Deeply-Rooted and Well-Balanced: Meet Winemaking Superwoman Luisa Ponzi!
Having an accountant as a father, I can remember when I was a young girl looking forward to April 16th. That’s when ‘busy season’ was finally over and Daddy would no longer be working late at night and on the weekends.
Well, there’s another occupation where ‘busy season’ applies, but it’s much more reliant on physical labor AND is not nearly as cooperative or predictable as with accounting. The deadline changes every year, and your livelihood is as dependent upon nature as it is upon your hard work and your reputation with clients. It’s called winemaking, and it takes patience, perseverance and profound scientific knowledge to make it a successful career.
My esteemed friend Luisa Ponzi has been in charge of the harvest each year for more than 2 decades now as head winemaker at Ponzi Vineyards in Willamette Valley, Oregon, but she has been experiencing the harvest every year since she was a young girl. Today, Luisa stays on top of this 10-week sprint every autumn, while maintaining her roles as mother of four children and honorable wife to another winemaker. The results are a staggering array of world-class American wines finding their way into the bottle each year, and a close-knit, over-achieving family. How does she accomplish all this? That’s simple: She’s a Superwoman, of course! But as you might suspect, there’s far more to it than that.
Making Harvest Look Easy
Luisa loves her work, particularly the harvest. She actually looks forward to that time of year, when her duties get dialed up. In maintaining her focus and momentum, and thus the integrity of the product, Luisa points to one golden rule to keep all the pieces in place and the machine well-oiled: It is simply that her values stay in direct alignment with the job, so that the Ponzi mission remains clear to all parties. This common-goal mindset keeps everyone working as hard as they can every autumn, while the overall feeling of camaraderie keeps her on an intimate level with these seasonal volunteers, most of whom she will barely get to know. For Luisa, this is all energy-enhancing, rather than energy-draining. She is proof that being focused on what she does best, and having the freedom to shut out the world around her during that time, can actually be fun. The hours fly by!
Being at the head of a family business, a similar mindset serves her nicely in this sphere as well. As she and her sister Maria run the winery, it’s important they remain on the same page, choosing their battles with each other wisely, and keeping their mission clearly stated. Simultaneously, Luisa finds it resourceful to tap into the wisdom of her parents Dick and Nancy, whose experience in winemaking and vineyard management stretches back an additional generation. Although Dick’s role has steered away from the winemaking decisions and more toward the maintenance needs, his energy and big smile alone lifts Luisa’s spirit (which is also true for everyone he comes into contact with), reminding her that she has learned from the best!
A Family Affair: Factoring In The Kids
One of Luisa’s greatest challenges to her superwoman status has been motherhood. Her solutions, which have proven effective, involve strategizing smartly with her husband Eric. When the kids were very young, she and Eric concluded that it would be wise to continue full-on in their careers while enlisting help with the children, especially during the harvest season. They were fortunate to be surrounded by good, trustworthy people (including their Nana), and soon found the children to be quite adaptable to being cared for by these folks when their parents were working.
Luisa’s intuition was accurate, and as her kids got a bit older, she found they indeed needed more attention from her and Eric. This is entirely manageable for most of the year, but the two-month harvest requires that she and Eric refocus on their career duties for many, many extra hours each day. Where would they find the bandwidth to think about what the kids are doing after school, where are they, and who are they hanging out with? Luisa’s solution? She started delegating! When her son turned 12, for instance, she made big schedule changes to compensate. She would leave work at a certain time to be home and available for at least a few hours each day, and return to work afterward. This required hiring people she could trust to carry on while she took time for her family. She and Eric would touch base once each day to see how their time went with the kids. They also decided that hiring additional folks to help with the teenagers to maintain a sense of routine during these weeks was in order. Despite how chaotic all of this sounds, it worked out brilliantly for years, and continues to.
Served by Strategy
Typically, Luisa puts in time at the winery starting at 3am, when she can find some serious prefrontal cortex time (perfect for tasting and analyzing). By 6:30am, she’s back at home to wake the kids and drive the kids to school….time that she treasures, and which Eric bookends at dinner time so she can work late. Luisa’s attention to detail keeps them in communication throughout the day, and their affection for each other keeps them grounded (she’ll make him coffee, while he’ll leave her a romantic note or some flowers). Such baby steps add up to a profound family effort, and it consistently shines through in Luisa’s gracious demeanor.
A New Beginning
Earlier this decade, Luisa, her family and her team took on a huge change in the way their lives and careers operate. Ponzi relocated its production site to a brand-new, state-of-the-art winemaking facility! This allowed them to increase production, offer a jazzy new tasting room, and grow the business. Luisa even had the good fortune of keeping her cellar master of 12 years on-board after the move (It’s essential to have a second pair of well-trained eyes). But with this move came the stresses of compromise, which prompted Luisa to learn how to delegate more effectively. It meant surrounding herself with people she could learn from….a clever approach to spreading the burden, since it would be shared by many experienced, capable hands.
As it turns out, it’s gratifying to lead such a team, who bring with them their own hopes and dreams. They are able to flesh out Luisa’s ideas, and she in turn serves as a mentor to them. She consciously hired people who had experience in big wine facilities, who could operate forklifts, track barrels and use bar coding systems. Between the new winery and the experience of the workers, Luisa can continue crafting wine utilizing the old-world techniques she prefers. She is also able to continue to apply herself where she feels she is of most value: tasting every single pressing of juice.
Onward, Team Ponzi.
A grateful Luisa Ponzi is the best way to sum up her energy. Her father and mother established a wonderful business for her family, and today she and her sister are taking it to the next level by making enough compelling, regional wine to support the new generation of the Ponzi family. She relishes in the fact that she has a stable career accomplishing something she’s good at, and she now understands the value of staying in one place, after years of thinking “Why haven’t I gotten anywhere?”. Many of those old vines in the family vineyards are now deeply-rooted, just as Luisa and her family are in western Oregon. I’m grateful to have her as a friend, and proud to spotlight her as an accomplished and DRIVEN Superwoman. And by the way: If you’ve never tried a Ponzi wine, you should!