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Pinot pioneers, the Ponzi family keeps its crush going

Weekend!Food: In Season
by: ANNE MARIE DiSTEFANO, Mateo Martines works the vineyards at the Ponzi property, where the family put down roots — and their first vines — in 1970.

The Aurora vineyard is named for the spectacular view it commands, on clear mornings, of the sun rising behind Mount Hood - 'aurora' means dawn in Italian. It's one of the Ponzi family's four grape-growing properties, and this year its grapes are the first to be ready for harvest.

It's the last Monday of September, and vineyard manager Jason Tosch is standing at the top of the hill, holding a refractometer up to the light. This is a simple device that uses a prism to calibrate the sugar content in grape juice.

Meanwhile, a group of 12 experienced workers moves up and down the rows, using small clippers to pick bunches of pinot noir grapes and dropping them into buckets.

'Everything we do here is by hand,' explains Maria Ponzi, who is the marketing sales director for the winery founded by her father, Dick Ponzi.

She and Tosch estimate that during a season running from January until harvest time, workers will pass by each individual plant about 30 times, pruning and removing excess foliage from around clusters of developing grapes.

Many of the workers here return year after year. 'That's what you hope for,' Tosch says. 'They know the vineyard, not just the tasks.'

Weather has effect on taste

Every year is different, Maria Ponzi says. This year, it was younger vines at lower elevations that ripened first. An early spring and a dry summer had them running about two weeks early - harvest, she says, usually begins in the final week of September - but the cold rainy weather last week slowed ripening just a little.

The grapes now feel plump and bouncy to the touch. Rain added moisture content to the fruit, stretching its skin. Flavors come from the inside of the skin, Ponzi explains, so this year's pinot noir will probably turn out with a relatively soft flavor.

Comparing variation from year to year is an important part of the winemaker's craft. 'Every year you learn something different and something new about that particular vineyard and how to take care of it,' Ponzi says.

'This is not a short-term agricultural product here.' From the time that new vines are planted, it takes three or four years before they yield a significant harvest. Only after seven years or so is a vineyard fully productive, and after that, it's something that can last for generations.

That is why, in a vineyard, sustainability takes on special meaning. Planning for the long term is part of a vintner's job. The soil has to be kept healthy for the long haul. Pruning and picking machines, Ponzi says, compact the soil, so Ponzi Vineyards has opted not to mechanize.

Their wines are certified by Low Input Viticulture and Enology (LIVE), which adheres to international standards for sustainability. LIVE requires a range of practices, from optimizing the use of natural resources to passing a taste test.

Fingers, forklifts play a role

'It takes a lot of work to farm the way we do,' Ponzi says, and she knows it firsthand, because she grew up working in the vineyards. Her father worked in aerospace engineering until he and his wife decided to leave California, with three young children in tow, and take a chance growing pinot noir grapes in Oregon. 'It was virtually unknown in this area,' Maria Ponzi says of the now-treasured variety. She remembers the five of them living in a one-bedroom house on the original vineyard, which is still producing wine.

The Ponzis planted their first vines in 1970, and had their first harvest in 1974. Their original house, expanded out in every direction, now serves as a wine tasting room. Just behind is the warehouse where grapes are processed, also with a minimum of mechanization.

Grapes are brought in from the field and placed on a conveyer belt. They are picked over by hand as they pass up a ramp into a destemming machine. Huge metal fermenting tanks (they hold either one and a half or three tons) are carried by forklift to catch the grapes as they descend from the bottom of the destemmer, mostly landing with their skins intact.

After fermenting for approximately two weeks, the grapes are put into a press and crushed, then moved by pipe into either a barrel or a stainless-steel tank for aging. In a sense, it's a simple process, but minor gradations along the way can make big changes in the final taste of the wine.

Fortunately, Maria's sister, Luisa Ponzi, grew up to be a winemaker. She's in charge here, and their brother, Michel, also works for the family business as the operations manager.

As Maria is explaining the fermentation process, her father rushes by in a blue smock, a screwdriver in his hand. It's the first morning of harvest, and everyone is busy.

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Ponzi Vineyards

Where: 14665 S.W. Winery Lane,

Beaverton, 503-628-1227, www.ponziwines.com

More: Tasting room open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily