Insurance pros bet on wine and wedding biz

Insurance pros bet on wine and wedding biz

Five years ago, Cheryl and Gene Long gave up their desk jobs in the insurance business to create something really beautiful.

Chapel ruins at Sassafras Springs Vineyard & Winery
Chapel ruins at Sassafras Springs Vineyard & Winery

On a rolling tract of land, dotted with barns and adorned with the ruins of an old stone chapel, the couple envisioned a wine-tasting room in an old cow-milking barn for him, and a wedding and party venue centered around the chapel and old horse stables for her.

“The two ideas paired well together,” says Cheryl Long, as Sassafras Springs Vineyard & Winery celebrates its fifth anniversary of doing business.

Ranked one of the best wedding venues in Arkansas, the 15-acre estate now teams with vines about to yield their first grapes, and a bevy of activity creates the perfect day for weddings and other occasions.

In this week’s Q&A with Boxerbrand blog Recipe for Success, Cheryl Long offers insights into the adventures she and her husband have enjoyed in this new chapter.

Boxerbrand: How did you go from the insurance industry to weddings and wine?

It started with the property itself. We didn’t purchase the land specifically for this idea. We had done a little bit with real estate in the past, buying and flipping homes. And we purchased property near Sassafras Springs and developed beautiful homes with estate lots.

And we had this 15-acre parcel with this old stone chapel ruins, and a couple of barns, and we started thinking about what we wanted to do with our own careers, and our ideas for the property and vineyard just flourished.

My husband and I had two separate insurance businesses. He worked for 30 years at his, and I worked 20 years with mine. I retired about a year before him, and we put everything into this.

Boxerbrand: Tell me about the transition from barns to refined gathering spots.

We had to do a complete build out. There was nothing but dirt floors when we started. We took the old cow barn and built it out as a wine-tasting room, with several decks on different levels overlooking the valley.

This year we just finished building a large veranda that will accommodate 250 people.

I was drawn to the chapel ruins and the horse barn. My idea was that if you saw it on Pinterest we could recreate it here. We have three wedding coordinators on staff and we provide tables, chairs, linens, and we have two storage rooms full of table settings. Our goal is to make a beautiful gathering as seamless as possible.

Boxerbrand: Tell me about the chapel and winery.

It’s the roofless ruins of an old European style chapel built with Arkansas stone. It’s a very romantic wedding venue that seats 360 guests, and it’s been very popular for weddings.

Our winery was begun with hybrid grapes created at the University of Arkansas. We have two grapes that have been named Opportunity and Enchantment. Those grapes will be used to make our first wine this year.

We’ve also planted 400 vines last year and will plant more this year as we continue to develop our own brand.

Our wine we currently produce and bottle is made from grapes that we bring in on large refrigerator trucks from the West Coast.

Our goal is to make the visit an experience. You can buy a bottle of wine anywhere, but to come here and enjoy the beauty of the land and buildings is something very special.

Boxerbrand: How did you attract your first customers?

The first few years we attracted customers through advertising in the newspaper and social media.

Now we keep our customers coming back through social media—we do a lot with Pinterest, with photos of the property—and we’ve had very positive press about our awards, which has also attracted visitors. And soon we’re going to kick off a wine club.

Boxerbrand: What’s the best part about having your own wine and wedding business?

We’re having fun and meeting a lot of wonderful people and a lot of beautiful brides.

And the business has been robust enough that we’ve been able to involve some of our children. Our daughter-in-law is doing event management, one son, who has his master’s in business, is helping to run the wine business. Another son is helping to produce the wine. And it’s a good feeling knowing we have room for the rest of our children, should they want to leave their desk jobs like we did.

Boxerbrand: What advice do you have for someone who wants to start a wine and wedding business?

Take the money and go to the beach!!! I’m only kidding.

But, they should be prepared for a career that’s enormously time-consuming, and requires a significant financial investment.

But after five years, we feel so good about our success providing a great customer experience. We’ve been ranked number one wedding venue by several leading publications. And our wine-tasting room is also a hit! — Sassafras Springs Vineyard uses Boxerbrand menu covers Capri Line in its table presentation. Thank you!

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