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Ponzi’s pinot put Willamette Valley on the map

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After last week’s column, I started thinking about legendary pinot noir and inevitably was led north across the border into Oregon, up to the Willamette Valley to Ponzi Vineyards.

Dick and Nancy Ponzi arrived in Beaverton in 1968. Now a prime location for wine tourism, it was a not-so-big cow town back then. A mechanical engineer (Dick) and Montessori school teacher (Nancy), the Ponzis had a lot to learn about viticulture and farming. They experimented with a number of cool-climate grapes, but after a few years it became apparent pinot noir was the clear winner.

The first Ponzi pinot noir was released in 1974. Now it is offered in three distinct wines and, in some years, two single vineyards. The Willamette Valley bottling ($35) is a textbook Oregon pinot noir characterized by cherry- and blackberry-laden fruit interwoven with spice. You can drink it upon release (the 2009 is currently on the market), but it will age nicely, in some vintages up to eight years.

Ponzi Tavola pinot noir ($25) was introduced a few years back. With a heavier accent on fruit, it is softer and meant for early drinking.

The Ponzi Reserve pinot ($60) starts coming into its own with five to seven years of bottle age. Made from some of the original vines planted in 1970, it has myriad flavors and is usually at its prime 10 to 15 years after the vintage.

Ponzi released Oregon’s first commercial pinot gris in 1984. While chardonnay is the most widely planted white grape in the state, Oregon is better known for its pinot gris and Ponzi set the standard. Clean, bright and floral with lots of citrus fruit, it is a natural with Oregon’s favorite fish — salmon.

What makes this winery so important is not just its unwavering quality but also the family’s immense efforts to put the Willamette Valley on the map. Dick Ponzi was a founder and the first president of the Oregon Winegrowers Association. Nancy co-founded the Consumers’ Food Council. Before environmentalism was en vogue, they were supporters of the Oregon bottle bill in 1971, the first of its kind in the country. The Ponzis’ respect for the environment prompted them to go down the sustainable path in the 1990s. They were LIVE certified sustainable in 2001 and all the supplemental fruit they purchase is organic, biodynamic or sustainable.

The Ponzis’ efforts have drawn hundreds of others to Oregon to pursue the pinot noir dream. It also rubbed off on their three children, who are now running the winery.

“It’s been our job to expand it and refine it and maintain its image,” said Luisa Ponzi, who was a year old when her parents left California for Oregon. “We think about it a lot.”

She has been making the wine since 1993. Given the high bar that was set by her father, this is not an easy task, especially now that the winery has not one but three families to support.

The production has more than doubled in a relatively short period, yet neither the wines nor the image have suffered. On the contrary, additions such as the Tavola and a superb arneis have increased the Ponzis’ following.

With eight grandchildren waiting in the wings and a lot more competition than when the family moved to Beaverton in 1968, Ponzi Vineyards needs to stay on its toes. That it has for 40 years is more than enough evidence that it is a legend.

Pamela S. Busch is the owner of Skrewcap.com, founder of CAV Wine Bar and a Bay Area wine consultant. Please submit your questions to Pamela@Skrewcap.com.

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