Jayhawk Journalists have cultivated
a connection between words and wine
Spring 2016 Edition
Graduating from KU with a journalism degree isn’t the typical path into the wine industry, but for alumni Hilary Berg and Jerry Sass, that’s how it worked out.
When Berg graduated from the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications in 2001, she was content with her job as a graphic designer and knew next to nothing about wine. Sass was dabbling in wine as the news editor at the Statesman Journal in Salem, Oregon, then as the copy chief with The Oregonian in Portland.
But somehow, both — after years of traditional journalism — walked away from the beaten path and found their own. Sass founded what is now Sass Winery in Salem, Oregon, and Berg took over and essentially re-created the Oregon Wine Press as the head editor.
“I worked doing what I knew, but I never thought in college that I would even be associated with wine,” Berg said. “To be frank, I’m still learning about wine. And that's the great thing about being in my position is that I've really learned a lot by being the editor of this particular publication.”
For Sass, that’s one connection between journalism and the process of winemaking comes: constant learning.
Sass, who graduated from the School of Journalism in 1984, said he learned something every day when he was in journalism. Now, overlooking an 8.5-acre vineyard on a 20-acre plot of land, he picks up more and more knowledge about his craft when he’s growing grapes and making and bottling wine.
“As a journalist, it’s impossible not to learn things all the time… if you’re doing it the way we were taught to do it and the way we really want to,” Sass said. “If I had known I would end up doing this, I by God would have gone and gotten a better degree, so I had to work, basically, apprenticeships to get it.”
Though both learn more about wine every day, their paths to their respective places firmly in the Oregon wine scene were distinctly different.
Berg moved to Oregon in 2000, after graduating from Kansas, to join her then-boyfriend, now-husband Chris, who graduated from KU in 1993. There, near Yamhill, Chris and his parents had begun planting what would become Roots Vineyard. A year later, the couple moved into the house on the property, then in 2002 bottled their first vintage — 72 cases of pinot noir.
But even then, Hilary Berg’s interest in the wine industry hadn’t leaked into her professional life just yet. She was still working as a graphic designer for a custom magazine company. But when the 40-minute commute got to be too much for her, and the winery was growing, she looked into new avenues for work. And she stumbled upon the curious case of the Oregon Wine Press.
“We noticed at our house that the Oregon Wine Press, in its previous existence, was not coming to our mailbox anymore,” Berg said of the publication, which, she also added, was flailing. “I really enjoyed in college creating a magazine, which is what we had to do, so I saw this as an opportunity to pretty much re-create the magazine.”
After meeting Jeb Bladine, the owner of the Yamhill Valley News-Register, at a friend’s party, she contacted him with a proposal: buy the Oregon Wine Press and make her a designer. Bladine accepted, and when he saw she had a degree in journalism, he wanted to make her the head editor of the magazine.
It worked out, too: an escape from a job Berg was looking to move away from, but also a move to work closer to home in Yamhill. As of May, she’s been at the head of the Wine Press for 10 years, but it took a massive transition from designer to editor to make it work.
“It scared the (crap) out of me,” Berg said. “I'm one of those people who puts myself into situations where I kind of like to be uncomfortable a little bit, so I kind of push myself a little bit. It was good; it was like, OK, this is a challenge, and challenges — I like a challenge.”
Berg, who hadn’t written in six years, would have to make the move from strictly designing to writing, copy editing and overseeing the publication as as whole. And in time, as the magazine improved from the rough condition it was in when Hilary arrived, the transition became easier and easier.
“I saw it as an opportunity to really showcase my skills in what I learned at KU in turning the publication into something way more professional than what it was,” Berg said. “It was just one of those moments where, for me, it was just take it or leave it, and so I took it and here we are.”
Since then, the magazine has only improved. The Wine Press now sports a glossy cover, thicker paper, and is bound, rather than folded like a newspaper.
“For the last 10 years, the numbers of advertisers and the revenue has gone up, up, up,” Berg said. “It’s a very profitable little publication, for sure.”
Sass, who graduated from the J-School in 1984 with a master’s degree, was raised around wine, but he still didn’t see himself in the industry as a full-time career. But that’s exactly what Sass Winery has become for him — a full-time job (plus some). He owns the winery with his wife, Susan Gage, who graduated from the J-School in 1989.
When Sass was working for The Oregonian in 1994, he started planting vines and built a winery over a few acres as a hobby for family and friends. After six years of apprenticeships near Salem, he walked away from journalism to pursue wine full time.
“I’m still shocked almost every day that I work in this industry. It’s kind of an amazing thing,” Sass said. “We always have that feeling that something in our personal life, whatever we do to de-stress or find some creative outlet, people like to find hobbies or other interests that they might eventually turn into a job.”
For Sass, the transition from journalism directly to the wine business, though, wasn’t too disconnected. Part of that was because his dad made wine out of his basement in his house when Sass was growing up in Rochester, New York. But an entirely separate part of his comfort level with wine came directly from his past in journalism: the creative process, his likeness for teaching and finding truths.
“I get that same creative charger from winemaking that I do from reporting and writing,” Sass said. “Putting something together, finally making something out of it that you can look at.”
“I also think that I’m sort of digging down to basic truths, or I hope I am, either as a journalist or a winemaker,” Sass continued. “As a winemaker, I’ve got to find the most true expression of the place, the vineyard, the vines, the place, and somehow get that without my intervening in any negative way into a bottle.”
Journalists never really lose the passion for writing, and even after being out of the business for more than a decade, Sass is gravitating back to it. He’s working on landing freelance jobs as an editor, and he plans to write a book soon, possibly a historical fiction or profile of the personalities and stories in his job as an Oregon winemaker.
“There are a lot of winemakers who walk into a room and just suck all the oxygen right out of it, and there are a lot that are fun to get to know,” Sass said. “I think they'd be a hell of a lot of fun to write about.”
Roots Wine Company
Located near Yamhill in the Willamette Valley, Roots produces about 3,800 cases of wine annually including pinot noir, pinot gris, melon de bourgogne, viognier, riesling, dessert riesling, syrah and a methode champenoise sparkling.
Located in the South Salem Hills of Oregon’s Willamette Valley, Sass Winery produces about 4,500 cases of wine annually, including pinot noir, pinot blanc, pinot gris, chardonnay, riesling, sauvignon blanc and rosé of syrah.
— Christian Hardy is a junior from Derby, Kansas, studying news and information.