Correction to This Article
A photo caption with this article about Barboursville Vineyards incorrectly described Gianni Zonin as the winemaker. He is the winery's owner; Luca Paschina, the general manager, is the winemaker.

For Barboursville's vintner, wine and design bridge Old World and new

By Nancy McKeon
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, November 28, 2009

"If I can sit in a comfortable chair with my book, and I can see something in the corner that pleases my eye, then I am at home," Silvana Zonin was saying.

Relaxing in her sitting room in Barboursville, Va., Zonin was explaining how she and her husband, Italian winemaker Gianni Zonin, manage to be at home in both Virginia and Italy.

A glance around the room provides a hint as to how they do it. In a way, the Zonin residence, on the Barboursville Vineyards estate, couldn't be more American. Built in the very early days of the 19th century by James Barbour, governor of Virginia during the War of 1812, the building has an elegant simplicity: handmade brick floors on the main level rubbed shiny with age, solid white plaster walls that rise to 11 feet, hefty but simple wood trim, heavy wood doors. On a sparkling fall afternoon, the sun raked across the floor from French doors that lead to a 45-foot-long south-facing balcony. In the pasture below, a Black Angus ambled past the pond.

Like Americans of that early era, though, the Zonins brought a lot of Europe with them to this corner of Virginia's Piedmont.

The curtains in most of the rooms of the house are cotton panels with simple scalloped top treatments. But the fabrics are frequently French in inspiration, toile de Jouy pastoral scenes coordinated with elegant stripes elsewhere in the room.

The fruitwood writing desk on the upstairs landing is 19th-century Italian. An antique Venetian clock graces a small chest.

The walls, so solid, so "American country," are dotted with elegant English bird prints.

The dining room, on the ground floor next to the kitchen, betrays the Italian love of English style: Fine Davenport fruit plates hang there, joined by vintage prints of matching fruit.

"It's a mix," Silvana Zonin said. "It's the way I decorate at home," she added, meaning in the Zonin residences in Tuscany and the Veneto region of Italy.

A mix, perhaps, but not a muddle. The same blending of American and European -- specifically Italian -- takes place in the Barboursville vineyards, which grow Italian varietals such as sangiovese, nebbiolo and barbera in addition to the standard merlot, cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay.

How did this seventh generation of Italian vintners pop up in Virginia? Back in the mid-1970s, Gianni Zonin was looking for a New World farm he could add to his family's growing holdings in Italy (the Zonins now have 11 wine estates, 10 of them in Italy). More specifically, he wanted a spot in the United States where he could become the top local wine producer, a spot that offered the right soil and setting in a state that valued agriculture. It would also help if it were closer to Italy than is California, the other, arguably more obvious, place he considered.

What Zonin found at Barboursville were gentle rolling hills that seem to stretch all the way to the Blue Ridge. And like vineyards in Italy, which often have stone houses for winery workers, Barboursville had several outbuildings, the early 19th-century residence and the extensive brick ruins of Barbour's mansion. The neo-Palladian mansion, designed in about 1814 around an octagonal Great Room by Barbour's friend Thomas Jefferson, was lost to fire in 1884. It has been listed since 1969 on the National Register of Historic Places.

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