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Dick and Nancy Ponzi live in a sprawling, open-plan home perched atop a 65-acre vineyard on the lower slopes of Chehalem Mountain, barely a half-hour's drive from Portland. An enormous picture window affords a panorama of the vineyard and surrounding mountains, the view punctuated by a reflecting pool and dramatic modern sculptures. All the lines are clean and sharp, framing a natural beauty, a description that could apply to Ponzi's best Pinot Noirs.
From the earliest vintages of the 1970s and '80s, Ponzi Vineyards' Pinot Noirs had richness, suppleness and generosity, yet they retained an essential finesse and elegance. In the 1990s, when Oregon finally found its footing, the state's best Pinot Noirs, including those from Archery Summit, Brick House, Argyle and Beaux Frres, took their cues from the Ponzi style.
Ponzi came to wine after a successful career as a structural engineer, first in rockets and fighter jets, later for a company that developed rides for Disneyland. In 1969, he packed up the family and moved to the Willamette Valley, convinced that Oregon's climate was more suitable than California's for Pinot Noir, which he favors for its versatility with food. While waiting for his vineyards to produce, Ponzi got a job teaching engineering at a community college. A textbook salesman who called on him mentioned that he too was growing grapes for wine. It was David Lett.
"[Lett] told me about Dick Erath, who was also starting out," Ponzi recalls. "We had some company, other people who were serious about the industry. We knew that this was going to be a real wine region. It was a visionary group."
Oregon's pioneers knew they wanted something like Burgundy, but they struggled to achieve it. When they added whole bunches or stems, as they saw Burgundians doing, the wines came out thin and harsh. Winemaking faults introduced off flavors.
Ever the scientist, Ponzi learned from his own mistakes. He watched what winegrowers in Burgundy did to make their wines and tried the same; when it didn't work, he figured out why. He discovered, for example, that it wasn't so much which method he used to handle the wines, but how gently he did so.
"We first made four barrels, and we did it all by hand," he notes. "As we got larger, we bought equipment and realized that the wines were not the same. The must pump was not doing what a bucket does. These things seem incidental, but they make all the difference."
At the time, in the 1970s, Oregon was still feeling its way vintage by vintage. At first, vintners were so entranced by the region's cool climate that they mistrusted sunny, warm vintages that produced delicious, ripe flavors; in one such vintage, 1978, Ponzi didn't even market his wine as Pinot Noir, instead selling it as red table wine.
"We were paranoid about it being too ripe," Ponzi recalls. "We didn't think it could age." Today, tasted at Ponzi's dining table, the 1978 is rich and elegant, broad, refined, flavorsome and savory, still showing plum, chocolate, cream and subtle spice flavors.
By the 1980s, Ponzi was seeking ripe flavors in the vineyard and sufficient acidity to keep the wines going. He had also developed a winemaking protocol that has become widely adopted.
He used whole berries, sometimes whole clusters if the berries were especially thin-skinned. He used small (1.5 ton) fermentors that never got too hot or had trouble getting a fermentation started, and carried the must to the press in buckets instead of pumping it. Starting in 1985, he allowed the grapes to soak prior to fermentation, a technique that became trendy in Burgundy and the New World in the 1990s.
"In the '80s, Dick Ponzi was already hitting on all cylinders, making Pinots that were head and shoulders over others," says Michael Etzel, who makes what is consistently among Oregon's finest Pinots at Beaux Frres. Etzel worked the 1988 through 1992 vintages for Ponzi. "[Ponzi] is and was my wine mentor. Fundamentally, I make my wines the way he taught me."
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