November 2012 Issue of Wines & Vines

Getting It Right After 40 Years

Pinot pioneer pours decades of winemaking knowledge into Willamette Valley site

by Tim Patterson
Deep down inside, some winemakers are artists—the kinds of people who never met a grape they didn’t (at least briefly) fall in love with. Others are engineers who never met a tank they didn’t want to customize.

Dick Ponzi has plenty of artistic cred, having been one of the pioneers of Pinot in Oregon’s Willamette Valley back when most folks thought both the grape and the place were bad bets. But after three decades of making top-notch wines in a cramped, make-it-up-as-you-go facility, his inner engineer re-emerged, leading Ponzi to personally design every detail of a new, larger, environmentally friendly gravity-flow winery—and to oversee all construction as his own general contractor.

It’s a reminder that before he became a wine guy, Dick Ponzi helped design rides for Disneyland, among other engineering jobs. Set in the middle of a vineyard, the structure he built in 2007-08 is all concrete and steel and glass, highly functional, no muss, no fuss. Though the facility has a fantasy name—Colligno del Sogno, “Hillside of our Dreams”—there are no fanciful flying buttresses, no Piemontese campanile. The idea, he says, was to retain all the techniques and practices (and most of the equipment) that had proven successful at the old winery but make the whole process much less labor intensive. He says his daughter Luisa, now Ponzi’s winemaker, commented after her first harvest in the new digs, “I never realized how easy it was to make wine.”

You can almost hear Dick Ponzi saying, “Easy for her, maybe.”

Clean and lean
The winery building is basically a shell on top of four flat, cavernous levels dug into and descending down a hillside slope. Nearly every winemaking operation works through some kind of gravity flow, and Ponzi says here it’s actual gravity at work (not temporary gravity created by an endless series of forklift maneuvers, which was the style at the old winery.) At and well under the ground level, the winery is all concrete, topped by windows that allow in plenty of indirect light and covered with a reflective zinc-aluminum roof.

The top level contains an indoor, covered reception area and crush pad, mercifully shielded from the elements, which at harvest time in Oregon aren’t often all that endearing. A modern sorting table by DeJong Products and a conveyor by Van Weld Metal Fabrication deliver fruit to a venerable 1985 vintage Amos destemmer-crusher, which drops fruit down into fermenting bins on the second level. The fermentation level is one big, wide-open space, maximizing flexibility in what goes where and for how long. Pressed juice or wine heads down to the third level (the first being at the top) for barrel-aging, and all the way at the bottom is bottling and case good storage.

The total facility is about 30,000 square feet—a third of which is only used at fermentation time. The winery could produce much more than Ponzi’s current 35,000-case annual production, and someday far down the road it might. For the moment, the roominess is a constant relief from the previous quarters.

Every level is at least partially underground; at the fourth level (for case goods), only the windows peek above the soil. The semi-subterranean design and the reflective metal roof aid immensely in natural cooling, supplemented with night air ventilation; the facility has neither heating nor air conditioning systems. Humidity seems to take care of itself, too. Natural light floods in from both sides, and rooftop solar panels help chip away at electricity usage. Treated wastewater and storm water get stored and diverted back out into the adjoining vineyards, as needed.

Dick Ponzi has a longstanding interest in architecture and all the skills needed to envision and design the winery. But lacking formal certification, a friendly local architect vouched for his submissions. The land, mostly existing vineyards, was acquired in 2006, and work began at the end of 2007. The fall had been quite rainy that year, but the 2007-08 winter was unusually dry, allowing the excavation to proceed rapidly, which in turn meant the facility was available for the 2008 harvest. Ponzi followed the construction crews as they worked, tweaking small details as they went—a process still ongoing in dribs and drabs, according to Luisa Ponzi.

Going with the (gravity) flow
Matching the stark simplicity of the winery interior, Ponzi’s winemaking style is on the minimalist side, too. It rests on the quality of fruit, 40% of which is estate grown at several sites, with the remainder coming from vineyards owned by others but managed by Ponzi. All the estate vineyards and most of the contract grapes are certified through the Oregon LIVE (Low Impact Viticulture and Enology) organization and the Salmon Safe program; the winery itself was also one of the first LIVE-certified facilities.

Once the fruit gets to the winery, having the crush area inside (which might seem like a luxury) is a blessing in the frequently rainy Willamette Valley; fruit that has to sit and wait its turn has a roof overhead. Everything makes its way across the DeJong shaking/sorting table and a customized conveyor. Reds go through the destemmer-crusher on the top floor, though only its destemming capacities get any real use, dropping whole berries downstairs for cold soak and fermentation. Whites mainly start their service one level down with whole-cluster pressing on a Europress, then they are either tank-fermented or barrel-fermented on the third level. The destemmer and presses are mobile, but the tanks and bins that receive fruit and juice beneath them are even more mobile, making gravity work.

At the peak of harvest, the largest floor (on the second level) holds a huge number of fermenting bins, accounting for about half of the fruit that comes in. This being a Pinot place, cold soaks are part of the program; for this Ponzi rents refrigerated shipping containers for the season. The cellar crew expands to more than a dozen at harvest time; there are a lot of punch downs to do.

Fermentations for the reds and for Chardonnay go off with whatever yeast is on the grapes or in the vicinity, and Luisa Ponzi says they rarely have a stuck fermentation to worry about. Aromatic whites—Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Riesling, Arneis—get inoculated with a “house” yeast strain, isolated a few years back and propagated anew for each harvest. Chardonnay fermentation occurs at the barrel level, in a section separated by plastic sheeting: cooler for the fermenting Chardonnay, warmer for the barrels going through malolactic. Aromatic whites get tank fermentation, with temperature controlled either by glycol jacketing or by portable chillers from tank-maker JV Northwest that can be dropped into the tanks for a quicker fix.

Fermentations rarely depend on enzymes or other additives—except for occasional batches of problem grapes, which in this part of the country mainly means botrytis. Ponzi does YAN analysis of every batch and adds diammonium phosphate if needed. White fermentations are cool; reds generally peak somewhere near 90ºF.

Some reds get pressed with the same Europress that handles whites, but Pinot goes through a well-broken-in Willmes press, a make popular with Oregon Pinot producers. Press wine flows down to the third level and into waiting barrels. Chilling and SO2 are used to prevent malolactic fermentation in aromatic whites, but the Chardonnay and all the reds go through malo, making use only of resident bacteria.

Steam-bent staves
Ponzi makes use of a long list of coopers (see the tech sheet on page 44 for a full list), nearly all French oak, with a few Oregon barrels thrown in. One of Luisa Ponzi’s preferences is steam-bent staves for Chardonnay barrels, not fire-bent, and she procures them from small, artisan coopers such as Saury, Allary and Damy. But fond as she is of good coopers, Ponzi gets most exuberant when pointing toward a rack of old, used, stainless steel Coca-Cola drums that she thinks came into the winery when Amity Vineyards winemaker Myron Redford discovered a Coke plant that was going out of business and alerted the winemaking community. “I use these for everything,” she says with satisfaction.

For cleaning all those barrels, Ponzi is not a fan of ozone. She worries that its microbe-snuffing capabilities might be too effective and could threaten the winery’s well-behaved population of good, wild microbes. Instead, her crew spends a lot of time with Gamajet pressure washers.

Just as very little is added to the grapes at fermentation time, not much is taken out before bottling through fining or filtration. Whites get bentonite fining for heat stability, like nearly all commercial whites; the aromatic whites get sterile filtration, increasingly via crossflow through Cascade Wine Services, a mobile provider. Reds and the Chardonnay rarely get fined or filtered, and if a particular batch needs help, the usual remedies are milk or egg whites. Whites are cold stabilized by tank chilling down to 35ºF.

Wines flow down to the fourth, bottom level for bottling on a GAI monoblock line. About 90% of the Tricor Braun bottles get Stelvin screwcap closures; some higher priced reserve lots are sealed with natural cork from Rich Xiberta. Labels are designed in-house and printed by Label One.

And since the fourth level is the coolest, it also hosts case goods storage until the wine heads for the marketplace

Cellar door and beyond
As a well-established brand with a national reputation, Ponzi enjoys 50-state distribution through Wilson Daniels. You can also find Ponzi’s wines in Canada, England, Sweden, Japan and Hong Kong.

The former winemaking facility in Beaverton, Ore., now serves only as a tasting room, and a second will be opening at the new winery in the not-too-distant future. Ponzi also owns a wine bar and a bistro in Dundee, Ore., both of which showcase not just the Ponzi label but a cross-section of premium Oregon wines. Adding in a wine club, web sales and a hosting/catering service for private parties, Ponzi sells about 30% of its production directly to consumers.

Graphic design for brochures and labels, website design and maintenance, regulatory and shipping compliance, PR and marketing are handled in-house through a marketing department. Web, wine club and on-site transactions and inventory are handled with Accpac software.

All in all, Ponzi has put together a complete, mostly self-sufficient package: sustainable farming, microbes that basically come free, gravity this and gravity that, 50-state distribution and a wine bar for a nip after work. If this picture inspires some jealousy among wineries that are struggling to find a way to unload their first thousand cases made in an old garage, remember: It only took the Ponzis 40 years to put the package together.  

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