Period specific: First Colony Winery gets an old-world upgrade

Photo by Christian Hommel Photo by Christian Hommel

“Do you ever worry about falling off the roof?” “No, it’s hitting the ground I don’t like.” Colin McGhee jokes about his career, but the Staunton-based master thatcher is one of only two people in the U.S. to achieve that designation. McGhee is putting the finishing touches on the new roof at First Colony Winery in Charlottesville, which is undergoing a complete renovation.

The roof is on the vineyard’s processing building, where the grapes are turned into wine. While the whole vineyard is getting a makeover, the thatched roof is likely the first thing to catch your eye. Designed and built by McGhee, it’s made from imported Turkish water reed. The thatched roof has taken a little longer than expected, in part due to the area’s rough winter weather, but McGhee explained the delays have also partly been due to material shortages.

“We had to wait for another container of reed to come in from Turkey. Everything has to be imported. You can’t just run down to Home Depot and buy thatch,” he said.

Raise the roof

Why go with a thatched roof instead of something more readily available? It’s a huge part of Bruce Spiess’ vision for the vineyard. Bruce and his wife, Heather, along with their business partner, Jeff Miller, have spent the last 15 months working closely to bring the feel of a country farm in 17th century northern Europe to Albemarle County. It hasn’t always been a picnic. When the couple told their insurance company that they were planning a thatched roof for the building, the company dropped them.

“They just couldn’t wrap their head around it,” Heather explained. (The pair later found a company willing to insure the structure.) The roof is truly the crowning glory of this renovation, but it is just one part. From First Colony’s processing building to the tasting room and the surrounding land, the overhaul is evident everywhere. Bruce wanted to create the feel of a working European farm (“not a chateau!”), and the ideas grew from there.

Renmark Design in Richmond has done all of the interior design with colors authentic to the era. From exposed beams to wide-plank floor boards (rescued from an old Woolworth’s building in Brooklyn), the feel is “comfortably rustic and elegant,” as Heather described it.

Heather said that, in making renovations, they’ve “created a whole new space.” Take the crush pad, for instance, which now boasts a roof for protection from scorching sun or pouring rain. Originally meant to allow the vineyard to operate more efficiently, the roof’s structural design is in keeping with the rest of the vineyard’s old world charm. And by adding recessed lighting and several patina-enhanced chandeliers, the owners allowed form to follow function, making the space usable for a wedding, company party, or anniversary event.

Raise your glass

But the new and improved First Colony is not just for special events. The owners hope to make a destination winery, where visitors will come for a glass of good wine and decide to hang out for awhile. Future plans include space for a petanque playing area (a popular European outdoor game, similar to bocce or horseshoes), and maybe even a garden area like one you might find in France.

Of course, there’s also the wine. First Colony planted 4.5 acres of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon in 2013, and has cleared another 1.5 acres this year to make room for more vines. Overseen by Vineyard Manager Austin Hamilton, the vineyard is growing—and thriving. New programs like a wine club and “Adopt-a-Vine,” which puts individual rows of grapes up for purchase (replete with plaque), are designed to attract repeat customers who aren’t just coming for a single tasting, but have a vested interest in seeing the vineyard succeed.

Renovations are ongoing but the winery is open for business, with daily tastings and weekend vineyard tours.


Before you thatch

Here are some frequently asked questions you may want to consider before deciding on a thatched roof.

How is thatch prepared and applied? 

Thatch, made from either straw or reed, is harvested and dried thoroughly. After it’s gathered in bundles, it is attached directly to the roof—there is no sub-roof needed. The bundles are laid out along the roof and the reed is attached with hooks, not nails (the First Colony office manager said the roof install directly above her office was the quietest construction project ever), before the ornamental ridgework begins.

How can a thatched roof keep out water? 

Thatch is only applied to a roof with a steep pitch, which helps with water runoff. Each reed is coated with a waxy material that also repels water. When it’s tightly and densely applied, it works together to be a watertight roof. (The density also deters bugs and pests.) Unlike other “living roofs,” where vegetation is planted and grown, thatched roofs do not need to be watered, and will not shrink in high heat or drought.

Is it energy efficient? What about fire concerns?

Thatch is well insulated due to air pockets within the reeds. Thatched roofs are climate-friendly, keeping buildings cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Like any material, a thatched roof is not fireproof, but it’s more likely to smolder for a long period of time before it ignites. A flame retardant can be applied to thatched roofs for protection.

Posted In:     Abode


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