Some Sweet Cheeks
Eugene winery offers atmosphere, substance
By Neil Zawicki
Just west of Eugene, in a community called Crow, Sweet Cheeks Winery is staffed by women. It’s a hilltop stronghold of viticultural upscalery in a sea of cattle guards and tree bark cammo, and the southern-most edge of the Willamette Valley visible from the patio.
In this sense, the 42-acre winery is on a frontier, fitting well with the name, which came into being after an off-hand remark between two buddies on a porch.
“My grandfather bought the vineyard in the early ’80s,” said Jessica Ramp, the winery’s administrative assistant. “He lived in that farmhouse down there, and the vineyard had no name.”
She points to the house, about 800 yards away, down the hill, and explains how from its porch, her grandfather, Dan Smith, and his father-in-law, Charlie Mitchell, were looking up at the hilltop where the winery sits today. Observing its two rounded tops that meet in a tight valley, Charlie observed how they looked like cheeks.
“Those are some sweet cheeks,” replied Dan. “About a week later, my grandpa started getting mail for Sweet Cheeks Vineyards,” Ramp said. “I guess Charlie had gone out the day after the night on the porch and registered the name without my grandpa knowing. So he decided, ‘Well, I guess we’re a thing now.’”
Of course, the Grand Teton was named in similar fashion, and if the French trappers who named that range were worth their brie, they had a jug or two of red wine packed with their gear.
Dan and Charlie had the grapes; Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris primarily, with Chardonnay on three of the 42 acres, but not the wine. It wasn’t until 2005 that Sweet Cheeks Vineyards became a winery. Today, Sweet Cheeks produces 14,000 cases annually and sells in three states.
The winery has gained a reputation as a decidedly female place; while 20 people work for the winery, the four person front-of-the-house staff is all young women, and their influence shows.
“The face of our winery is definitely female,” admits Ramp.
Sweet Cheeks has, in fact, made itself a destination, amplifying the experience with a relaxed feel and comfortable tone.
“I don’t think it matters how much wine you make or where you sell it, but to be a place where people want to come to drink wine is important,” Ramp says.
Not to mention, Sweet Cheeks has regulars. “We have a particular gentleman who comes in every single day,” Ramp explains. “It’s a winery that feels like home to a lot of people.”
The informal atmosphere is part of the Sweet Cheeks philosophy, according to Ramp.
“I think people can be intimidated by wineries because there are people who write books on wine tasting, so some people can feel like they don’t know how to do it,” she says. “But we’re really approachable, and our staff is really casual. We like to teach people how to really appreciate wine.”
In the tasting room, Laura Moshofsky pours with the excitement of any high-end bartender, offering not only the wine, but an enthusiastic energy and fun attitude. She also has a hand in booking musicians for winery events.
“Laura is the queen of music,” Ramps says. “She can tell you who’s amazing and who’s up and coming.”
“It’s kind of a fun place to work,” says Moshofsky. “There have been lots and lots of improvements over the years.”
Both the tank house and tasting room were built from a demolished barn, with the original trusses visible overhead. Upstairs, the bridal suite offers a dedicated place for preparation away from guests and groomsmen, with stairs for a grand entrance. There are also murals as well as arbors and other outdoor amenities blending to create an elegant hilltop environment.
In developing the distinct look of Sweet Cheeks, the winery ran into a bit of a pickle when it commissioned an artist to design their label. As Moshofsky tells it, the ubiquitous crow regarding the vineyards, surrounded by wreaths of grapes, was a bit too familiar to one California visitor, who recognized the design from another winery in her home state.
“So I guess our designer, who worked out of California, just copied an existing logo and changed it slightly,” said Moshofsky. “So, of course, then we had to scramble around and change it, even after we’d ordered the labels. That was sort of a crazy thing to have to deal with.”
The grandness Moshofsky describes plays well with the event-heavy schedule at the winery. Evening and mid-day tastings with live music each Friday night, as well as weddings (30 booked this summer) make for a busy calendar.
The front of the house staff is backed by a solid back of the house. In the case of Sweet Cheeks, that means the winery’s very first employee and lead winemaker, Leo Gabica.
“He definitely came in having to prove people wrong,” says Ramp. “If you met him you would never know he won a platinum his first year. We’re so proud of him because he had his doubters. But definitely had people who believed in him as well.”
Gabica creates a collection of Pinots, as well as Syrah, Malbec, Merlot, and 2011 Tempranillo, aged two years in French and American oak. It’s billed as having hints of blackberry, plum and cocoa, pairing well with Spanish-inspired dishes. The whites include Rieslings, Pinot Gris, a sweet wine called Rosy Cheeks, and a 2007 sparkling wine, Blanc De Noir, described as delicately creamy and brilliant.
With such wines along with a solid perch on the edge of the valley, Ramp and her cohorts have a good thing going. Ramp herself never dreamed she’d be planning events at a winery in her home state; she graduated from a fashion school in Los Angeles in 2010, which left her yearning for home and not so excited about fashion.
“If you would have told me 10 years ago that I would be doing this, I would have said, ‘No way,’” says Ramp.
She truly enjoys her new calling, and thanks to the winery — and her grandfather — she and the other women enjoy a bit of local notoriety, too.
“In Eugene, a lot of people know about us,” she says. “It happens now that when I go to the store, people will say, ‘Oh, you’re one of the Sweet Cheeks girls!’”
Of course, she has her grandfather, or maybe Charlie, to thank.