Michel Ponzi, co-owner of Ponzi Vineyards, one of Oregon’s pioneering wineries, has spent his entire life building a hobby business into an international company. Born in Los Gatos, California, Michel moved to Oregon as a young boy, at the age of six when his parents left their busy life in San Francisco, seeking a simpler one.
Michel and his wife, Rebecca, have set out on a similar venture. In the summer of 2012 they returned to Michel’s family roots in Italy. They now reside in Le Marche, not far from Abruzzo where Michel’s grandparents were born and raised.
“You could say he has brought the Ponzi family full circle,” states Rebecca.
In the early days, Michel worked side-by-side with his father in every aspect of the experimental business of growing grapes and making wine in the rural area of Scholls, Oregon, about 18 miles outside of Portland. They also started a small, craft brewery called Bridgeport Brewing in the industrial part of Portland. Both of these grew to become enormously successful but before committing to his family businesses, Michel studied music in Los Angeles, Italian in Florence and earned degrees in both Business and Italian.
In 2013, Michel and Rebecca launched a new company, Casal Cristiana Italian Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Michel was somewhat resistant to starting a new company after spending 26 years in the wine and beer industry. He told his wife, “I’m not going to put another liquid in a bottle.”
But as it turned out, he loved the (Italian) olive oil and was convinced that Americans didn’t know what they were missing.
“What a shame to not know what real extra virgin olive oil is, let alone what it tastes like,” says Michel. “For me, I knew I could never go back to mass-produced olive oil. One evening in the fall of 2012 our friend, Luigi Ameli in Torre di Palme, took us to the local olive mill and introduced us to the Traini brothers, Roberto and Francesco. The totes of the olives were filled to the brim, the fruit was being processed and the scent of fresh olives filled the air,” reminisces Michel. “It was intoxicating and took me straight back to my life at the winery. Opportunity is tempting and passion is the engine to ignite an idea. But beyond the love for something or a way of life, it takes knowledge, curiosity, flexibility, creativity and most of all, consistency. I don’t believe that business is a race. It’s not a sprint. There is no finish line. It’s a marathon, one after another, and you need to be prepared to pace yourself.”
Rebecca completely agrees with Michel’s school of thought, and after many years of being as she puts it, “the queen of multi-tasking,” she came to the hard realization that life cannot be taken at a dead-run all the time. “Instead,” she professes, “a slow jog is much healthier.” One of her favorite aspects of their new life in Italy is the local Le Marche motto, “Mangia bene, Spendi poco.” Eat well, Spend little.
Rebecca remembers that evening at the olive mill as well. “It was too enticing,” she states, “and we knew we could do it. So we harvested a few trees around our house that year and one year later, we launched Casal Cristiana Italian Extra Virgin Olive Oil.”
The Ponzi’s extra virgin olive oil is from 100% Italian olives grown and processed along the beautiful Fermana coastline in Le Marche, Italy. It is a sub-tropical region where, in Rebecca’s words, “The air is clean, the soil is healthy and the water is pure.” Their olive trees are all sustainably farmed through proper care of the soil, pruning, planting schematics and varieties, and their oil is primarily made up of a varietal called Frantoio with a little Leccino in for balance.
Michel and Rebecca assert, “Our olive oil has low acidity and a well-rounded, fruity flavor. We process the fruit within hours after harvest (all fruit immediately starts to decompose once it’s off the tree). The olives are then washed, sorted and crushed into a paste with a large granite wheel, rotating at a pace that does not heat up the fruit during the process, hence the term, “cold press.” The paste is spread onto corded disks and then pressed, releasing the oil and water from the crushed fruit. The water and oil is separated and out comes pure extra virgin olive oil!”
The Ponzi’s do not use a filtering mechanism. Instead they use a gravity method where sediment settles at the bottom of the tank. This is to minimize another processing step.
An area of concern that has been making headlines lately in the news and on programs such as, 60 Minutes is the involvement of the Mafia in the olive oil industry resulting in tainted oils being sold to the consumer. Michel and Rebecca agree that this is a problem.
“Large producers have taken advantage of the lack of consumer knowledge and regulation of this industry. When we were in Puglia this fall we saw hundreds and hundreds of acres of olive trees, in the middle of the groves were enormous tanks to store the oil. It is a massive industry. The sad thing is that there are thousands of small olive farmers and producers throughout Italy who are real and make true extra virgin olive oil.”
They continue, “The grand headlines don’t necessarily stop the big fraudulent companies, but instead spread misinformation that Italian olive oil is fake, and that hurts the small and honest farmers.”
Michel and Rebecca’s advice to consumers who want real extra virgin olive oil? Simple. Know your producer.
They advise, “It’s important that consumers educate themselves about how real extra virgin olive oil should taste. The first sense you should use is your nose, then your taste buds, just like in wine tasting! It should smell like fresh olives and taste like olives. It shouldn’t smell rancid and/or taste bitter. You may get a little kick in the back of your throat from the natural polyphenols, which is often an indicator of real EVOO. Color may vary from bright green to straw yellow. It is not always a determinant of whether the oil is real or not because the “fraudulent” brands can manipulate color.”
Michel and Rebecca have a common life goal. They hope for quality livability for artisan producers, and also wish to share all they know about real food. They want their customers to equate Casal Cristiana with fine food and gourmet products that are authentic and made with care. Their business goal is to support the small farmer and other artisans before they become extinct in the grand world of big business and industrialized food.
For more on Casal Cristiana Extra Virgin Olive Oil, visit: www.casalcristiana.com. And individual bottles can be purchased at, The Dundee Bistro and Champagne Bar, in Dundee, Oregon.