Call it capricious. There is no predicting what path the Pinot Noir grape will take its owner down. Ah, but call it captivating when those grapes land in the right place and in the right hands.
That pretty much sums up why Cherry Hill Winery in Oregon’s Willamette Valley is making the smashing Pinot Noir premiere that it is. The valley (pronounced with the emphasis on the “lam”) offers a perfect home to the finicky, but potentially brilliant, varietal. And the right hands? Those would belong to winery owners Mike and Jan Sweeney.
What makes this even a better story for Clevelanders, however, is its local connection. Jan Smith Sweeney is a Westlake native who met her husband Mike Sweeney when they were both attending Purdue University. The couple settled and raised their family in Indianapolis, returning often to visit the rest of the family residing here in town.
Adding an Oregon address wasn’t even on their radar.
It Began with a Bike Ride
In 1996, the Sweeneys took a bike trek through France that would dramatically change things for them. While pedaling in Burgundy, they were smitten with the region’s famous Pinot Noir wines. They met another cycling couple from Vancouver who suggested that if they liked Burgundian Pinot Noir, they should visit Oregon’s Willamette Valley. The Sweeneys did so and, in a matter of months, found themselves going into the wine business.
“William Hill once owned this land,” explained Mike Sweeney, as we sat on their winery’s gathering cabin porch sipping a neighborly sparkling wine before dinner. The aptly named William Hill is one of Napa Valley’s visionaries, whose expertise lies in identifying and developing hillside sites for various grape varietals. His famous sites there include Atlas Peak, Diamond Mountain Ranch and Mount Veeder.
William Hill’s sixth sense for finding slopes worked just as well in Oregon as it had in Napa. He acquired a large tract of land in the Eola Hills district of the Willamette Valley in the early 1990s. He felt that the old cherry orchard’s southwestern-facing slopes, along with cool climate and fitting soil, could offer world-class Pinot Noir.
The property changed hands and eventually was divided into three parcels, all of which are now planted to the varietal. The Sweeneys purchased the 150-acre middle plot in 1998. Mike smiled, recalling his phone call to Jan the day he bought it. “She asked, ‘Is it the one with the trout lake on it?’— the valley is well known for its arid summers — and when I told her yes, she said, ‘Then that’s good.’”
Bring in the Clones
Much of the first year was devoted to just clearing the land. “We had a lot of bonfires in 1998,” chuckled Mike. The vineyard planting ensued later that same year and in 1999. The chosen clones — when you talk Pinot Noir you speak in clones — are the Pommard and the Dijon 113 and 115 clones.
Mike and Jan’s vision was bigger than simply growing the grapes. They wanted to craft superb estate wines. That meant constructing their 12,000-square-foot winery with a tasting room. But things didn’t stop there. The Sweeneys guessed that visitors would not want to leave their place after only a short visit to the tasting room, so they built a working wine ranch on the north ridge of the property.
The ranch’s individual guest cabins are festooned with Oregon’s famous roses and other blooms, thanks to Jan’s master gardener skills. There’s also a gathering cabin where meals are prepared by the resident chef and wine steward, Ron Acierto. A quaint laundry cabin looks as though it has been there all along. Mike winked and told us, “That was built by the Amish in Indiana. It arrived less than 24 hours ago.”
A walkway leads to the outdoor stone courtyard area with a fire pit. There, the view extends 40 miles to the north and for another 20 toward the coastal range. The 7-acre lake is stocked with bass and trout, and the Sweeneys will equip you with a fly rod, or send you out to hike the vineyards or bike on trails. Visitors can also sign up for a wine camp stay and help in the vineyard or winemaking task of the season.
If the name of the winery reflects local lore — the area has long been known as Cherry Hill, named for the Queen Anne cherries which had replaced an even earlier prune crop — the signs along the one-mile gravel driveway up to the winery reveal the Sweeneys’ sense of playfulness. There’s a 14-mile-per-hour speed limit sign as well as the apropos “Cabernet-free Zone” warning. Everyone’s favorite though, is the admonishment, “If you drink no noir, you Pinot Noir.”
Celebrating the First Release
As marvelous as the Cherry Hill property is, the smashing success of its very first vintage release is the best part of the story.
Following up on the Sweeneys’ well-selected vinestock and careful vineyard management, Cherry Hill’s winemaker Chris Luby made the winery’s first estate wines from the 2003 harvest — the Cherry Hill Pinot Noir, the Sweeney Pinot Noir and its Papillon Pinot Noir. In spite of the young vines and a challenging vintage year, the Sweeneys’ handcrafted wines debuted this year to impressive reviews.
Each wine of the estate trio — the entire group has been described as “quite excellent” — presents a superb characterization of its particular clone of the Pinot Noir grape. The Pommard clone Cherry Hill, awarded a 91-point rating by Wine Spectator, shows itself as a delicate and elegant Pinot Noir that pairs fabulously with many foods. The Sweeney (Mike’s favorite and outstanding with salmon) is the estate’s reserve Pinot Noir. Crafted of 100 percent Pommard clone, it’s produced in very limited quantities and not available at the store level.
Papillon, made from the Dijon 115 and 113 clones, is the family’s biggest and boldest Pinot Noir. Think cherry and chocolate here and bring along a cigar with this one. The wonderful wine takes its name from the French breed of the Sweeneys’ dog, Miss Daisy, whose portrait is on the label.
More recognition for the winery’s first release came this past June. Cherry Hill Pinot Noir was featured as a main course wine at the Midsummer Eve Dinner at the James Beard House in New York City.
The Sweeneys Were Right
The Sweeneys were not only right on with their winemaking, it seems. They guessed right about visitors not wanting to leave their Cherry Hill home.
“This is what the Eola Hills’ wine industry is all about,” said Mike, smiling as we said goodbye. Things are simple, fresh and straightforward. “Jan and I want people to come out here and talk with each other and just enjoy.”
You won’t meet nicer hosts. And tell the Sweeneys you’re from Cleveland when you visit, because we bet you’ll be headed out to Oregon to see the ranch and taste their wines.
When you get there, remember one other thing. Just don’t ask for any Cabernet.
Check your neighborhood Heinen’s for the Sweeneys’ Cherry Hill Winery wines. See www.cherryhillwinery.com for more information on visiting the winery.