Love and Life at Sassafras Springs Vineyard

Oct 1, 2014 | Travel

[title subtitle=”Words and Images: Laurie Marshall”][/title]

Most love stories don’t start out with a discussion of insurance agency courses — or involve them at all, frankly. But for Cheryl and Gene Long, individual plans to create successful businesses in Northwest Arkansas led to a partnership they never expected.

Gene owned an agency in Louisiana when he decided to relocate to Northwest Arkansas in 1997. Cheryl, a Springdale native, was building a new business. They met during training and spent time together. Gene says he was attracted to Cheryl’s driven approach to running her business. “From day one, we worked well together,” Gene says.

Cheryl calls Gene her “Hero,” laughing, “I was a single mom of four kids!” The last fourteen years have been spent creating successful insurance businesses, raising kids, loving on grandchildren, and tackling DIY and property development projects on the side. While they maintain individual insurance agencies, everything else they do is done together. “We like projects and like to see the finished product,” Gene says.

Last year the couple embarked on one of their largest projects to date, the purchase of fifteen acres in south Springdale that was once part of a horse farm owned by former Razorback football coach, Houston Nutt. Their original intent was to build a wedding chapel for Cheryl to manage as an event space. The property had a large horse barn and a decrepit old milk barn standing on it. “Standing” might be an overstatement for the milk barn.

It takes a special kind of vision to walk through a building that is falling down around your feet and see potential, but Gene seems to have it. When he mentioned the idea of converting the milk barn, which at the time consisted of three concrete walls and a slab, even Cheryl was dubious. “I thought he was kind of nuts,” she laughs. They had recently become empty nesters, and Cheryl says she thought it was “time to play”… but Gene had other ideas.

As he gazes around the building that was once a pile of rubble, Gene explains, “This building had a great history. We hated to tear down a piece of history. When we traveled, we saw a lot of great wineries and thought this would make a great winery.” The building now boasts beautiful stained-glass windows salvaged from a church, custom artwork, and furnishings and décor chosen by Cheryl. “Nobody saw our vision for [the winery],” says Gene, “We like the challenge because we really like building [something] and standing back and saying ‘Wow, look at this!’”

Cheryl adds, with an infectious smile, “I’m not even sure we saw the full vision. We like the whole flipping, remodeling…re-creating something. That’s the fun part. We did not realize how much fun having a winery would be. The fun part was taking the old milk barn and converting it. [Now], it’s kind of like having company every night and not knowing what friends are coming!”

Sassafras Springs Vineyard, located at 6461 East Guy Terry Road in Springdale, Arkansas, offers wine tastings, a bar open to the public during business hours, and live music on weekends. Bottles of wine, bar accessories, and locally sourced breads, cheeses and handmade cutting boards are also available for sale. The word has spread quickly about Sassafras Springs, and their event space (the converted horse barn) and chapel are already booked well into 2015.

The Longs are extremely hands-on in their approach to building and running a business. From drafting buildings on dinner napkins to repurposing horse barn materials into a unique and beautiful venue for special occasions, the couple did all the design work. Cheryl decorated the interior of the winery, and the unique décor garners comments from visitors who are delighted by the re-use of materials, from horse stall doors to wine barrels. According to Gene, there are typically no architects or plans involved – they just sketch on a piece of paper and “take off running.”

In addition to the winery, Cheryl got her wedding chapel, built behind the main building and up the hill from the creek that runs through the property. The chapel was designed to look like ruins the couple saw in Italy while touring the country a couple of years ago. They have also visited California and Missouri wineries, and plan to sell vintages from those areas along with the Sassafras Winery label. “We would like to see the wine industry in Arkansas not just remain in Altus, but become a corridor that connects the Missouri wineries and those in Central Arkansas.” Gene says.

Both Gene and Cheryl are astounded by the success they have seen in such a short time. Since their launch, they have gone from being open a few nights a week to a five-night-a-week schedule, and could move to seven nights soon. Family is important to the Longs, and they welcome parents to bring their children to play in the walnut grove behind the winery where they can be easily watched from the deck. “This is the perfect alternative for people who are not into the club scene or craft breweries.” Cheryl says.

“My passion was the buildings and the land,” Gene says. “We set out to have a unique project and it just exploded.” During a tour of the property, Gene points out a large pit dug into the side of a hill, evidence of a wine-production building under construction. Next to it is their organic vineyard planted with a cultivar specifically selected for their land. They are working with the University of Arkansas’ Viticulture and Enology Research Program to choose their grapes. According to Gene, it will be two to three years before they harvest any grapes, but they will be making their own wine from other vineyards’ grapes by the end of this year.

Cheryl was raised a stone’s throw to the north on Habberton Road, near Highway 412. As she points out the details of the décor and the decks off the back of the building, it is obvious she shares the love for the place that Gene does.

They may think they’re done with projects for a little while, but Gene admits it might be a pipe dream, saying, “Just when we think we’re done with something, tomorrow brings something else along.”

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