibility—it's just not that crazy. We really worked together and supported ourselves in terms of exchanging ideas and information. 

Who all was around at that time?

Dick: Dick Erath [Erath Winery], David Lett [The Eyrie Vineyards], Charles Coury [Charles Coury Winery], Richard Sommer, David Adelsheim [Adelsheim Vineyard], and some others too.

Did you share resources?

Dick: Absolutely. There was complete sharing of materials and experiences. The fact that we came to the area that we thought was right and made acquaintances with some other people who were involved with the same crazy notion—that was very supportive and encouraging.

Ponzi has been family-owned and run since the beginning, and currently, all three of your children work for the winery.

Nancy: We did this as a family adventure to start out with, plus we thought it would be good for our children to grow up in a more rural environment where they knew where things came from. There was never any intention to make a family dynasty out of it. 

Dick: No masterplan.

Nancy: People assume that's what we did because it sort of happened.

Right, your three kids have stuck with it, or rather, come back to it.

Nancy: Came back [laughs]. That's it.

Dick: It was just a natural thing. There was no coercion or force. It was pretty marvelous that they found their niches and they do it well.

The family was really the genesis for the vineyard—it's what brought you here...

Nancy: "Papa made the wine for 20 years and I took the next 20"—that's what Luisa says.  

How involved are you in today's company?

Dick: We're always involved. We enjoy doing the tastings and we enjoy reminding people of the history—giving people a perspective of where it all came from.

Nancy: [The industry today] is so much further along. [Lots of] people are coming into it and they feel like they can make and sell wine. And they don't want to support many of the trade [organizations] or promotional things, not realizing that the reason they can sell wine is because somebody did that for them originally.

You set up a market for them.

Nancy: Yes. Otherwise, you're out there making your wine and nobody cares. 

Dick: We were pretty foolish back in the '70s—knocking on the doors in New York City to buy our wines. We had to educate them where Oregon was.

You literally did that?

Dick: Oh yes [laughs]. That was the first 10 years of effort to be accepted. First of all, you'd try to find a distributor—that was very difficult. We did it collectively and that was important.

Nancy: That was the key.

Dick: If you were a lone person knocking on the door saying, "Look how great my wines are." They would just think that it as an accident. But if you had half a dozen people… 

Nancy: You had to have enough participants and wine to really create a market.

Dick: It was important for people to understand that there was more than just one winery here, that there was a dedicated group of people. 

Dick, you've been heralded countless times over the years, receiving numerous awards and accolades for your pinot noirs. It's been said that you set the standard for new world pinot noirs and there's always talk of balancing tradition and innovation. What does that mean to you?

Dick: Pinot noir was kind of a strange grape to deal with and that was one of the things that brought us to growing it. Learning the grape was a big portion of the winemaking. [We did things] in different ways than may have been accepted as the standard. That was part of the innovation—how to make true pinot noir wine. Today, it's pretty much accepted; it's just taken for granted that this is how you raise the grape and make the wine. The process is probably very similar in every winery in Oregon now, and in other places. They've adopted the vineyard style, they've adopted process, and the better wines that are made, are made in small containers and on a very personal level. 

It's evolved.

Nancy: Yes. I think most people don't appreciate what Oregon has contributed to pinot noir. There's a fraternity of pinot noir producers around the world—we know each other and come together and talk about wines. There's a lot more [pinot noirs] now in the world, but the whole thing has risen up, I feel, largely because what's been done in Oregon. We've been the ones that have reached out and made so much of this collaboration happen. It's really been wonderful—we're in the third generation of people making [pinot noir] wines here.

Dick: A lot of it is taken for granted, partly because those who are making good pinot noirs are the descendants of wineries that have supported new winemakers. That's what's really, to my way of thinking, pretty exciting because those who come up here to grow pinot noir do it because they really love and understand pinot noir. And they do, generally, a good job. The yields are very low, but that's what makes these wines so unique. 

Since 2008, you've been in a new facility in Sherwood that Dick, by the way, designed from the ground up. How long did it take you to design this winery?

Dick: We had a lot of history of winemaking before we moved into that building. That gave us advantage—we knew what kind of a winery building we wanted. 

You basically had the opportunity to build your dream winery.

Dick: Exactly. Pinot noir was very difficult to master as a wine because I had to relearn the making of wine from pinot noir [grapes]. It's different in how we establish the vineyards and make the wines—that was a whole learning process. The first 15 years or so was a lot of experimentation and learning so that was the help we got from other participants in the industry—we were teaching each other. That was very significant.

The new facility has been noted for being eco-friendly and highly sustainable. Is there a particular feature of the building that you're particularly proud of?

Dick: The highlight is that we have a lot of space [laughs].

Nancy: Our daughter Luisa is the winemaker and her first comment after her first vintage there was: "I didn't know it was so easy to make wine." [Laughs]

Nancy, you're also involved in improving the working environment, founding ¡Salud!, which provides healthcare services to seasonal vineyard workers through a benefit auction. Apparently it's the only program of its kind in the nation.

Nancy: World. There's nothing like this—it's totally unique. 

What's so revolutionary about ¡Salud!?

Nancy: It's a collaboration, started 25 years ago, between the major hospital here in western Washington County, winemakers and local businesses. Initially, the purpose of was is to celebrate the wine industry, but then we came up this idea of providing healthcare for our workers. The approach has been not as a charity but as something we need to do—we depend on our field workers, unquestionably. This industry would die without field workers. We can't provide health insurance for them but we can provide healthcare for them this way. We actually take the healthcare out to the workers. We use mobile vans to go out into the vineyards and they get amazing preventative healthcare [which] includes dental. And it's not only the workers but their families. So far this year, they have over 3,000 people signed up. 

How does a worker qualify?

Nancy: They have to work in an Oregon vineyard—that's it.

Do specific vineyards participate?

Nancy: No, we provide the service to any vineyard worker.

Dick: It's funded by a group of wineries through an auction. The auction is fed with some of the best wines that are available, and they're not to be sold other than at the auction. Generally, these wines are fantastic because, theoretically, it's a quarter barrel of the best [wines] you have. 

Nancy: And it's not the best wine in your cellar. Everybody makes a special couvée for ¡Salud! so the wine you buy at ¡Salud! cannot be bought any place else. Through the years, ¡Salud! is the one organization I really stay with because I just love it—you see something happening. And it's all done with complete dignity. There's nothing like: "Here's a little something for you." It's: "We owe this to you, so please accept it."

How has the Oregon winemaking industry evolved in your time here?

Dick: We have 450 voices now—that many wineries. In the beginning, we only had half a dozen. And we had pretty much the same mindset: We always had a vision and an understanding that the industry would grow if we could preserve the land so that it wasn't built on. That struggle goes on today. The reason we have so many vineyards now is because that land was saved.

You've also been active on a legislative level to grow the wine industry, and with 450 voices now, there's a verifiable industry and a much stronger voice of advocacy. But I'm sure there are always different voices.

Dick: Yes. In the '70s, there were different voices as well. There were conflicts but they were easy to resolve. The big conflict today is: What kind of privileges should wineries have? Should they have tasting rooms? Well, we went to the legislature in the '70s and asked to have tasting rooms. As we found out, this has become an agricultural tourism now—people want to visit tasting rooms. 

And you were very involved in that?  

Dick: Yes, and that's what helped the industry. If you follow that thinking, liberalize the laws so that these wineries can function and broaden what they can do, you can create this wine industry. This didn't just happen out of nowhere—we had the freedom to have tasting rooms. We did the same thing—we had a brewery [BridgePort Brewing Company] at one time. Breweries could only manufacture beer; they couldn't do anything else. We went down [to the legislature] and changed the laws there and said: "Why can't' breweries have tasting rooms? Or pubs?" We call them pubs now [laughs]. So they liberalized the laws—well, look what happened. 

What's next for you?

Nancy: Dick is creating machines for bar-to-bean chocolate. 

Dick: I'm working with some people who are making chocolate through the bean-to-bar process, but I'm working on the machine, the equipment.

So, chocolatiers are sourcing beans from specific growers around the world and then making their own sustainable chocolate bars?

Dick: It's kind of a new wave that's happening and the taste of the chocolate from one region is so different than from another region. 

Nancy: There's some people in Portland working on this but this is taking it back to the beginning step.

Which could become like Portland's current coffee industry?

Dick: Yes, exactly. It's a lot like coffee, no question.

Sunset from the terrace at Collina del Sogno
What excites you about today's wine industry in Oregon?

Dick: I've always been excited about the growth and the people who are coming in because this is a grape that doesn't draw a lot of people—the yields are low, making it is difficult. There are a lot of negative things about making a fortune with pinot noir. Those who come are pretty serious and try to learn from those who are here. Those are the people that are going to be successful [because] they truly believe in it.

Read this interview in the summer 2013 issue of About Face Magazine.

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