A couple of months ago we “met” an Oregon winemaker named Jerry Sass on Twitter. At this point we can’t remember if he followed us first or the other way around. But either way, after checking out his website we liked what we saw in terms of the winery’s story and the approach to winemaking. We sent Jerry a note telling him that we would be in Oregon in late September and would love to stop by and meet him in person and check out his wines. We agreed on the Friday after move-in day at the University of Oregon, which was our reason for being in Oregon. We set the GPS for the address that Jerry gave and set off from our bed & breakfast; when the GPS said we had about 1 1/2 miles to go, we turned onto a dirt road and proceeded slowly up a rough gravel road. At least, it was rough for our Prius. On either side of the road for nearly the entire drive were Christmas trees – thousands and thousands of them, some just planted and others towering over the new plantings. “Are we in the right place?” we wondered. It was difficult to imagine that a vineyard and a winery were going to magically appear among the giant Christmas tree farm.
Finally, we came upon a mailbox by the road whose address matched the one that we had entered into the GPS. We pulled into the driveway and drove towards some buildings, hoping to find some sign of Jerry. We felt a bit more confident that we were in the right place as there were many acres of grapevines surrounding us. We arrived at the first building and peered in at two people working inside. They both looked a bit surprised to see someone driving into their operation; we waited for a wave, but they just stared at us. We turned the car around, puzzled, wondering if we screwed up somehow. Luckily, the two guys in the building came out and asked us, politely, if we needed help. “Is one of you Jerry?” we asked. The younger of the two men answered: “I’m one of the Jerry’s.” “How many Jerry’s are there?” we inquired. “Three,” he told us.
One of the Jerry’s then said, “hey, are you the wine bloggers from California?” “Yes, yes, that’s us!” we replied excitedly, happy to know that we were expected. Apparently there was some confusion as to which Friday we were coming. We parked the car and introduced ourselves formally to Jerry Sass III, the son of the Jerry that I had been communicating with, and Kevin, a local neighbor that has been helping out at the winery. We found out that the “other Jerry” would be back soon; in the meantime, “young” Jerry invited us into the winery building and asked if we wanted to taste some wines. And when we say “some” wines, we really mean every single wine that they had on hand in storage.
It is important to mention that we arrived at Sass smack in the middle of harvest and crush. Several days before, they had harvested multiple blocks of grapes, which were now sitting in tanks going through the initial stages of fermentation. The following morning, they were due to harvest additional blocks of grapes.
During the day we were there, Jerry and Kevin were also “punching down” some of the fermenting wine, which is hard, time-consuming work. Despite the chaos, Jerry Jr. and Jerry III took us through their entire array of white and red wines and spent nearly three hours telling us about their winery, their grape growing methods, and how they approach the art of making wine.
Frequent readers of this blog know that we prefer wines that are farmed organically and dry-farmed when possible (ie, they do not use any irrigation other than rainfall). Moreover, we have a strong preference for wine makers that follow a minimalist approach in the cellar – less new oak in the aging process and judicious use of secondary (malolactic) fermentation for the white wines. Without question, Jerry’s approach to vines and wine fits in with ours. For one thing, Sass Winery is a member of the Dry Roots Coalition, a group of grape growers committed to dry farming; in light of climate change and lower rainfall in the West, this is an increasingly important commitment. A further commitment to the environment is Sass Winery’s certification as a Live Certified Sustainable wine operation. This certification applies to both vineyards and wine operations and signifies that qualifying wineries meet strict standards of sustainability. Today, being organic and sustainable makes good business and marketing sense, but that is not why Jerry does it. He is a purist, someone who believes in the “right” way of doing things, the “natural” way.
This purism, which is combined with a decidedly stubborn streak, is evident in Jerry’s selection of vines on the winery property. The vast majority of vineyards in Oregon, the rest of the United States, and across the world, are planted on “root-stock.” This means that a vine was grafted above ground onto an existing vine that is rooted in the ground. Why do almost all grape growers use rootstock? Because there is a pest called phylloxera that has, on several occasions, wiped out hundreds of thousands of acres of vines across the world. To combat the pest, which lives underground, grape growers use a phylloxera-resistent rooted vine and graft onto that vine the wine they want to make (Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, etc.). There are those, Jerry among them, that believe using rootstock and grafting vines onto the rooted plant changes the nature of the plant itself and, therefore, the grape that is produced. As a result, on the 6 or so acres surrounding Sass Winery, 100% of the grapes are “own rooted,” which means the vine was planted in its own roots. Despite the potential risk of phylloxera, Jerry continues to farm his own-rooted vines because he believes it impacts the integrity of the grapes grown and the wine made from those grapes.
Okay, enough about the grape growing and philosophy; how was the wine, you might ask? We truly loved all of the wines, both the whites and the reds. With several of the wines, Jerry allowed us to taste multiple vintages so that we could taste the differences caused by unique growing conditions facing them in different years. Over the course of our visit, we tasted the following white wines from Sass: Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc. In our home wine region of Napa Valley, we get our fair share of Sav Blanc and Chardonnay, but we enjoyed tasting Jerry’s take on both of these varietals. Our favorites among the whites, though, were the Pinot Blanc and the Pinot Gris, two varietals that are not so common in Napa and Sonoma. Both of these wines are fermented in stainless steel and neutral oak, giving them a crisp finish with little to no residual sugar, but nicely balanced acidity and fruit. We are not sure if Rosé is a white or a red wine, but we’ll cluster it with the whites for purposes of this narration. Like the other whites, the rosé is fermented in stainless steel; it does not undergo any malolactic fermentation in order to keep its flavor crisp.
Listing the Sass red wines is easier: Pinot Noir, lots of Pinot Noir. Lest you think there was only one red wine to try, though, Sass makes several different Pinot Noir wines from the winery estate property as well as the Walnut Ridge estate. We tasted the Sass Willamette Valley Pinot, the Walnut Ridge Pinot, the Emma Block Pinot, and the Vieux Amis Pinot Noir. They were all very strong examples of Oregon-style Pinot Noir: strong cherry aroma and flavor with earthy/mineral tones and some floral notes as well. Our favorites among the four, though, were the Emma Block and the Vieux Amis; they stood out as having the most depth, balance and finish.
You might think that after tasting 9 different types of wine (and multiple vintages of several) that we would be too toasted to drive. Thankfully, we learned how to spit at our Napa Valley College class last year, so we were both feeling fine after the tasting. We left Sass Winery with a case of wine (and a 13th bottle just for good luck), our purchase a clear sign of our appreciation for the quality of Sass wines. Actually, we left with 13.75 bottles – Jerry told us he did not want all of the wine we opened to go to waste, so he popped a cork into the open Sauvignon Blanc and told us to enjoy it at our next stop, lunch in Salem. We are believers that good people can win in life, and the Jerry’s are evidence of that. Hospitable and friendly, stewards of the land, and makers of first-class wine. We feel like we met someone in Jerry Sass that we will want to stay connected to for a long time. Certainly, we’ll be back soon to visit.
Just two days later, we had the chance to stop by the Walnut Ridge vineyards, which are owned by Jerry’s partner in Sass Winery, Jim McGavin.
There is a tasting room at Walnut Ridge that offers only Sass Wines. So for the second time in a span of a couple of days, we had a Sass tasting.
During the tasting, we heard about the adventure Jim and his wife Wendy have been on, coming to Oregon from Southern California to grow grapes. After our tasting, Jim bundled us into his trusty pickup truck and drove us around the 8 acres of vineyards. We stopped a couple of times on the trip, once to taste some grapes and once just to take in the amazing views from the hill on top of the property.
John & Irene Ingersoll
October 11, 2016