Stay awhile: A winery finds a way to say ‘welcome’

Photo courtesy Early Mountain Vineyards Photo courtesy Early Mountain Vineyards

Four years ago, a winery in Madison County was named Sweely Estate, it was facing foreclosure, and its 18,000-square-foot visitors’ facility was decorated in a dark French chateau style. Today, it’s called Early Mountain Vineyards, it has new owners, and the tasting room is light and bright.

All in all, a hopeful change. Current owners Steve and Jean Case—former AOL executives, longtime Virginia residents and local viticulture boosters—bought the property in 2011 and set about making it work, both on the books and as a destination. The pair re-established the winery as a social enterprise, with all net proceeds returning to Virginia agriculture and, in particular, the wine industry.

The stone-faced building, set amid 305 acres of primo Piedmont farmland, speaks of luxury and leisure—but many also found its interior less than uplifting. Too many dark materials and not enough daylight meant that the medieval-style chandeliers and stone tile floors read more like “dungeon” than “palace.” So the Cases commissioned a renovation aimed at “opening the space, making it more warm and inviting,” said Early Mountain’s Allison Conway.

Richmond-based architectural firm 3north led the charge. Many existing elements would remain: the massive exposed ceiling trusses, the four chandeliers that march through the space, stone floors, and brick pillars along the long walls.

But within this framework, the design embraces a new sense of airiness. Step one was to enlarge the windows and doors at the ends of the rectangular tasting room, adding glass to bring in light and views (which, after all, are fairly spectacular—rows of grapes against the lofty Blue Ridge).

Another major move was to recast the tasting bar as an appealing squiggle that meanders between the entrance and the fireplace. Its front lined with wood slats reminiscent of wine barrels, it’s echoed by a curving line of pendant lights above, and the wall behind it is a warm hue somewhere between salmon and tangerine.

About two-thirds of the way into the large room, a white freestanding fireplace also has a new look. Whereas before it was a solid monolith, now it’s a cutout, making for a more modern profile that’s matched by the geometric style of the furniture.

Brick got a coat of white paint, which allowed the heavier touches—like metal light fixtures—to take on an air of country elegance. Though the space is very ample, it doesn’t feel cavernous because the groupings of furniture—in subtle shades of white, sand, and jute—both suggest and invite small, manageable groups of people.

Visitors are as likely to hunker down with a board game as to sample the Cab Franc. “The goal was to make it a place to hang out,” said Conway.