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.
Today, the Barboursville winery, about 20 miles north of Charlottesville, produces about 35,000 cases of wine a year. And while that doesn't make it the state's top producer in terms of volume, the Zonin operation is clearly a leader in consistency and quality. "Their Octagon [Bordeaux-style merlot blend] is a showpiece for the state," said Annette Boyd, director of the Virginia Wine Board Marketing Office in Richmond.
If they have done right by their grapes, Gianni and Silvana have also done right by the estate as a whole, which attracts as many as 80,000 visitors a year. Today, a long, low building hugging one ridge of the property houses a tasting room; a warmly elegant Italian restaurant, Palladio (named for the Renaissance architect); and the winery offices. A short ride down a farm road are the Barboursville ruins and, next to them, the Zonin residence, made from two two-story brick buildings, since connected.
Converting the buildings into a usable home took some doing. Each building had two ample rooms per floor, but getting upstairs required outside staircases. At some point in their almost-200-year history -- winery manager Luca Paschina doesn't know when -- the two buildings were connected by a shallow "hyphen" containing not much more than a foyer and a staircase taken from another old house. That created one villa with eight large rooms, four on each floor. But even then, Silvana Zonin explained, you had to walk through one room to get to the next.
They could have created corridors upstairs and down that would lead past the closest rooms, but that would have destroyed the original rooms. It also would have cut the rooms off from their direct access to both front and rear balconies. Instead, working with architect Henry J. "Hank" Browne, who also carved out modern bathrooms for the house, they flanked the upstairs foyer with two proper sitting rooms, each of which leads to its own bedroom.
"We tried to have respect for the original house," she said. In fact, they removed only one interior wall.
The bathroom for what's called the Octagon suite is another example of showing respect for the Barbours' legacy. The room was carved out of the home's former library. The walls of shelving were left in place, and plumbing fixtures were installed in such a way that some future owner could remove them and return the room to its original use.
Even as the Zonins refitted the brick house for their family, they were making plans to share it with outsiders. The Zonin residence is now the 1804 Inn, but only when the couple are not in Virginia.
The project took the better part of two years. Silvana Zonin approached decorating the house step by step, a room at a time. "We would leave the fabrics in the room, then come back the next day. If they still looked good, that was it," she said. "We didn't want to make a mistake, but we couldn't change our mind later," she added, noting that as she worked with Charlottesville decorator Heidi Brooks, her husband kept a businessman's eye on the process and the budget.
That doesn't mean that the interiors are fixed forever. "I keep coming back to it fresh," bringing paintings from Italy and sending things back, she said. And so the Italian-American exchange continues.