Back in the late 1960s, Dick and Nancy Ponzi moved their young family to the Willamette Valley, southwest of Portland, where they purchased 20 acres on a small farm and took a daring risk planting varietal Pinot Noir grape plants.
The winemaking passion established 50 years ago is still practiced today under the family’s second generation sisters: President and Director of Sales and Marketing, Anna Maria Ponzi and Winemaker Luisa Ponzi. Ponzi Vineyards now totals 130 acres of LIVE Certified vineyards, the world’s highest sustainable standard.
Five years ago, Anna Maria and Luisa began development of Cugini, (which means “cousins” in Italian), a sparkling grape juice beverage crafted in recognition of their Italian heritage and named for the eight young members of their family.
CW, Cugini’s exclusive distributor, had an opportunity to talk with Maria & Luisa Ponzi about this unique beverage and about their family history in winemaking.
What’s it like coming of age on an Oregon winery? For Maria Ponzi, it was a childhood like any other.
“Growing up our front yard was a vineyard and the garage was a winery,” she states. “We worked alongside other pioneering families as the industry launched. Our interest was inherent, it’s always been pretty natural.”
Discussing their transitions both beyond the family
business and their reasons to return, Maria continues, “We grew up with wine, as our kids have grown up. And we’ve both been in the same kind of situation watching kids talk at the dinner table, sitting there with milk. There was an understanding of what that perspective was like from a wine-obsessed family. Our young kids would sometimes taste and were always interested, and we thought it would be fun for them to have their own special beverage, not just grape juice but something sparkling and celebratory.”
Luisa adds, “Cugini is about bringing everyone to the table together. It’s not just about kids. It’s equally for adults who choose to not have alcohol.”
When asked about the applicable skills between wine and soda making, Luisa states that, “We approach it from the perspective of wine: texture, freshness, aromatics. Where we would typically stop the press and ferment, here, we are just going to preserve the juice.”
What goes into Cugini?
The sisters start with Gewurztraminer, an Alsatian- German varietal then blend it with Muscat, both super-high aromatics. This blending results in a nose of rose-petal, spice, honeysuckle, with notes of kiwi.
“For us, it’s been a fun experimentation that has value for consumers. And with the red varietals, there’s a lot of room for growth. Lots of potential,” Maria adds.
Cugini is more than just bringing family to the table, as Cugini was forged by family at a table. I asked what it’s like to work as sisters within the family business.
“I lean on the fact that we’re both sisters and we had the fortune of having kids together.” Luisa says. “We have helped each other through every stage. It is an added bonus that our kids kind of grew up as siblings.”
And on the challenges they’ve faced as women in a male-dominated industry, Luisa answers, “I don’t know that our challenges are any different than those for other women in our industry. The challenges are the same. Having to be well educated, which is why I didn’t just join the family business. I wanted credentials, to be taken seriously, to know it really well. This is an industry where if you make quality, you gain respect. I’m now taken seriously and it’s a more comfortable place to be. It’s the same balancing life and kids.”
Maria adds, “I’m still amazed that if I’m at a tasting and there’s a man standing next to me, the questions of the wine are asked to the man, not to me. There’s just some things that never go away.” She continues, “People ask me, ‘So how did your dad do it?’ Somehow, our mother is not part of the equation. No one asks about her. Did she contribute, is she around, is she alive? Back then, in the pioneering days, the women were doing the promoting, the marketing, the sales, trying to fuel the Oregon industry so that people knew about it. These wines wouldn’t be here without the women wine pioneers. And that story has never been told.”
Seeing the inextricable connection between Cugini Soda and Ponzi Vineyards, I asked what makes Ponzi unique.
Maria replies, “The longevity of Ponzi is pretty important to that. Unlike many beverage products, when you are working with the land as we are, as winegrowers and farmers, we’ve been working in the same area, same soil, same vineyards for nearly five decades.”
Luisa mentions that, “In every vintage, the earth gives completely different results. Good, bad, challenging, you never know what you’re up for. Additionally, here in the Willamette Valley, there are very few pioneering, second-generation wineries.”
What makes it unique.
“What makes us special,” Maria says reflectively. “We have our own
winemaker who’s a family member and owner. The quality is consistent, we’re devoted to what we do here,” she says. “The reality of why we’re here rather than Northern California, Washington State or even Canada, is we were brought up by folks who had a passion for Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris. And why is wine being made here? We have a pristine valley sheltered by mountain ranges, with unique soils – that we are really proud of.”