Ever-Innovative

When you’ve been in the winemaking game as long as Ponzi Vineyards has, you accrue some stories. The pioneering Oregon label got its start in 1970 when you could count the number of Willamette Valley producers on a single hand.

One of its founders, Dick Ponzi, came to Oregon with a background in mechanical engineering. He lent a hand in the creation of famed Disneyland ride Splash Mountain in California before heading north. As his daughter and label president Maria Ponzi points out, Dick is still milling about the estate, fixing things here and tweaking things there.

“He’s really proud of his Tesla,” Ponzi says. “The trunk is completely full of tools.” She has trouble keeping track of the ways the family managed to innovate, especially early on when there was no money. The vinification process offers ripe grounds for the inventor.

To solve the dilemma of bringing a ton-and-a-half fermenter to temperature, Dick Ponzi created his own temperature-controlled unit from something he bought from a supplier. He removed the stainless steel casing from one tank and retrofitted it with intakes for glycol. Relatively portable, it can be forklifted or craned around other ferments in need of some cooling to slow down or some heat to pick things up. Winemakers take their relatively technical sleeves and jackets for granted today. In the 70’s, there was hardly a market for such thing so it practically needed to be invented on site.

Another crafty idea came in the form of beer. In the early 1980‘s, the Ponzi family was still trying to establish the winery name, a long process given the many delays involved. Cuttings have to grow up, the resulting wines need to age and, ultimately, they had convince an unconvinced public to consume the stuff. Why not beer in the meantime?

“If my memory serves, Nancy [Maria’s mom and Dick’s wife] said, ‘Hey Dick, if we made beer we could make one batch and throw it down the drain the same day, and make another one with the same recipe! We would’t have to wait an entire year!’”

Beer’s relative straightforward nature, coupled with the fact that it could be made year-round, proved too attractive. The Ponzi’s started Bridgeport Brewing in 1984, Oregon’s oldest microbrewery. It was officially ten years since the winery’s first vintage in 1974 and there was still not much income to speak of, according to Ponzi. “The brewery was a way to survive,” she says.

Success ultimately came and the Ponzi’s could afford the occasional frivolity, provided it was a creative one. During the particularly wet 2007 vintage, the family went the way of the aviator. “Luisa [Ponzi’s winemaker and Maria’s sister] had worked with winemakers in New Zealand who shared a story about using helicopters in the vineyard,” Maria recalls. “I remember her thinking, ‘this sounds silly and expensive, but let’s try it.’”

The next day, they hired a helicopter from Evergreen in McMinnville to hover over some older vineyard blocks. The propellers fanned the moist fruit mostly dry and disease pressure lessened. “It was pretty effective,” Ponzi recalls. “Local news got ahold of it and local helicopters were booked for the rest of the week.”

Ponzi recalls how fun it was to have a chopper on the property and the sheer wind power the mechanical bird was able to produce. The family has enlisted pilots a few times since, including the 2011 harvest, one of the latest and wettest in recent history.

Having grown up on a vineyard and witnessed the industry’s colossal rise firsthand, Ponzi is admittedly overwhelmed. “We were horrified to tell our friends we worked on a vineyard back then,” she says. She laughs about the original Oregon winemaking pioneers scoffing at buying expensive new barrels as they compared ultra-cloudy wines. What she didn’t understand as a kid working on winery chores that she fully understands now is that it’s all about the lifestyle, money or not.

And if you’re a determined innovator, chances are that lifestyle will be all the better.

by Mark A. Stock | markastock.com
Mark Stock is a writer from Portland, Oregon who spent a healthy stretch in the Dundee Hills making, selling and drinking wine. He’s written for Willamette Week, Oregon Wine Press, Travel Oregon, Sip Northwest, SevenFifty and more. Fly-fishing, Icelandic soccer and The Simpsons are among his favorite distractions.