Dick Ponzi’s Role in the Wine Industry
Dick Ponzi is yet another testimony that Willamette Valley in Oregon is a force to reckon with in the wine world. It is jaw-dropping to think that an area known for growing nuts will turn out to be one of the best grape-growing and winemaking regions in the world. Oregon is home to some of the world’s renowned and household names that have positioned the wine industry in Oregon as stiff competition to Napa wines and their French counterparts.
Besides David Lett and Dick Erath, another prominent figure is Dick Ponzi. He was born to an Italian family who settled in Michigan from far away, Campotosto. He was born in March 1934 in Newcastle, Pennsylvania, and was the last born of three children.
Dick Ponzi’s Early Life
While growing up in Michigan, his folks used to source grapes from California to make wine. He studied engineering at the prestigious University of Michigan and graduated in 1959. He worked in the aerospace industry for North American Aviation in Los Angeles, California. He also worked with United Technology in San Francisco as a structural engineer, designing rockets and fighter jets.
Dick Pozi also worked as a ride developer for a company with Disneyland. In 1988, Ponzi designed and built a weather machine through collaborative efforts with Ray Grimm, Jere, and Roger Sheppard. His invention could predict the weather and display different signs for sunny, stormy, and drizzly weather. Dick Ponzi’s brainchild is located at Pioneer Courthouse Square in Portland, Oregon.
As fate would have it, his stay in California made him cross paths with his wife, Nancy A. Berry — they tied the knot in 1962, and their union birthed three children — Michel, Anna Maria, and Luisa. Not long after their marriage, Dick and Nancy made a trip to Europe, and this trip sparked their interest in wine. Upon returning to California, they headed north to Willamette Valley to establish their winery.
Driven by their passion for making Burgundy-style wines, Ponzi adopted Burgundian methods to make his wine. Things didn’t go as planned, and he learned the hard way that the fault wasn’t with the technique but the winemaker’s experience and application of the methods.
Read: The History of Oregon Wine
By the 1980s, following several trials and failures, Dick Ponzi came up with a unique winemaking technique that virtually every winery embraced in the Willamette Valley and across other parts of Oregon. His method involved using whole clusters or berries. The berries will be transported in a bucket and taken to a wine press instead of a pump.
He and his wife, Nancy, established Ponzi Vineyard in 1970. At the time, there were only four wineries in Oregon. They released their first vintage in 1974, making 100 cases of Pinot Noir in their first production. Ponzi was also among the first people to plant Pinot Gris in commercial quantity in Oregon; he released his first bottling in 1984.
Ponzi winemaking method impacted winemaking in Oregon and Burgundy
In 1985, he allowed his grapes to soak before fermentation. This method was later adopted across winemaking regions worldwide, including Burgundy in the late 1990s. The wine industry in Oregon gained more popularity in the wine world as a prominent winemaking region capable of creating world-class wines. Some vineyards at the forefront include Argyle and Archery Summit and the famous Beaux Frères, reflecting Ponzi’s winemaking technique and influence.
Even though his wife and children helped out on the vineyard after school, they all lost interest in the estate as they grew older. However, they returned to continue being a part of the family business after pursuing and satisfying their interests in other fields. While Luisa attended Portland State University and prepared to continue medical school, Anna Maria explored the magazine business before rejoining the winemaking business in 1992.
Luisa joined the family business in 1990, and she went on to get a degree in degree in viticulture and enology in Burgundy. After their father’s passing, Luisa took over as winemaker and steered the company from that point onward.
In 1988, he was named among the best winemakers in the world and Oregon’s best wine producer by the Wine Advocate. In 2005, he received an award as Vintner of the Year by the American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts. Two years after, in 2007, Ponzi and Nancy received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Oregon Wine Board.
On this day in history
March 26, 1934 — Dick Ponzi, Oregon wine industry pioneer, was born on this day. He leveraged his engineering knowledge to fabricate machines and equipment that helped him develop unique winemaking techniques currently in use in wineries worldwide. Dick Ponzi pioneered the use of gravity for moving wine. He was also among the group that authored the bill that called for and led to the legalization of tasting rooms and brewpubs in Oregon.
July 23, 1947 — Wine critic Robert McDowell Parker Jr. was born on this day. He and his brother-in-law, Michael G. Etzel, who was wine a winemaker at Beaux Frères Winery, worked closely with Dick Ponzi and learned how he made his wine. Beaux Frères Winery is renowned as one of the best Pinot Noir producers in Oregon.
- Profiles, Producer, Oregon’s Success, and Oregon’s Success. 2022. “Oregon’s Ponzi Vineyards – A Family Success | Wine-Searcher News & Features.” Wine-Searcher. https://www.wine-searcher.com/m/2014/11/oregon-s-ponzi-vineyards-a-family-success.
- Ponzi, Nancy, and Dick Ponzi. 2022. “Nancy And Dick Ponzi Interview.” Digitalcommons@Linfield. http://digitalcommons.linfield.edu/owha_opc_interviews/3/.
Photo attribution: the Ponzi family, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons