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 modern wine world. It’s jaw-dropping to think that an area known for growing nuts would turn out to be one of the world’s best regions for grape-growing and winemaking. Oregon is home to some of the world’s most famous wineries and had become stiff competition to other famous regions like Napa Valley.

Besides David Lett and Dick Erath, another prominent figure is Dick Ponzi. He was born to an Italian family who settled in Michigan. He was born in March 1934 in Newcastle, Pennsylvania, and was the youngest 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.[1]

Dick Ponzi

Dick Ponzi

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 future wife, Nancy A. Berry. They tied the knot in 1962 and together had three children — Michel, Anna Maria, and Luisa. Not long after their marriage, Dick and Nancy took a trip to Europe. This trip sparked their interest in wine. Upon returning to California, they headed north to Willamette Valley to establish their own 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 would later embrace in the Willamette Valley and across other parts of Oregon. His method involved using whole clusters or berries.

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 quantities in Oregon; he released his first Pinot Gris bottling in 1984.

Did You Know: Pinot Gris is now the second most planted grape in Oregon.

The Impact of the Ponzi Winemaking Method

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.[2] 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 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 from 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. He leveraged his engineering knowledge to fabricate machines and equipment that helped him develop unique winemaking techniques currently in use in wineries worldwide. 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. He and his brother-in-law, Michael G. Etzel, who was a winemaker at Beaux Frères Winery, worked closely with Dick Ponzi and learned how he made his wine. Beaux Frères Winery is now renowned as one of Oregon’s best Pinot Noir producers.

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  1. 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.
  2. 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