By Andi Prewitt
In a city like Portland that’s filled with bridges, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that they serve a larger purpose: to connect and overcome obstacles. BridgePort Brewing would appear to be appropriately named, then, and not just because it’s located in a city known as “Bridgetown.” The company served as a span that connected three people from very different parts of the world: a brewmaster from Australia, a CEO from Mexico, and co-founders from California. To recognize BridgePort’s 30th anniversary, Dick and Nancy Ponzi took time to reflect on their role in starting the brewery.
The couple’s name is now synonymous with winemaking, so some are surprised upon learning about their earlier adventures in beer. Pinot Noir actually brought the Ponzis to Oregon in 1969. They were looking for a place to grow a variety of grape that wasn’t well understood. The Ponzis found themselves among a handful of trailblazing vintners who began teaching and learning from each other as they went along. Once they had the winemaking down, the next task was educating the public about Pinot Noir and the state it came from, since Oregon wasn’t widely associated with quality wine.
That process prepared the Ponzis for their foray into craft beer. Dick Ponzi said he first became interested in the field because of his engineering background. He found the process of brewing and winemaking to be remarkably different and couldn’t help but be intrigued.
“It wasn’t to make a million dollars. It was to be involved in a project interesting to us and a project that was a challenge,” stated Ponzi.
Distributing and marketing BridgePort beer was definitely a challenge in 1984. Even though Portland had plenty of pubs, many didn’t want to bring in a new beer that was more expensive than what they had been selling. Ponzi and his colleagues also had concerns about customers whose palates were accustomed to mass-produced, domestic lager.
There may have been fizz, but not a broad array of flavors.
“We knew the beer did not taste like a cool, refreshing beverage. It had such a different component to it,” said Ponzi. His knowledge of the wine business gave him the understanding that “it was us against the world,” which was a fight he was willing to accept.
In order to introduce drinkers to the beer they were making, the Ponzis and other early brewery founders needed to get the laws changed. Pubs and breweries seem like a natural fit these days, but Dick Ponzi recalled that manufacturers were once barred from allowing customers to taste the beer on premise without a special permit. Fortunately, his experience with wine came in handy. Lawmakers had altered regulations regarding tasting rooms forwineries at least a decade earlier, so there was a chance they could do the same for breweries. The Ponzis, along with the McMenamins and Widmers, formed an alliance and became what Dick Ponzi labeled “amateur lobbyists.” But bridging the gap between business and politics can be slow, frustrating, and downright confusing.
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.