Thursday, March 10, 2011

Ponzi’s Scheme: Fantastic Oregon Pinots

I know that the title of this post is a little predictable and cheesy, but I can’t help it – there was a slow softball pitched to me and I took full advantage of it. And I’m glad I did, because that means that I can relive my recent experience with Ponzi Vineyards, a pioneering family in the Oregon wine industry. Maria Ponzi, one of the daughters of the founders, current Director of Sales and Marketing, and sister of the winemaker, was recently in DC as part of the Capital Wine Festival. The wines were some of the most complex Pinot Noirs I have tasted in a long, long time. The food was delicious – especially the Pinot-braised pork osso bucco that Chef Mark Timms prepared that was paired with Ponzi’s 2008 Reserve Pinot Noir. The event was another success for the Capital Wine Festival and I am glad I got to spend some time sampling Ponzi’s wines and meeting the people behind them.

Ponzi’s history dates back to the start of the Oregon wine industry – the early 70s - when the Ponzis moved from Northern California with the sole purpose of making Burgundian wine in a cooler climate. Listing to Maria retell the story of her family leaving California to start their winery in Oregon, I was shocked by how piecemeal the whole move seemed. They knew that they wanted to move to Oregon, make wine made with Pinot grapes, and that’s basically it. They were basically making wine out of a garage for much of their history. Knowing how much time, energy, effort and money opening a winery nowadays costs, it’s amazing that the Ponzis gambled on starting a winery in what was then a remote hinterland far removed from the center of the American wine industry.

The gamble paid off, and Ponzi has been making fantastic wines ever since. My favorite wine was their 2008 Reserve Pinot Noir that’s complex and elegant with spiced cherries, licorice and a hint of earth throughout that ends in a long, velvety finish. It was one of several Pinot Noirs sampled, along with a crisp and refreshing Pinot Gris and a fuller-bodied Pinot Blanc that had pears, honeysuckle and floral hints on the nose and palate.

Throughout the dinner, I enjoyed speaking to Maria about her family’s history and the wine that they make. While their wine receives rave reviews from the usual suspects – both Wine Spectator and the Wine Advocate have scored Ponzi wines highly - they are now one of the deans of Oregon’s wine industry. At their core, though, Ponzi is still very much a family business that is run with a start-up’s mentality.

I also kept thinking about how far the Oregon wine industry has come since the Ponzis first arrived to work with cooler climate grapes. Oregon wasn’t anywhere close to being on the wine map then, and it now has a reputation for making some of the best Pinots in the world. Virginia is in a similar situation now. While the state is making some great wine, it is still seen as a novelty, an offshoot of the locavore movement, or the passion of a few dedicated wine enthusiasts. With the same sort of dedication to producing great wines that the early settlers of the Oregon industry had, and with the patience and desire to see the industry flourish, it is only a matter of time until Virginia is as synonymous with Cabernet Franc and Viognier as Oregon is with Pinot varietals.

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