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Found: The Perfect Place for a Vineyard

May 15, 2014

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This piece first appeared in spring issue of The Piedmont Virginian, the quarterly magazine of the Piedmont region of Virginia (go to http://thepiedmontonline.com).

IT WAS A LONG JOURNEY from the outskirts of Flint, Michigan, to the rolling hills of Albemarle County, Virginia, but when Cindy Schornberg saw the crown molding in the parlor of Edgewood, she thought, This is a sign. “It had grapes in the pattern,” she explains, pointing toward the ceiling about 12 feet over our heads.

She and husband Al Schornberg had sold the software-integration company he had built in Michigan and were at the end of a search for a place to start a vineyard in Virginia. They had already been hunting for six years, in Napa and Sonoma, North Carolina and Texas. “It was 2000,” says Al, “and the Virginia wine industry was just coming into its own.”

Land prices reflected that. What cost $40,000 an acre in Sonoma went for about $4,000 an acre in Virginia, Al recalls with a laugh. But the Schornbergs hadn’t found what they wanted in the Charlottesville area; the land had to be right, of course, but Cindy wanted to be “15 minutes from everything,” including schools and a supermarket. In fact, they had already bought land near Williamsburg and were about to build themselves a new house.

Then Edgewood came on the market. A stately home built in 1911 by diplomat George Barclay Rives, it is considered one of the largest and finest Georgian Revival houses in Piedmont Virginia. It is entwined with American history, old and new: A rider raced through to save Thomas Jefferson at nearby Monticello from advancing British troops; Confederate troops camped on the grounds before embarking on the Civil War’s bloody Battle of the Wilderness. Recent owners included singer/songwriter Art Garfunkel and producer Hugh Wilson (TV series “WKRP in Cincinnati”). It sat astride almost 400 acres.

The Schornbergs looked at each other and, with a gulp, scratched their Williamsburg plans in order to found Keswick Vineyards, in Keswick, just east of Charlottesville. Good call: In 2002, their first small vintage of Viognier won Best White Wine in the United States at an international competition. Their small boutique winery now produces about 6,000 cases a year, including Viognier, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Norton and Chardonnay.

Sitting here in the formal parlor (“the kids call it the Christmas tree room,” Cindy says), and knowing the Schornbergs have six children, from 12 to 37 (and 12 dogs!), it’s easy to imagine how they fill the seven bedrooms upstairs, although not everyone lives at home anymore. Cindy describes how the 10,000-square-foot house had been decorated in a “very antiquey, traditional style” but was in great shape, thanks in part to the super-thick plastered-brick walls — although there were fuse boxes all over the house, which was only electrified in 1956 (“We also found gas lines everywhere,” Al says).

Cindy is funny when talking about the house. With the foot-thick walls, she says, “just try to hang a picture! You’d better be sure you have it exactly where you want it, or you’ll be living with a hole in the wall.” And Al points out that the dense brick-and-plaster construction means wifi doesn’t really work around the house; you have to pick your spot and plug in there. Ditch the baby monitors as well, Cindy adds.

Only cosmetic changes had to be made to the house, such as painting the main downstairs rooms a moody color that seems to shift from olive to gray depending on the light. The Schornbergs brought their Michigan decorator, Suzanne Czar, in to help, and now the rooms are filled with oversized transitional furnishings–nothing overtly modern but gutsy and able to take the beating all these people and “livestock” (Cindy’s term) can dish out. (As if on command, a medium-sized black dog comes skittering into the parlor, excitedly greeting a visiting dog and sniffing a guest.) They retained an ornate marble mantel over the parlor fireplace — one of nine fireplaces in the main house — which was brought back from Paris by Garfunkel.

Standing in the grand center hallway, Cindy explains how she removed the plank flooring here, replacing it with marble to make a more formal entrance. “This side of the house is the formal side,” she says, pointing toward the parlor. “The other side is the lived-in side.”

In addition to the parlor, the formal side has a library, also called the “dead animal” room by the children. “We’re hunters,” Cindy explains as enormous elk heads loom above us.  “We eat what we hunt.” The library is paneled in mahogany; the original owner had insured (for $20,000) that room alone against fire because of the paneling. Other spaces include a bar, Al’s sunny corner office, the piano room and a dining room. The lived-in side is where one finds the kitchen, an informal dining room and a playroom now used as a reading room and a family room.

Behind the main house is a swimming pool, once the staging area for horses and carriages leading to the brick carriage house. Tunnels, now bricked in, connect the carriage house to the main house. The carriage house is the center of Edgewood’s added identity as a wedding destination: Some 50 couples a year come here to get married on the grounds. Al states, “Charlottesville is second only to Charleston for destination weddings.”

The Schornbergs began the vineyard from scratch, in keeping with Al’s entrepreneurial instincts (“I don’t like to grow within an organization,” he says. “I like ‘new.’ “). “It used to be more of a horse farm,” Cindy explains. It was the Schornbergs who cleared woods and prepared the land for its first vines. (Before they planted their vines, though, the Schornbergs hired a historian to search the cleared land for relics: The Civil War artifacts he found are now displayed at the winery.)

Growing grapes and making wine “was Al’s childhood dream,” says Cindy.

Who on earth would have had a childhood dream to own a vineyard? “You would if your mother was from Nice,” Cindy calls out. Al adds, “And a grandmother from Cortona,” the charming town in Tuscany. And Al’s grandfather had recounted tales of working in his family’s winery in France.

Of course it’s possible none of this would have come about without a private-plane crash in 1995. “We walked away from [the crash] and looked at each other and decided it was time to do what we wanted to do,” Cindy recalls. The crash triggered the sale of the Michigan company and the years-long search for the right wine spot.

The Schornbergs started the vineyard by hiring a wine consultant, and now have a winemaker/vineyard manager, Stephen Barnard, from South Africa. They have 1,600 wine-club members who compete each year to produce their own wine; the winning team (voted by the club members) sees its “Consensus” wine bottled and sold at the winery. The Schornbergs have settled nicely among the nearby vineyards and wineries, friendly competitors who help one another out, says Cindy. Their year revolves around the winery, with tasting-room visitors, the weddings and Yappy Hours (wine tasting and dogs) that culminate with an end-of-the-year Howl-a-ween party. Cindy finds time to make chocolate truffles and little fruit tarts to complement the wines for tasting parties.

Al and Cindy no longer have time for much hunting, Cindy explains while standing in the spacious kitchen, serving some leftover chocolate truffles. And with that, Cindy pulls a Cryovac-ed package of venison out of the freezer and sets it aside — to defrost for the evening meal.

To be served with a Keswick wine, of course.

–Nancy McKeon
MLB thanks Dennis Brack, publisher of The Piedmont Virginian and a former Washington Post colleague, for allowing us to reprint this work.
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