4th of JULY:
SOME OREGON SELECTIONS
- PONZI VINEYARDS
- When the going gets tough, the tough get going. The
Ponzi's left California for greener pastures (or vineyards) and started
planting vines in 1970, vinifying their first wine with the 1974 vintage.
Dick and Nancy Ponzi uprooted their young family from the San Francisco
Bay Area and moved to Oregon in 1969, purchasing 20 acres of prospective
vineyard land southwest of Portland. A year later they began
planting vines on the property and the rest, as they say, is history.
Nancy Ponzi doing the manual labor while her husband had the "sit
They are now viewed as "old-timers", having
so many vintages under their belts. As a result, people blinded by the newest,
latest, "hippest", hardest-to-get brands often overlook Ponzi. Pity.
Because this winery routinely turns out some of Oregon's best wines and they have
down-to-earth pricing policies. This sort of
philosophy is to be applauded and
deserves support. I have been at trade tastings of Oregon wines and taste the wines from the "new kids on
the block" which have amazingly high prices because "they're scarce".
Try pouring "scarcity" into your wine glass!
Ponzi has long made good Pinot Noirs. Dick Ponzi had the idea of
making wine which reflected the particular grape variety more than
spotlighting the work of the barrel builder. As a result, the wines
have been lovely expressions of Oregon Pinot. And with the
"kids" taking over the business, marketing and winemaking, the
Ponzi winery has evolved into a wonderful family enterprise. It's
still rooted in the Willamette Valley "terroir" and winemaker
Luisa Ponzi-Hamacher (there's a law, we understand, in Oregon requiring
winemakers to have three names...hence, Harry Peterson-Nedry, Lynn
Penner-Ash, Luisa Ponzi-Hamacher) continues to build on her father's early
We've long teased Nancy and Dick, creating a label for them which makes
them blush to about the color of their Pinot Noir Rose.
- Of course, this is meant in fun as they don't claim their wines are on
the level of those made at Burgundy's top domaine, Romanee-Conti.
((There is a producer in Oregon who WILL tell you their wines are better than
those of the famed DRC!))
The Ponzi family has ties to our very own Piemontese family, the Currado's
of Italy's Vietti winery. Another great and similar family
enterprise, Alfredo and Luciana (Vietti) Currado were extremely generous
in offering hospitality and wine-growing expertise. As a result, the
Ponzis make wine of two Piemontese grape varieties, Arneis and
Winemaker Luisa Ponzi spent time in France, learning Burgundian techniques
in the vineyard and cellar, but I recall meeting her in Piemonte back in
the early 1990s when she'd take a break and escape to Italy. She
learned her craft well and despite her relative youth, she's making wines
which are admired by many of her peers.
- Winemaking operations have been moved from Beaverton to nearby Sherwood
as the Ponzis vinified their 2008 vintage in the new facility, dubbed the Collina
del Sogno (Hill of Dreams). "If you build it, they will
This is the location of their 6th vineyard site. The winery was
designed by the ever-innovative Dick Ponzi (he designed theme park rides
for Disneyland, once upon a time) and it's a multi-level facility that's
constructed be environmentally-conscious inside and out. We had the
pleasure of visiting the place a couple of times and it's a spacious,
Ponzi, by the way, founded a small brewery years ago in Portland, giving
birth to the "craft brewing" or micro-brewing industry in
Oregon. And they also started a wine bar and restaurant in their
neighborhood, hoping to shine a spotlight on local culinary delights as a
way of featuring not only their wines, but those of some of their esteemed
I've been privileged to be invited to vertical tastings of Ponzi's Pinot
March of 2004 we were invited to sit in on a "vertical tasting" of
Ponzi Pinot Noirs.
Check out my notes by clicking here.
Click Here for some notes on a
tasting held in August of 2010,
Along with Photos of the Ponzi Gala
very young Nico Ponzi-Hamacher shows off some vines which are nearly
the same age as he was! (The kid was three when we snapped this shot.)
Here's a more recent photo of "The Nico-Teen" with his sister Mia and his winemaker Mom.
Mia, Luisa and Nico...Summer of 2010
Carlo "The Nose" Hamacher, Future Winemaker or
"I smell sunshine!" commented the perceptive Carlo!
currently have Ponzi's 2013 Willamette Valley Pinot in the shop. This
is showing nicely and it's a good example of Ponzi wine-growing and
The vintage looked quite promising but they had a bit of a challenge when a
September rainstorm dropped typhoon-like weather in the Willamette
Valley. Ponzi met the challenge by hiring helicopter pilots to fly
over their vineyards and "dry" off the vines!
The resulting wine is elegant and quite different from most California
Pinots. For one thing, it's a mere 13.2% alcohol. For another,
there's no Syrah, Zinfandel or Petite Sirah in the wine to add
We like the cherry-like fruit and the touch of brown spice notes in the
background. The 2013 is showing well now and it will probably develop
a tad more with another couple of years of bottle aging. Then,
well-stored, it will keep nicely for another 5+ years, if you like.
response to market demands for wines which are sensibly-priced and of good
quality, the Ponzi's offer a new label called "Tavola." They've
been making this for but a few years and the past couple of vintages have been
really good. These have been quite good and one of the best buys in
Oregon Pinot Noir. The 2014 is beautifully aromatic and it's dangerously
The wine was matured for eleven months in French oak, 20% of the barrels being
brand new. It's terrific quality, comparable to good "village"
level wines from Burgundy, for example. I've chided winemaker Luisa Ponzi for
making a wine of relatively modest alcohol in this day where critics look for
power, huge levels of alcohol and tons of oak. Tongue-in-cheek, I
suggested she make a 15 or 16% alcohol wine for future vintage so that consumers
who drank a few glasses of this would be "sotto la tavola."
fans of their "Reserve" Pinot Noirs for years. While many
wineries along the west coast use the "reserve" designation for entry
level wines, Ponzi uses this for a wine of "reserve" quality.
Production levels tend to be fairly small. It tallies to a small
percentage of their total Pinot Noir production and the wine is routinely
The 2009 produced a really top wine at the Reserve level. There's a note of sweet spice and
some forest floor tones to this wine. It shows a touch of wood, despite being
aged in 50% new French oak. Nice dark cherry notes to this... It's medium-bodied and very nice
now, though we've tasted 10 to 20 year old Ponzi Pinots which have been very
Pinot Gris (or grigio, if you prefer) is also made. I find it more
along the lines of the drier wines from Alsace (that small percentage of winemakers who
still make "dry" wines) more than a typical Italian Pinot Grigio. This
means it has the floral, hinting-at-spice notes on the nose and is dry and flavorful on
the palate. The 2014 is spot-on! Screw cap bottle, as they've
now offered for several years...
- Arneis is a
wonderful wine here. The Ponzi family is friendly with the Currado
family in Italy's Piemonte. Alfredo Currado is the first (we
think) to dabble with the Arneis grape in 1967. Alfredo had read
about this grape and, one day in church in 1967, he got up and asked if
anybody had some Arneis grapes..."Please bring them to the winery and
I'll buy them." That afternoon, a large procession of trucks and
wagons rolled into their little town and the first Vietti Arneis was
Today, thanks to
his efforts, many wineries in the Langhe region make Arneis.
Ponzi family makes Arneis, too. Early vintages showed
"promise," but they've been reliably good for a number of
years. It's quite dry,
fresh with hints of lemon, white flowers and a touch of a pear
This is perfectly suited to a wide range of dishes, from Prosciutto & Melon
(at Ponzi's 40th annual Gala in 2010, the first plate served featured thinly
sliced Prosciutto which had been cured by Dick Ponzi!) to Seafood pasta or a Fritto Misto of
veggies or seafood...The wine stood up beautifully with the mildly spicy red
sauce and a parsley-based (I think) green chili sauce served with a
And it has just the right
amount of oak: none! We are currently sold out...
Pinot Blanc is an overlooked variety and, frankly, most are worth
over-looking. In Italy, we know of an Alto Adige producer where this
grape rises above the 'norm,' and, of course, in Alsace it's periodically
treated with respect. A number of producers make this along the west
coast, but it's often more of a rarity than a serious attempt at top drawer
California's Chalone winery made a remarkably Burgundian Pinot Blanc and
theirs had been a benchmark for that style of winemaking. (The most
recent bottling we tasted was sweet, following in the footsteps of Rombauer
Chardonnay and Caymus Cabernet! Ouch.)
We'd offer that
for the past few years, Ponzi has become the benchmark for a wine handsomely
mirroring those of top estates in Alsace. Luisa used to vinify a small
portion of the wine in seasoned oak cooperage, but the 2014 was made
exclusively in stainless steel. She used to induce a secondary,
malolactic fermentation, but this vintage was inhibited from undergoing an
"ML." The 2014 is a delight and it's a good candidate to pair
with an appetizer course, beautifully setting up a Pinot Noir.
- Dick Ponzi,
as noted earlier, was a mechanical engineer and was solicited to be a judge for a
competition to design and build a "weather machine" in downtown Portland.
He's such a creative soul, he declined the invitation saying he'd prefer to
an entrant in this competition.
Ponzi's design won and you'll find an interesting
"sculpture" (or contraption) which is Portland's "official" weather
machine. He probably wishes he could have built something which would help
the weather, rather than merely "indicate" what the conditions are.
They'd, then, no doubt, have more outstanding vintages in Oregon!
- Currently in stock: 2009
PONZI Arneis Sold Out
2014 PONZI Pinot Blanc $19.99
2014 PONZI Pinot Gris $15.99
- 2009 PONZI "Reserve" Pinot Noir Sold
2013 PONZI "regular" Pinot Noir SALE-PRICED
2014 TAVOLA Pinot Noir List $25 SALE $22.99
THE EYRIE VINEYARD
Eyrie Vineyard was the home of "Papa Pinot," a real pioneer of a
fellow named David Lett. David, who passed away recently, was the first to plant Pinot Noir in
Oregon after working to match various grape varieties to regions where the
fruit would "just" attain ripeness or maturity.
What bigger challenge than to plant Pinot Noir in a place that was
Lett did this in 1966 and started making wine shortly thereafter. His
early Pinot Noir wines were most encouraging and soon you had a couple of
other crazy fellows in the neighborhood (those would be Dick Ponzi, Dick
Erath and Dave
Lett, though, is viewed by many as the "father of Oregon wine-growing" and his wines
set the standard back in those early days, bringing much-needed attention to
Oregon as a potentially fine wine region.
David had long been
frustrated, in my view, that his wines have not been more glorified and
sought-after. We conducted a tasting some years ago and included his
'normal' bottling of Pinot Noir amongst a group of similarly-priced
wines. He sent a rather defensive note saying "this is like
comparing a 'village' level of Burgundy to premier cru or grand cru
wines." I did not think the tasting was unfair, since his wine
was priced in the same neighborhood as the other wines. The
Eyrie wine did not fare well in the tasting, frankly and Lett probably found
selling wine to be challenging an endeavor as growing grapes and
making wine. I suspect part of the dynamic was simply a case of David
being "cellar blind" and he simply was comfortable with his own
David & Diana Lett's son Jason runs the winery these days. I
stopped in recently and found the wines to be, frankly, better than I'd
- The estate comprises four vineyard parcels in the Red Hills area
covering a bit more than 50 acres. The wines are produced in a
low-tech, traditional fashion. Lett prefers to do minimal rackings,
lengthy "lees contact" (this comes through nicely in their Pinot
Gris), spontaneous malolactic fermentations, with no fining and minimal
These are wines which are lost on those looking for fruit bombs or oak
monsters. Eyrie's bottlings are far too subtle for many wine
drinkers (and certainly the critics who seem to prefer a more exuberant
style of wine). If you look at the color of an Eyrie Pinot
these days, you'll find a wine that's marginally darker than some rosés.
The critics deduct points from their 100 Point Scale if the wine is not
David Lett would defend the relative lack of color in Pinot Noir saying
something along the lines of "the intensity of color in a wine of,
say, the Minervois appellation is inversely proportional to the quality
and complexity of that wine."
Having had some success with Pinot Noir, Lett planted Pinot Gris to test
its ability to ripen and to produce a good white wine. It was the first
vineyard of this grape in the United States and he made America's first
Pinot Gris in 1970, a decade before others began dabbling with this
Lett had some early success and told us he'd trade bottles of this wine
with local salmon fishermen who knew to stop by the winery to exchange
their catch for some bottles of David's unusual little white wine.
It was also a good match, on the dinner table, with the salmon and this
wine had quite a staunch following.
Other producers followed suit and today Pinot Gris is "the"
major white wine in Oregon (there's three times as much Pinot Gris planted
As noted earlier, they have a rather minimalistic approach to making this
wine. It has a lightly brassy color and there's a mildly smoky
character on the nose. There are some pear-like fruit tones and the
wine is dry and medium-light on the palate.
The current Pinot Noir is perfectly nice, but, for my taste, over-shadowed
by the wines produced by neighboring vintners. I think the wine is a
bit costly for what it delivers, but it's well-made, light and
elegant. You can tell it's Pinot Noir, however.
Jason launched a new label called "Black Cap." The first
vintage was 2002. We had not seen this wine in our market until
recently and purchased a bottle of the 2009 from the distributor.
As we're wont to say, "Now you're talkin'!"
- The wine gets its name from three Oregon natives: the black capped
Chickadee (a local songbird), the black-capped Morel (mushroom) and the
Jason Lett has the idea of making a wine which expresses its roots.
The 2009 is a very fine Willamette Valley Pinot Noir...we like the dark
cherry notes and there's just the right amount of sweet oak lurking in the
background. It's young, but certainly showing well now...
Currently in stock: 2013 Eyrie PINOT GRIS
2009 BLACK CAP PINOT NOIR Sold
The winery tasting room is open Wednesday through Sunday, 12-5.
The place used to be staffed by Jacques Rendu, though I understand Monsieur
Rendu has changed jobs...
- DOMAINE DROUHIN
is a French family from Burgundy. Their label in Beaune is "Joseph
Drouhin". The head honcho, "Dad" (Robert Drouhin) was very impressed
when he tasted an Oregon Pinot Noir from David Lett's "The Eyrie Vineyards".
So impressed, he ventured to the Willamette Valley and found a vineyard site near
Dundee. Established in 1988, Robert's daughter Veronique is "Boss" in
Oregon. Really. She's married to a fellow named
"Boss". (I don't make this stuff up, you know.)
The first wines were mighty impressive, having lovely Pinot fruit and a nice touch
of oak. Drouhin's Burgundy wines have been, generally, "correct", I
suppose, but I've rarely been excited by them (though I have had some nice and enjoyable
bottles....they are simply not the most "dramatic" wines being made in
Burgundy). Their Oregon wines have, to my taste, often been a bit more interesting
than most of what I've tasted of their French bottlings. They don't use tons of new
oak in either location.
The Oregon bottlings seem to take a year or
two to start to blossom. At least, I've often found I seem to prefer their Oregon
Pinots when they're 3 or 4 years old. The 2013 is their current release and
this is very nice, balanced, mildly-oaked Pinot Noir. It is a lovely
wine and one which is drinkable now and should age handsomely, too. We
like the floral aspects of this wine along with classic cherry-like Pinot
bottling of Pinot Noir is named after Veronique's daughter and is called
"Laurene". It is a shade more rich than the normal bottling.
Chardonnay is a relatively recent addition to the portfolio. When you taste it, keep in mind
Drouhin has extensive holdings in the Chablis area. Hence, their Oregon
Chardonnay is not a big, voluptuous, oaky white wine. Like Chablis, it is a bit more
reserved and subtle.
Our experience with these wines is that they start out nicely elegant and
they get even better with time in the bottle. I recall having a Pinot
Noir from a prominent Russian River producer alongside the Drouhin
wine. When they were first released, the Sonoma bottling was
superior. A decade later the Sonoma wine was still good, but the
Drouhin had eclipsed it, blossoming beautifully.
- 2013 DOMAINE DROUHIN Pinot Noir (list $48)
2011 DOMAINE DROUHIN Pinot Noir (1/2 bottles) $23.99
- 2009 DOMAINE DROUHIN Pinot Noir "Laurene" List $70 SALE
the tradition of Oregon winemakers needing to have a hyphenated surname, Ms.
Lynn Penner-Ash has been a part of the Willamette Valley wine scene since
the late 1980s.
She was a botany major at U.C. Davis until she changed to viticulture.
Then Lynn spent a crush season at Domaine Chandon and changed her major
again, this time to enology. After a stint at Stag's Leap Wine
Cellars, she was hired at the Rex Hill Winery in the Willamette Valley and made some
lovely Pinot Noirs there. In those early days, Rex Hill was a
sought-after producer whose wines were amongst Oregon's best.
In 1998, while still at Rex Hill, she
started her own label and now she does that, full time. Lynn's husband
Ron works in the vineyards and cellar, as well as handling some of the
They built a winery and planted a wonderful vineyard overlooking the
The winery and the Penner Ash brand were both purchased by the
Kendall-Jackson folks. In addition to the cellar, there are 15 acres
of vineyards, too.
Both Lynn and Ron say they'll stay on with the winery, at least for the
foreseeable future. We'll see.
- There are about 15 acres of vineyards on the property where the winery
is located. It's called the Dussin Vineyard and Lynn selected
several clones of Pinot Noir which she felt matched the particular terroir
of this site. This is in the Yamhill-Carlton District.
They buy fruit from nearly a dozen top vineyards situated in 5 regions,
including Southern Oregon's Rogue River Valley (where they source some
Syrah and Viognier).
Viognier is especially good here. It comes from two vineyard sites
in the Rogue River Valley and is vinified in stainless steel with around 5
months of lees contact. The resulting wine really captures the heart
and soul of this Rhone variety, displaying a wonderfully peachy character
with some pear-like fruit on the palate. It's fairly dry and has
reasonably good acidity, so it's a nicely zesty wine.
There's good Riesling to be had here, as well. It's a three vineyard
blend and the wine has some nice "petrol"-like fragrances which
will appeal to hard-core Riesling fanatics. The wine, in the 2008
vintage, is off-dry, having less residual sugar than Rombauer's famous
Napa Chardonnay (which people will tell you is dry, even though it's not).
produces a range of Pinot Noirs. I liked their estate-grown wine the
best of those I sampled at the winery. The vineyard is young, but
testimony to Lynn and Ron's studious efforts in planting several clones in
order to create a complex wine. The aromas are wonderfully ethereal,
with an underlying fragrance of rose petals. At $60, it's a bit of a
splurge, but the wine is lovely.
A table wine blend of Pinot and Syrah hit the mark nicely. It's a
twenty buck bottle and a good value. So many of these sorts of
"declassified" blends are washed out wines where they apologize,
saying "but it's only $20." They need not apologize for
this and "it's only $20."
I think they do very fine work with their Syrah. The wine has red
cherry fruit and some cola notes, along with an underlying spice
tone. It's a good example of a Pinot Noir winemaker's
Syrah...there's an elegance and restraint to the wine and I think a
winemaker from France's Rhone Valley would recognize the variety
here. I understand there's a drop or two of Viognier in the
blend. I also found some sweet spice notes, perhaps coming from a
bit of time in oak? Very nice.
- Currently in stock: 2006 PENNER ASH Oregon SYRAH $34.99
and Annie Shull own this lovely winery and they've been making wine since
They've enjoyed a fair bit of success over the years and now their
business is on fairly stable footing in the Newberg area. Previously
they've rented space in other wineries and so the wines were made here and
Shull's day job has been (or had been) working for Intel, though today
he's up to his eyeballs in wine. His Intel gig is as a
consultant. He also consults for a few other wineries in the
neighborhood and produces wine for a couple of brands apart from his own.
The Shulls recently built their own winery and tasting facility and this
should also help continue their escalating the quality of their wines.
They cultivate a bit of Pinot Gris and Gruner Veltliner, but most of their
home vineyard is planted with Pinot Noir.
We're partial to their 2013 "Barrel Select" Willamette Valley bottling. They make a
number of single vineyard wines, too, but this one hits the mark for
tasting like Pinot Noir and being affordable. It's a blend of their
Estate Pinot Noir with purchased fruit from different
vineyard sites and numerous Pinot Noir clones. A touch of new oak
adds complexity to the wine, but it's not dominating the Pinot Noir fruit.
Some describe this as the
"entry level" wine, but there's not much "entry level"
about it aside from the price.
The wine is medium bodied, showing notes of cherry and a touch of
pomegranate with a suggestion of oak. The tannins are mild, so it's drinkable in
Currently in stock: 2013 RAPTOR RIDGE Willamette
Valley PINOT NOIR "Barrel Select" (list $30) SALE
- ARCHERY SUMMIT
been right on target for several vintages of Pinot Noir at this modest-sized
property a mile south of Dundee, Oregon. The winery was founded by the
late Gary Andrus, former owner of Napa Valley's Pine Ridge Winery.
- Andrus was a fellow who was viewed by his Napa neighbors as a bit of an
The wines of Pine Ridge were always a bit restrained, so it was surprising
to find the Pinot Noirs from Oregon to be so expressive and lavishly
oaked. While his Napa Cabernets were a bit shy and introverted
in their youth, the Pinot Noirs were extroverts.
Gary also set up a winery in New Zealand where they made some good Pinot
Noirs. This was called "Gypsy Dancer."
Today the winery is owned by a big investment group, Leucadia. It's an
odd mix of "cousins," Pine Ridge and Archery Summit being loosely
affiliated with a biopharmaceutical company, a Mississippi casino, an
Oklahoma oil drilling company that used to be called "Goober," a
long distance telecom outfit, several mining operations and they're involved
in the commercial mortgage and credit business.
When we visited this estate in their early days, the gate was locked and you
had to ring a bell and asked to be allowed to enter.
Now things are different....
- I tried to make an "appointment" for a winery tour,
identifying myself as a wine merchant. The kids in their tasting
room were perfectly friendly, telling me what each wine tasted like as
they poured it, but when I asked about seeing the winery, I was advised to
"head out the tasting room door, hang a left and open the double
doors. Have a nice day."
They have a nice little photo-op for visitors, roped off at the end as
they don't want people roaming around in their winery...
- The vineyards close to the winery are impressive and the current crop of
wines is quite good. There are approximately 115 acres of
grapes and these are meticulously tended, with some vineyard hands working
there since the first vines were planted.
- Today the make only Pinot Noir, typically bottling a blended,
entry-level wine and 5 single vineyard offerings. With low yields in
the vineyard in an effort to maximize fruit quality and toasty French oak
in the cellar, the wines are quite flashy when young.
have a fondness for their "Premier Cuvee," a blend of fruit from
five vineyard sites, numerous clones of Pinot Noir and a significant
percentage of new French oak barrels. The wine features a sweet
perfume of the toasty oak and it's a lovely bottle of wine, especially if
you enjoy the wood.
"crus" are Archery Summit Estate, Red Hills Estate, Arcus Estate,
Renegade Ridge Estate in the Dundee Hills region and the Looney Vineyard in
the Ribbon Ridge viticultural area.
The 2010 entry-level wine from Archery Summit will give you an idea of
their style and quality. We're especially delighted since the wine is
far less costly than their fancy bottlings and is, if not better than one or
two of them, pretty damned close. We tasted it alongside a
single vineyard bottling and found this to be better balanced and more
charming. Sweet, toasty oak is displayed from the outset and this is
somewhat typical of their wines...(you get higher numerical scores, usually,
when the wines are sweetly-oaked).
I've tasted a few older vintages of Archery Summit wines...my preference is
for this sort of wine in its youth when the oak and fruit shine brightly
Your mileage may vary.
- Currently in stock: 2010 Archery Summit
"Premier Cuvee" Pinot Noir Sold Out
More Oregon Wines