Sweet Earth Vineyards is an Oregon winery that produces Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Rosè from its estate vineyard. Located in the Willamette Valley in South Benton County, Sweet Earth Vineyards is also near Benton-Lane Winery, Broadley Vineyards, and TeBri Vineyards so you can make a day of it when you come to visit. The vineyard was purchased in 2005 by Nancy and Phil McCullum.

Sweet Earth Vineyards: Coming home to glorious wines

by Lucy Kiester (2012)

Sweet Earth Vineyards is the very definition of what I call “home grown.” Phil and Nancy McCullum came to wine in the most organic way possible- they found some land and thought, why not? I visited Sweet Earth during OSU Homecoming weekend and it really felt like coming home. They welcomed me inside, gave me a mug of tea, and told me all about their wines, their vineyard and their land.

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Sweet Earth Vineyards began in 2005 when Nancy and Phil decided to retire: Phil from the Education department of the University of Oregon, Nancy from years of Eugene public school education. So they bought 15 acres of land just outside of Monroe, Oregon. It just so happened that five and a half of those acres were recently planted grape vines: pinot noir to be specific. It seemed a shame to do nothing but sell such beautiful fruit to somebody else. So Sweet Earth Vineyards was born.

At first their family was very surprised. Neither Nancy nor Phil ever planned to make wines. Now the vineyard is a full family affair with two daughters, a son, and a small bevy of in-laws helping with a range of duties from pruning vines to manning the tasting room. There is a new covered outdoor seating area that is both open and comfortable. The old tractor shed has been updated into a spacious and bright tasting room. They are expanding their grape selection, planning a fire pit near the seating area, and have hopes to add a walking trail in the old-growth forest that is part of their property. All of this work has been achieved through the help of their family.

Yet, it’s really all about the wine. Such delightful wine!

For Phil the most important thing about making wines is that the flavor of the fruit is preserved. He wants to display the pure taste of the berry to its greatest advantage. The vines are hand pruned before harvest. They are very selective in their grapes, taking only the best bunches and letting the rest just fall away.

Phil and Nancy walk the rows themselves to assure the quality of the berries. No unknown, uncaring hands here! In fact, they are the opposite of uncaring. They always wait to spray or prune certain vines until all the baby birds nestled in them have fledged and flown away. Phil and Nancy bottled their first batch Pinot Noir in 2009. The current star of Sweet Earth Vineyard is their Pinot Noir. This wine earned a Gold Award of Excellence from the Oregon Wine Awards as well as silver medals from Newport Seafood &Wine Festival and the Northwest Wine Summit. They were recently invited to participate in the Platinum Judging for Wine Press Northwest in Washington- a competition that only invites the top local wines to participate. Sweet Earth also offers a Pinot Gris and a lovely, dry Rosè of Pinot Noir.

In 2010 they chose to purchase a pair of French oak barrels in which to make their specialty reserve wines. Their Reserve wine is held in an oak barrel for a minimum of seventeen months. This means that a two-barrel system is essential; allowing the wine to be held back until it is ready. Otherwise, as Phil explains, wine would be held for 12 months, then the barrel emptied to make room for the most recent year’s harvest. With two oak barrels they can run a rotation, allowing the wine to fully develop and mature before being released to the public. It is the quality of the wine that drives the McCullums, not the immediacy of the market. The Sweet Earth 2010 Pinot Reserve is released at Thanksgiving. Personally, I can’t wait!

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So, what pairs best with their wines?

Nancy, a cooking aficionado, delightedly talked food. She says their Rosè is excellent with strawberries and salmon. If you ask her nicely she might even share a recipe for a strawberries and wine sauce to accompany the fish.

Phil insists the Pinot is perfect for sipping by the home fire on one of our long rainy Oregon nights. He calls it a “bottle of summer.” Speaking of a delightful night in… What book would you suggest to accompany this wine?

Nancy thinks Sweet Earth Pinots are perfect as you flip through a cookbook searching for inspiration. Her current favorite book pairing is Celebrate the Rain: Cooking with the Fresh and Abundant Flavors of the Pacific Northwest. Phil takes a more classic angle: he suggests Steinbeck, either East of Eden or The Grapes of Wrath, of course. (I was taken to task for having read neither of these!)

The breadth of suggested literature underlines the delightful scope of this wine. However, both Phil and Nancy are in absolute agreement as to my request for a film pairing: pour a glass and settle down to Doctor Zhivago- the Pinot is perfect for “a nice romance” says Nancy.

DSCN3026Both Phil and Nancy agree that they want to keep it small. They aren’t worried about selling, but rather about selling out (of wine that is). They enjoy that they run their vineyard themselves, that they are the main organizers of their distributions and, above all, that they can produce the best quality wine without having to rush it out to meet some sort of deadline. This makes Sweet Earth Vineyards a welcoming place, a family business born of love and dedication, run by caring hands.

My personal bottle of Sweet Earth Vineyards Pinot waits for me to address my literary deficiencies. First on the list: East of Eden.

Author: Lucy Kiester

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