August 2009 Issue
Gardens By the Glass
By marrying two passions — winemaking and garden design —David Thorn invented an experiential setting for guests to enjoy the fruits of his labor.
Gardening and winemaking both require patience,” muses David Thorn, drawing parallels between designing creative landscapes for homeowners as president of DTR Landscape Associates and producing complex wines for his guests at ThornCreek Winery & Gardens in Aurora.
“Amazing wine needs time — it has to age, it has to be manipulated, and it has to sit and rest,” Thorn explains. “In the garden, you design it so plants can grow together. You have to let it sit and rest during the winter so by spring it comes back to life.”
Thorn’s landscape office adjoins his winery, and the gardens seam together these symbiotic ventures. ThornCreek is ripe ground for inspiration, which was Thorn’s intention when he acquired the land five years ago.
“I had checked off all of my goals,” Thorn relates. “I wanted to be published in a coffee table book, I wanted to win certain landscape design awards — those things that make you feel like you accomplished your dreams professionally. I was looking for the next thing to explore creatively.”
“As crazy as it sounds,” he continues, “what motivates me the most in the world is looking at something and seeing the potential of what it could be. That’s fun to me. And it’s a challenge.”
So on a gray February day in 2004, when Thorn received a call from a realtor about this “pared down,” old winery in Aurora, what it was did not interfere with his ideas for what it could be. “It needed some TLC,” he says.
His initial plan was to convert the property’s farmhouse into his landscape design offices. But when he visited the property for the first time, he instantly pictured much more than a workspace. “The light was streaming through the windows in a really great way, and I saw the possibility of creating this beautiful space that would benefit two businesses,” he says.
Today, the seven-acre property provides an ideal place for clients to experience various landscape concepts. Take, for example, the idea of an “outdoor room,” which visitors can see as they traverse a bluestone walkway that connects one of ThornCreek’s dining patios to an herb garden, or as they meander past a row of Martha’s Vineyard shrub rose, which remains encased in pink blooms from June to November. Beyond a rustic arbor, constructed of reclaimed barn beams that Thorn found on a Mantua farm, guests fall upon an expansive field of wildflowers, sunflowers, cosmos and delphinium.
There are five total outdoor rooms, and Thorn is constantly adding fresh touches to reinvent each space.
Most recently, he found a birdhouse on the curb in his Chagrin Falls neighborhood and refinished it, filling it with succulents that peek out of the structure. The whimsical creation is now an anchor in the ThornCreek herb garden, with its basil, chives, marjoram, parsley and more.
“I’m one of those people who can be driving 60 miles per hour and I’ll see this thing, and my kids are embarrassed — they’re like, ‘Don’t stop!’ ”
But Thorn usually does stop. Now he’s on the hunt for an old bicycle with a large wire rack he can fill with annuals.
Thorn can point to unique features in the garden if he meets with a client — or any curious guest — on one of the winery patios, set up like a living room enclosed with a stucco wall painted the color of merlot. “We try to pick plants that are slightly different and unexpected so the surroundings spark conversation,” he says.
Certainly, the upside-down wine bottle “flowers” stilted on iron stems are one example. “I wanted the bottles to look like flowers growing out of flowers,” he says of the inventive arrangement.
Another spirited touch is a topiary crescent moon propped on a hillside toward the back of the property. As crews trim the shrub into shape, Thorn admits that the offbeat feature prompted some doubtful looks from them. But this is his playground, a blank canvas he fills in gradually as it constantly evolves.
“I basically have a living exhibit,” says Thorn, who is modest but clearly excited about the property and the crowd his winery draws on any given evening.
Indeed, the venue is a festive “before and after” spot that was designed to be comfortable and inviting. Thorn accomplished this inside by washing the walls in fresh verte and earthy browns. Vibrant artwork by oil painter Lisa Eastman is displayed throughout the winery and Thorn’s adjoining office. Eastman’s images can also be found on the labels of ThornCreek’s nine different wines, which range from a crisp Riesling to a full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon. Through relationships built with Napa Valley vintners, Thorn and winemaker/ general manager Benny Bucci source grapes and juices from Napa and other reputable wine regions.
The result is a surprisingly sophisticated Cabernet, thanks to grapes from the renowned Alexander Valley at the top of Sonoma County in California, and elegant whites that are “an unexpected surprise,” Thorn says. But then, so is this peaceful setting.
“On a regular night, someone can walk in wearing a suit or jeans and feel comfortable — it’s one of those places,” Thorn says.
The live entertainment on Friday and Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons generally sets the mood, he adds. Singer-songwriters Anne E. DeChant and Ryan Humbert play here. Seasonal small plates prepared by Casa Dolce’s Margie Onofrio Axelrod — formerly a chef at the Baricelli Inn in Cleveland’s Little Italy — are brought in daily.
The winery hosts a gamut of guests, including wedding parties that desire a bucolic setting for their nuptials, and their guests, who welcome the feeling of being on vacation for the night, far away from the Cleveland-Akron suburbs.
Creating that sort of close-by getaway was just what Thorn intended.
“There really is no typical evening,” Thorn says, pleased that this is the case.