Although Willamette Valley’s wine industry is relatively new it has managed to carve a prominent place in the world of wine. This is mostly due to its ideal conditions for grape-growing and winemaking. But it is also in-part due to a handful of winemaking pioneers, one of which was Dick Ponzi.
Born in March 1934 in Newcastle, Pennsylvania, Dick Ponzi was the youngest of three children in an Italian family that settled in Michigan. As a child, his parents sourced grapes from California to make wine, which piqued his interest in the beverage. Ponzi went on to study engineering at the University of Michigan, graduated in 1959 and started his career in the aerospace industry for North American Aviation in Los Angeles, California. He later worked with United Technology in San Francisco as a structural engineer, designing rockets and fighter jets.
Ponzi also worked as a ride developer for a company associated with Disneyland. In 1988, he collaborated with Ray Grimm, Jere, and Roger Sheppard to design and build a weather machine that could predict the weather and display different signs for sunny, stormy, and drizzly weather. The machine, Ponzi’s brainchild, is located at Pioneer Courthouse Square in Portland, Oregon. But despite a successful aerospace career, his passion for wine never left, and he eventually decided to open his own winery and become a full-time winemaker.
Dick Ponzi: A Winemaking Journey
In 1962, Ponzi met Nancy A. Berry while working in California, and they got married soon after. They took a trip to Europe, which sparked their interest in wine, eventually leading them to establish their own winery in Willamette Valley, where they could produce Burgundy-style wines. They founded Ponzi Vineyard in 1970, making it one of only four wineries in Oregon at the time.
Ponzi’s winemaking journey was not without challenges. He had to learn the hard way that applying Burgundian methods to winemaking was not enough; the winemaker’s experience and technique were also essential. By the 1980s, after several trials and errors, Ponzi came up with a winemaking technique that virtually every winery in Willamette Valley and beyond would later embrace. His method involved using the entire grape cluster, and it was a game-changer.
In 1985, Ponzi allowed his grapes to soak before fermentation, a technique that was later adopted worldwide, including in Burgundy in the late 1990s. This winemaking technique propelled Oregon into the global limelight, establishing the region as a producer of world-class wines. Some of the vineyards that are a testament to Ponzi’s winemaking techniques and influence include Argyle, Archery Summit, and the renowned Beaux Frères.
Dick Ponzi: Oregon’s Best Wine Producer by the Wine Advocate
Dick Ponzi’s wife and children helped in the vineyard after school, but they lost interest in the estate as they grew older. However, they returned to the family business after pursuing interests in other fields. Luisa, who attended Portland State University and prepared to continue medical school, and Anna Maria, who was involved in the magazine business, rejoined the winemaking business in 1992.
In 1988, Ponzi was named among the best winemakers in the world and Oregon’s best wine producer by the Wine Advocate. In 2005, he received the Vintner of the Year award from the American Center for Wine, Food, and the Arts. Two years later, in 2007, Ponzi and Nancy received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Oregon Wine Board.
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“Ponzi Vineyards – about Us – History.” n.d. Www.ponzivineyards.com. https://www.ponzivineyards.com/About-Us/History.
“The Ponzi Legacy.” n.d. Wine Spectator. Accessed June 3, 2023. https://origin.winespectator.com/articles/the-ponzi-legacy.