Monday, April 4, 2016

A Classic--Ponzi Vineyards

As we wound our way up the gentle hillside, the overcast sky was barely letting the sun through.  However, the looming rain clouds provided one of the most beautiful views:  lush, green knolls in every direction we looked.

We passed houses and farmland, and then entered the sloping vineyards just before we glimpsed the gorgeous facility.  Modern, with a rustic feel, the wood and glass seemed to fit into the hill itself, part of the environment as if it had always been there.

But it hadn’t.  This was actually Ponzi Vineyards' new tasting and production facility.  Though these structures were only recently completed, it is the quintessential example of Willamette Valley wine—a family-owned winery that cares about the environment so much that it feels as if it is actually a part of the environment.

Dick and Nancy Ponzi were Willamette Valley winemaking pioneers.  They came to Oregon from California in 1970 looking for the perfect place to grow pinot noir.  Vines were planted and worked by the Ponzis, and as the children grew, they helped their parents work the vineyards.  The first commercial sale of wine was in 1976, and the entire Ponzi family has been involved on some level ever since.

Today, Dick and Nancy’s daughter Luisa is the winemaker, having learned the ropes from her parents and at school in Beaune, France twenty vintages ago. Luisa’s husband, fellow winemaker Eric Hamacher, and their children are active in the business and even live with views of the valley’s vineyards.

Luisa’s sister Anna is the president at Ponzi Vineyards.  She is the marketing force behind making Ponzi’s wonderful wines known around the world.  Anna’s family is also active in the winery life, especially her architect husband Brett, who helped design and build the new tasting room that opened in 2013.

Luisa and Anna’s brother Michael was active in the family business for nearly twenty years before he and his wife branched out to move to Italy and focus on another product:  olive oil.  

However, don’t believe for a minute that Dick and Nancy passed the winery to their children for a relaxed, retired life.  They are still active at the winery and have delved into other business ventures as well, including an early-Oregon craft brewery.  One of their accomplishments has been the Dundee Bistro and Bubble Bar, a restaurant with an outstanding food program featuring locally grown and raised products, known for excellent regional cuisine and an extensive wine list.    

The pioneer story makes this family-owned winery a classic, but so does the winemaking facility.  The winemaking was moved from the original, historic Ponzi vineyard site (which is still a working vineyard and winery) to the new facility—Collina del Sogno—in 2008, where 45,000 cases are made a year.  This is gravity-flow production; the grapes come in at the top level, move to the second level for fermentation, go to the third level for barrel aging, and end at the fourth level for bottling and storage.  Gravity does the work during these processes, meaning that the wine sees less oxygen and softer handling, leading to a high-quality wine. 

The new tasting room was opened in 2013 at the same site as Collina del Sogno.  The wood, concrete, and glass create a welcoming environment for tasting.  The windows let in clear views of the Willamette Valley while customers warm themselves near the indoor fireplace.  The Bocci ball court is just one place to spend time when the Oregon weather is beautiful.  The outdoor patios offer more amazing views of the greenery and vines below.  All of the winery offices are also located here, as well as a small museum area that chronicles the Ponzi Family’s story over the last forty-five years of making wine.    

However, all wine lovers know that the best wines start in the vineyards—Ponzi is no exception.  The vineyards are LIVE certified sustainable, “the world’s highest standard for sustainable viticulture.”  These environmentally-sound strategies can be seen almost everywhere:  from cover crops to compost, from organic pest control to eco-friendly glass.  Yet, the only other resource that is as important to the Ponzis as their grapes is their people, another vital part of a thriving winery.

The 2014 Chardonnay, aged in stainless steel, is a spectacular example of chardonnay’s tendencies to be a chameleon.  In the steel tank, the light, mineral characteristics show before the fruit, and then the tropical fruit shows through to the finish—a more Chablis-like example.

The 2012 Avellana is the other side of the chardonnay coin.  This wine, twenty-five percent aged in oak for twenty months, is full of butter and pear, richness and cream.  The tropical fruit finish ends the quintessential example of a quality, buttery chardonnay, all without being overdone or overripe.

Pinot noirs are showcased here, too, like the 2013 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, with the archetypal favorites of an Oregon pinot:  bright strawberry, deep cherry, crisp acid, and tasty eucalyptus.  From the bright color in the glass to the long finish, it is a perfect Willamette Valley pinot noir.

The Aurora Vineyard Pinot Noir uses fruit from the most prized vineyard site, situated at slightly higher elevations (300-600 feet) and planted in prestigious laurelwood soil.  This is a deeper, richer, darker wine with great fruit, but the wet earth makes this incredibly complex, while showing the characteristic signs of pinot delicacy.

Lest one think that Ponzi Vineyards is not a diverse producer, think again.  Indigenous Italian varieties are grown by the family, like arneis and dolcetto.  Rosés and sparklings are also made, and, recently, even a lightly-sparkling muscat was produced—a Moscato di Ponzi. 

Though Ponzi does make a select few unique wines from unique grapes, Ponzi Vineyards is the classic example of a Willamette Valley winery.  The Ponzis were early pioneers in the wine industry in the valley.  Still today, they produce excellent examples of the region’s top grapes.  The Oregon philosophy of caring for the environment is first and foremost for this winery, as is caring for the people who work there.  The gravity-flow winery is not specific to Oregon, but has become an Oregon mainstay.  The tasting room is new and modern, yet fits into its surroundings like it has been there for decades. 

Yes, Ponzi Vineyards is truly a classic—the perfect example of what a Willamette Valley winery can…and should…be.