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Chemistry teacher turns winemaker

A retired chemistry teach puts his knowledge to work in his winery.

By Sheryl Harris

For the Capital Press

Published on September 13, 2018 9:02AM

Dennis Gross of Sovereign Cellars taught chemistry 32 years.

Sheryl Harris/For the Capital Press

Dennis Gross of Sovereign Cellars taught chemistry 32 years.

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Dennis Gross was a chemistry teacher for 32 years, and he made wine for fun for a lot of those years.

“There is a lot of chemistry going on when yeast meets sugar,” he says. “Because of my background, I found it easy to understand what’s happening in the fermentation reaction. Testing and evaluating results was simple.”

But the most important part of making wine takes place before the crush.

“Wine is made in the vineyard, before the winemaker touches it,” he says.

Gross first made wine in 1998.

“It was really good,” he recalls.

He kept at it, and in 2004 he became licensed and bonded.

The varietals are sold under three labels: Finnigin’s Daughter, Sovereign and Sovereign Reserve. Gross enters his wines in Seattle Wine Awards and Food Wine Festival. Often they come back with gold and double gold medals.

“We love to have tastings,” said Gross, gesturing at the 15 or 20 people nearby.

“We need eight to ten people because we open a bottle of each of our wines,” he grins. “And what they don’t drink, I’ll have to.”

Gross chooses to not sell anywhere except from the winery on Steamboat Island about 12 miles outside Olympia, Wash.

“The winemaker gives buyers the complete story of how wine is processed from the beginning to the end, while tasting room pourers often don’t have all the information. Here we give the personal touch and the stories that go along with making a wine from picking to crushing to racking — everything.”

He gives an example.

“When we decided to go professional, I went to Eastern Washington with a car filled with oysters. We traded oysters for grapes and information,” he says. “Kiona Vineyard was very interested in working with us, and we asked for 300 pounds. That was the beginning. The wine was exceptional.”

Most of the grapes they purchase are from the Red Mountain, Walla Walla, and Horse Heaven Hills areas.

“People who work with us have answers. Those involved know what we are doing,” Gross says.

Gross ages the Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Syrah in American and French oak.

Simply put, “I make wine I like to drink,” he says. Standing by one of the barrels, Gross explains that juice from one ton of grapes fills a barrel that holds 60 gallons.

When the wine is ready to be bottled, it takes about 13 seconds to fill four 750 ml bottles at a time.

“It’s a process,” Gross says. “The next person corks the bottles, and the next applies the labels.”

Sovereign Cellars is named after the Sovereign, a 40-foot wooden sailboat the family had for 12 years. “It was beautiful and elegant,” says Gross, “just like our wines.”


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