The Willamette Valley wine pioneers – legends of the wine industry

I have the good fortune of meeting lots of winemakers. I have met some of the icons in the industry, people who helped establish their regions and set trends. But, when I was in the Willamette Valley as part of the Wine Writers Educational Tour, we attended a seminar with the Willamette Valley wine pioneers. This was not just a discussion of the people or a tasting of their wines but they, the original wine pioneers of the Willamette Valley, were there. It was not lost on me how legendary this panel was. These are the people who built the Willamette Valley and they shared their stories which I wrote about in the Napa Valley Register and you can read here.

“It takes a village to raise a child. This is my village and I am the kid,” declared Jason Lett as he welcomed a group of wine writers to the Willamette Valley in Oregon. Jason’s father, David Lett, first saw the potential of Pinot Noir in Oregon.

A Utah native, David Lett moved to San Francisco for dental school in 1963 and was introduced to Napa Valley. He decided instead to study viticulture at UC Davis and after graduating, he moved to Oregon. According to Willamette Valley Wine, Pinot Noir was the first post-Prohibition vitis vinifera variety planted in the north Willamette Valley and the reason Lett came to Oregon. After studying the geography and climate of western Oregon, he had an idea of what would do well in the cool climate. Lett planted his vines in the Dundee Hills, establishing the Eyrie Vineyard, and produced his first wine in 1970.

As Jason spoke about his father, he sat alongside Richard and Nancy Ponzi, David Adelsheim, Harry Peterson-Nedry and Susan Sokol-Blosser.

Sitting together on one panel were the legends of the Willamette Valley. They are the real pioneers of the wine industry. It was the vision, the passion, the hard work and the dedication of the people sitting in front of me that the Willamette Valley, Wine Enthusiast Magazine’s 2016 Wine Region of the Year, is here today. This was the village that raised Jason Lett.

Richard and Nancy Ponzi co-founded Ponzi Vineyards in 1970. They had moved from northern California with the intention of growing Pinot Noir. Richard was a lead engineer making rides for Disneyland and they had three small children. But they had a spirit for adventure and a love for Burgundy and took the risk. “it is fun to talk about now, but it was risky,” Nancy explained. “We just hoped we could make some wine, sell it and send our kids to college. We never thought it would be a billion-dollar industry.”

Bill Blosser and Susan Sokol both graduated from Sanford University in 1966 with liberal arts degrees and the idea that they could do anything with their degrees. In 1970, with no agriculture training and no viticulture training, they moved to a place that no one knew of (Willamette Valley) and planted a grape, Pinot Noir, that was of little popularity. They cleared the land, planted vines, built a home and winery on the property and in 1977 produced their first wines.

“On one hand, it was a miracle and on the other hand, with determination, anything can happen,” Susan said.

David Adelsheim and his first wife, Ginny, also graduated with liberal arts degrees and wanted to move away from Portland. Having never lived outside of a city, they did not want to go too far so David drew a circle around the city on a map. He had heard that wine grapes had been planted outside the city, so he went looking. He drove over the Chehalem mountains and stopped man to ask if he had heard if anyone had planted grapes. It was Dick Erath who had moved with his family from California to Oregon in 1968, planting on Chehalem Ridge. He established Erath Vineyards in the Dundee Hills, and in 1972 produced his first commercial wines. David and Ginny purchased their first 19 acres in 1972 just outside of Newberg, Oregon, and in 1978 established Adelsheim, the first winery in the Chehalem Mountains.

Harry Peterson-Nedry purchased land to establish Ridgecrest Vineyards in what would later become part of the Ribbon Ridge AVA in 1980. His first bottle of wine was released in 1990 under Chehalem Winery, the winery he founded.

There were maybe 10 families making wine in the Willamette Valley before 1980. When each of these Willamette Valley pioneers came to the valley, they did not come with a pocketful of money. They came with dreams and optimism.

“There were only a handful of us,” Richard Ponzi explained. “We had to teach ourselves how to plant, how to make wine and then sell it. We were not farmers. There was only one farmer in our group. A few of us were engineers.”

David Adelsheim continued, “One of us had grown up in a family that grew apples and another had made wine for Louis Martini for three years. But none of us had run a business or sold wine or planted grapes and all but one had never made wine. Why are we here to today with that type of a beginning?”

The answer is collaboration and passion. They traveled to Europe and they read books, and they worked together. They would meet in an old firehouse once a month and share notes discussing what they should do and how they should do it.

“The exchange between people was the sharing of equipment,” Richard said. “There was so much happening at that time.”

Susan Sokol Blosser added, “We are all competitive; it is a competitive market and we have to work hard to sell our wine. But these were the old days where the wine industry fit in a living room. We wrote the book on how to grow grapes in Oregon. No one had money. We had to work together.”

It was not one person or one thing that defined the development and success of the Willamette Valley. The success is based on what Harry Peterson-Nedry described as “the whole idea of collaboration, the initial people and general principled approached of always improving. We never let the standard stay where it is, but rather pushed ourselves.”

Each of the winemakers agreed that it was not always peaceful, and they did argue over the years. But they are family. And they shared the common desire of wanting to make good wine.

“Oregon has the greatest degree of seriousness of any new region because of the single-mindedness of the venture that each person brought forward in the 1970s,” Jason Lett said. Today there are more than 500 wineries in the Willamette Valley. And the children of these Willamette Valley pioneers have returned to continue what their families had begun. Richard and Nancy Ponzi’s daughters, Anna Maria and Luisa, run the family winery today. Susan Sokol Blosser and Bill Blosser’s three children — Alex, Alison and Nik — are involved in their family’s winery. David Adelsheim’s daughter, Elizabeth, works in the wine industry and Harry Peterson-Nedry’s daughter Wynne Peterson-Nedry is the winemaker for the family’s RR Winery as well as winemaker for 00 Wines. And Jason Lett is the winemaker at The Eyrie Vineyards, which his father started.

“It is a profound honor to continue [what our parents started],” Jason said.

Read the original story in the Napa Valley Register.

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