The Willamette Valley in Oregon is one of the most premier wine regions of the United States of America. Home to some of the finest Pinot Noir as well as other cool climate varieties, the wineries of Willamette Valley are bringing unique touches to the world of wine with their craft and dedicated personal and handcrafted approach. The area runs for 150 miles from the Columbia River in Portland through Salem to the Calapooya Mountains outside Eugene. Named after the river that flows through it, Willamette Valley has the largest concentration of wineries in Oregon.
Out of all of these wineries, the one that stood out the most was Sass Winery, and not just because of the name. At the 2021 Sommelier Choice Awards, Sass Winery’s Sass Pinot Noir 2016 took home the prestigious Best Wine by Varietal award. The Sommelier Choice Awards is an annual wine judging competition that provides on-premise buyers and sommeliers a valuable benchmark for understanding which wines would make a compelling addition to a wine list.
This year, the stakes were extremely high. Gathering a stellar 20 Master Sommeliers under one roof, the Sommelier Choice Awards set a new precedent for a wine judging competition. The judges, heavyweights of the wine industry, judged all the entrants on the basis of quality, value and packaging along with the wines' food pairing ability and typicity. Only those wines that impressed the judges on all the parameters were worthy of winning a medal at the competition.
To shine a little more light on just how difficult earning a medal was, this year's competition saw entries from 26 different countries across 142 different types of wines and varietals among which Pinot Noir was in the top 5 varietals with the most entries. To triumph over such great odds and impressing judges who gave no margin for error, Sass Pinot Noir 2016’s achievement puts it in an elite class altogether.
Jerry Sass’s daydream turned reality
In the late 1980s, around the same time when modern winemaking was beginning to pick up speed in the Willamette Valley, Jerry Sass, an amateur winemaker, brought the Sass Winery to life. The beginning was a complete trial and error process as he learnt something new every day. After two years of looking for a great piece of land to grow, Jerry found 19.4 acres of rolling hills that had then been a grass seed farm. Having just been sterilized by burning, the land was as naked as one could expect. Upon purchasing it, the first two acres were planted with Pommard-clone Pinot Noir in 1989.
Jerry Sass at the Sass Winery, Source Facebook
In the years that followed, more vines were planted, Pommard clone, Wadenswil clone in 1990 and 1991. They also planted pinot gris in 1991 and six years later introduced Dijon 115 pinot noir. In 1995, the work for the winery building began with winemaker Jerry Sass a part of the building crew. The building was fully built in the spring of 1996 and Jerry’s daydream turned into reality. Today, any winemaker who visits the place can instantly recognize it as a working winery. Surrounded by the snow-capped Mount Jefferson and its stunning views, Salem’s wine history turned a new leaf with Sass Winery.
A phenomenal representation of Oregon’s Pinot Noir history
Jerry’s idea when he decided to get into winemaking was to bring people wines that were complex, elegant and balanced. It was to bring wines that eloquently reflect the terroirs of Sass vineyards and bring more recognition to Willamette Valley’s flourishing wine history. The Sass Pinot Noir 2016 stands strong on all of these points and perhaps, that was what spoke true to its nature at the 2021 Sommelier Choice Awards.
The grapes for Sass Pinot Noir 2016 come from Sass’s Wild Winds and Walnut Ridge vineyards. Dark, fruit-driven, with ripe cherries, black raspberries and violets, Sass Pinot Noir 2016 has a peppery spice and silky texture to it. The tannins are fine-grained and mature and the wine has a fantastic, lengthy finish. Made with all estate fruit, the Best Pinot Noir rose to the occasion to take home the laurel.
Home to a collection of wines
While the Sass Pinot Noir 2016 took home the biggest Pinot Noir award at the Sommelier Choice Awards, Sass Winery’s selection consists of other wines that also speak volumes in quality. From the Sass Estate Pinot Noir, Sass Estate Pinot Gris or their range of Riesling from Walnut Ridge, Sass Rosé of Gamay Noir, the winery has extended their range of wines over the years. The vintages are terrific and show how much Jerry and his team care about what they bring to the audience.
Sass Winery's Collection, Source Facebook
The winery, tucked into the folds of Willamette Valley’s fertile lands is based off of the small vineyards flourishing today on land which was once thought unsuitable for growing anything but grass. The hazy, warm days and cool nights of Fall help the fruits develop intense and complex layers of flavor. The wonderfully rich, elegant and forward wines of the Sass Winery are handcrafted with personal touches from the winemaker. The pinot noirs, pinot blanc, pinot gris, chardonnay, riesling, syrah, rosé of syrah and gewürztraminer have made Sass Winery known for their dedication to quality..
Jerry Sass’s journey from an amateur winemaker to one who is now the talent behind the Best Pinot Noir in the world is a journey one may certainly raise a glass to. Follow the winery on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to see what Jerry and his team do next.