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Sass Winery's Blog

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Jerry Sass makes beautiful wines within yodeling distance of the Enchanted Forest.

The former newspaper editor believes in organic practices in the vineyard and “hands off” practices in the cellar. The combination of organic farming without irrigation and mostly staying out of nature’s way in the winery produces some of the best wines that too many Oregonians have yet to discover.

If you only visit one winery tasting room before harvest begins in a few weeks, make it Sass Winery in Salem.

Sass Winery is best known for: offbeat whites, according to Sass.

Sass makes a pair of blends that are both refreshing and reasonably priced at $24. The 2020 Sass “Annie C” is a marsanne-roussanne blend made with fruit from the Applegate Valley in southern Oregon. The “Catharina” is a blend of pinot blanc, gewürztraminer and riesling that tips its Tyrolean cap to the wines of Germany and France’s Alsace region. These blends clock in at a modest 12.4% and 13.2 % alcohol by volume.

Sass also makes award-winning pinot noirs, so the “offbeat whites” answer was puzzling. Sass had a simple explanation.

“For the past two years, people haven’t wanted to go indoors much to taste wine. It has also been hot as hell outside, so people visiting our tasting room drifted toward our cooler and more refreshing whites,” Sass said.

“Must try” current release: The 2020 “Catharina” is the winemaker’s recommendation. “It’s tasting great right now, and it is showy, with great aromatics,” Sass said.

I’ll nominate the Sass Winery rosé ($22) made with gamay noir grapes from Walnut Ridge Vineyard in the Lower Long Tom American Viticultural Area. Every year it is a tart and tangy treat, with aromas and flavors of red hibiscus tea, dried cranberries and a strawberry granita.

History: Sass was exposed to wine culture when he was a teenager growing up in Rochester, New York. That’s where his father, an avid wine buff, would bring home European wines to share at the family dinner table.

Sass’s journalism career brought Sass to Oregon in the mid-1980s. However, his job as the news editor for the Statesman Journal in Salem did not keep him from thinking about wine. In addition to picking the brains of local winemakers in his spare time, Sass wrote the Statesman Journal’s wine column.

What was the worst thing about writing a wine column? “Let’s just say my vision for the column was way different than my editor’s,” Sass said.

Sass purchased a grass seed farm in the South Salem Hills in 1989 as the site for his future estate vineyard and winery. “People starting wineries today are usually well-financed, and they jump in with both feet,” Sass said. “They’d likely blanch and run for cover if they knew how we started. We’d put in a few thousand dollars at a time of our own money and do the work ourselves.”

Much of Sass’ early backbreaking vineyard work took place while working as a copy editor, then copy desk chief, for The Oregonian from 1991-2004.

Sass Winery launched with the release of 48 cases of pinot noir and 25 cases of pinot gris from the 1994 vintage. Today Sass, along with his wife Susan Gage, rides herd over the production of approximately 4,500 cases annually.

What we don’t know: “Sweetie, our winery cat really runs the place, and we have nothing to do with it,” Sass said.

Last book read: “This Old Man: All in Pieces” by Roger Angell.

Biggest inspiration: Sass credits his father with standing behind him and supporting his efforts through the years.

In an interview conducted for Kansas City Magazine in 2020, Sass told me there was a point early on where he worried that making wine wasn’t an important endeavor. “But my dad used to make wine in the garage, and he told me wine has a sacred quality because it goes with food, family and fellowship,” Sass said.

Sass also named Mark Vlossak at St. Innocent Winery and the late Russ Rainey of Evesham Wood for giving him “endless access to their time and brains” when he was still a newspaper editor daydreaming about making wine.

Where to buy: Great Wine Buys in Portland and Santiam Wine & Bistro in Salem. But how could you pass up driving to the Sass Winery tasting room to meet Sweetie?

11 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday, 9092 Jackson Hill Rd S.E.,Salem, sasswinery.com or info@sasswinery.com.

— Michael Alberty writes about wine for The Oregonian/OregonLive. He can be reached at malberty0@gmail.com. To read more of his coverage, go to oregonlive.com/wine.