Hitting the Sweet Spot
at Sweet Cheeks Winery
A small Oregon winery sweetens the deal with an Aussie winemaker, more fruit and some savvy marketing.
May 19, 2008
It took a lot of guts for Sue to earn some respect, although he got a lot of attention. And when your wine label is Sweet Cheeks and your logo features an ominous-looking black crow, well, it also gets attention. Sometimes, the respect comes later.
I live in Georgia, so this report is based on my one and only visit to Oregon’s wine country. I’m no tenured expert on the wines of Oregon and the Willamette Valley; but on a recent tour, tasting and luncheon, Sweet Cheeks got my attention, as well as my respect. In fact, SC’s Dry Riesling and Pinot Gris were some of the tasting highlights of a 400-hundred-mile, weeklong trip through the Oregon wine country.
North to Oregon!Daniel Smith, the owner of Sweet Cheeks, moved to Oregon from California in 1976 and went into the refrigeration business, something he had trained for in the Navy. Smith’s business brought him into contact with some pioneers in the
In 1989, he bought 30 acres of land and vineyards and added plantings of Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay. In the early 90s, in addition to acquiring more land, Smith added Riesling to his portfolio. After much success as a grower, he saw his first crush in 2006 at his newly built winery near Eugene. Based on the unique contours of the terrain, the property had become known as Sweet Cheeks. In 2008, Daniel Smith plans to crush over 100 tons.
For his new winery, Smith hired a young Aussie winemaker by the name of Mark Nicholl, a relative stranger to Oregon wines, who faced the challenge of arriving right at the beginning of the ‘06 harvest.
“I had made or assisted with 14 vintages of wine from McLaren Vale to Coonawarra and Burgundy to Apulia, but I had never tasted an Oregon wine,” Nicholl said. “But that changed very quickly! I’m here because I’m working with a very unique piece of dirt and equally unique microclimate. I’m just getting to know the vineyard, but I know I have world-class Riesling, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay to play with and develop. As for Pinot Noir, watch this space!”
Although he came to Sweet Cheeks from Corton André in Burgundy, Nicholl was trained at the University of Adelaide and the University of Technology in Sydney and brings a decidedly Aussie perspective to Oregon. “Here it rains!” he said. “Rain makes the grass grow; and where I grew up, that’s a positive thing.”
This Aussie attitude is apparent in his wines, especially the Pinot Gris, which was my favorite. The rich Oregon soils and abundant winter rainfall (many summers see little or no precipitation) show
“I guess my style of winemaking is a mélange of new and old world techniques,” Nicholl said. “I feel you need to produce wines with character that reflect the style of the fruit the vineyard and season has provided.”
Nichol loves food and cooking, so it is important to him that his wines are food friendly. He feels the wines should be balanced and approachable with food, as well as cellarworthy, goals made easier because the vineyard produces fruit with excellent phonological ripeness in terms of flavor and phenolics while still retaining good levels of the natural acidity essential for making balanced wines. The vineyard’s eastern orientation also provides a moderation of afternoon temperatures in the mid to late growing season, which helps to enhance and protect the aromatic fruit characters that this vineyard does so well.
“In the winery, I borrow from the old world,” he said. “I like to minimize contact with the fruit and build complexity and structure through extended skin contact and whole bunch fermentation.
“There’s always a never-before-seen challenge with each harvest,” Nicholl said. “Our immediate goal is to increase our 2007 production of 7500 cases to 10,000 cases in 2008. Plus, we have an additional 20 acres we will be planting.”
The Front OfficeLorrie Norman, general manager, feels the marketing challenges for Sweet Cheeks and Oregon wines.
The vast majority of the remainder of their sales is through their tasting room and wine club. They are fortunate to have an amazing local fan base, with a wine club that continues to grow, as do their events at the winery.
(At this point, I couldn’t resist suggesting that new signage might help. I had driven past the place twice - but maybe the locals find it a lot more easily?)
The future of Sweet Cheeks will likely go beyond the present vineyards. Nicholls and Norman are developing relationships with growers from other regions of the Northwest to enhance their wine portfolio and include some warmer climate labels. It probably won’t be long before the funky label with the black crow will include such varietals as Tempranillo and Syrah.