Waiting patiently in the doorway leading from the newly-built tasting room to the grassy area where he hoped to build a spanning patio, Sweet Cheeks Winery founder Dan Smith was ready to greet the winery’s very first guests. It was the day after Thanksgiving in 2005 — a date many think of as day one of the winery’s history. But for Dan, that history began many years prior, when he began the journey that led to this pivotal moment. 

Envisioning a vineyard

After moving to Oregon from California, Dan landed on Briggs Hill Road in Eugene and started a commercial refrigeration company. All along, though, he was eyeing a piece of property across from his home, with a sweeping hillside grazed by cattle and a small planting of grapes. Something about it just stoked his imagination. 

Strangely enough, it was Dan’s career in commercial refrigeration that initially sparked his interest in the craft of winemaking. He and a business partner had created a heating and cooling unit for craft beverage tanks, installing them in wineries and breweries throughout the state. That’s when Dan realized why the grapes on that lovely hillside were so enchanting.  

In 1989, Dan purchased that property and started to plant a vineyard with his father-in-law, Charlie, and friend Bruce Biehl. Together they planted the 42-acre estate with Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, and Riesling. At the time, Oregon’s wine industry was in its infancy, but there were a few wineries in the area, and they eagerly bought his crop. The vineyard was completed in 2001 with the planting of the final block of Pinot Noir, named “Kody’s Block” for Dan’s beloved black Labrador.

Dreaming of a winery

As Dan planted and farmed the vineyard with his close friends, they would end their long work days at the top of the property under a big oak tree that Dan had strapped a refrigerator to, stocked with (gasp) beer. As they sat, sipped, and bantered, Dan’s inspiration to share this special place with the world took hold: he just had to open a winery. It was a long shot, but Dan was known for making his big dreams into reality through a DIY spirit and a bit of grit. 

Construction broke ground in 2002, creating the tasting room and small wine-making facilities for Sweet Cheeks Winery, intended to be a boutique winery producing 2,000 cases. Dan hired a winemaking and management team, the first of whom was Leo Gabica, who came on as cellar master and would later assume the role of winemaker in 2013. Dan and the winemaking team worked together to create the first vintage of Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris in 2004 with the help of neighboring wineries Silvan Ridge and King Estate. 

Which takes us to Thanksgiving 2005: the first winery guests streaming into the tasting room, settling in with a glass of uncomplicated-yet-elegant wine, and soaking in the rolling hills that had inspired Dan to give this place its name: Sweet Cheeks. 

Continuing a legacy

We lost our visionary founder in the winter of 2018. A core group of family — and folks who have been around so long that they count as honorary family — forge ahead. Our roots run deep in the spirit that Dan created: chase your dreams and make them a reality. If you don’t quite get there at first, laughter is the best medicine, but have the grit to try again tomorrow. And in that spirit, we will keep dreaming, building, and creating — always paired with great wine and even better company.