A small winery in the south Salem foothills recently earned “Pinot Noir of the Year” honors at the 2021 Sommeliers Choice Awards in San Francisco. Not familiar with Sass Winery? You need to correct that oversight post haste.
Sass Winery’s 2016 “Vieux Amis” Pinot Noir received top scores from wine buyers and wine directors from top American restaurants like The French Laundry in Yountville and Spruce in San Francisco. The judging panel included 12 of the 269 people in the world who hold the title of Master Sommelier.
This year, one of the judges was David Hunter, the wine director for Tavern on Kruse in Lake Oswego. According to Hunter, wineries from around the world, from Australia and New Zealand to Italy and France, entered close to 1,400 wines in the competition’s various categories.
Was Hunter surprised an Oregon wine earned the top pinot title?
“Willamette Valley pinot noir is top-notch, so no. My only surprise was that I wasn’t familiar with the producer. Sass is definitely on my radar now,” Hunter said.
Jerry Sass is the owner and winemaker at Sass Winery. He came to winemaking the traditional way: by doing something else first. Sass’ Twitter bio reads, “Winemaker, journalist, teacher – a semi-lethal combination.”
Sass’s journalism career spanned three decades, starting with the University of Kansas student newspaper and ending in 2003 as The Oregonian’s copy desk chief. Along the way, he developed a healthy skepticism that suits him well when assessing wine competitions.
“I definitely look at competitions with a jaundiced eye,” Sass said.
For Sass, wine needs to be evaluated by how it interacts with food and whether it faithfully represents the grape listed on the label.
“Too often judging rewards wines that stand out simply because they are different. Varietal typicity is important to me. Pinot noir should taste like pinot noir rather than something else,” Sass said.
These concerns are taken into account at the Sommeliers Choice Awards. Points are assigned based on how well the wine will pair with a wide variety of foods, typicity, quality, value and packaging. According to the competition’s website, their goal “is to provide on-premise buyers and sommeliers a valuable benchmark for understanding which wines would make a compelling addition to a wine list.”
A competition that catches the attention of restaurant buyers is important to Sass Winery, where 75-80% of their wines are sold to restaurant accounts across the United States.
“You can’t argue with the kind of reaction something like this gets. I received a few orders within a day or two of hearing about the award.” Sass said.
Eager to try the award-winning wine, I headed out to buy a bottle of the “Vieux Amis.” The drive to the winery, which is located within wine-spitting distance of the Enchanted Forest, is like going back in time.
The gravel road leading to Sass Winery is dusty and dotted with ramshackle farmhouses and scurrying quail. The unassuming barn-like winery structure manages to squeeze out 3,000 cases of wine a year that disappear quickly. If you couldn’t see Willamette Valley Vineyards off in the distance, you would swear you were buying wine in 1971 instead of 2021.
The 2016 Sass Winery “Vieux Amis” Pinot Noir, which sells for $48, is excellent. It is packed with aromas and flavors of blackberries, black cherries, bittersweet dark chocolate, smoke and a trace of tart citrus that comes across like white grapefruit. It is easy to see how such a balanced, graceful wine as the “Vieux Amis” won over those high-powered sommeliers and wine buyers.
In the Sass tasting room I noticed four other wines that received awards at this year’s Sommeliers Choice Awards. Sass Winery’s 2018 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir ($28) and 2019 Gamay Noir Rosé ($20) took gold medals. Their 2015 Wild Winds Vineyard Pinot Noir ($48) and 2019 Pinot Blanc ($22) earned silver.
So far, I’ve only been able to try the gamay noir rosé. My wife and I polished off the entire bottle while watching triple-digit temperatures melt the garden hoses this past Sunday. The wine’s shiver-inducing acidity and refreshing red cherry and peach flavors couldn’t save the hydrangeas, but it helped us beat the heat in style.
If you are looking for a new wine adventure on a less beaten gravel path, I highly recommend a trip to Sass Winery.