CAMBRIA – Larry Manning and his brother R. Sean Manning each played the corporate game for a while.
Larry owned a high-tech business in Pennsylvania, while Sean worked with a software company in Florida and moved into management.
Now, their success means they have the time and the money to follow their inclinations.
First, it was a winery. Freedom Run Winery is one of the most successful on the Niagara Wine Trail.
And Sean became a self-taught artist, specializing in ceramics and glass art, and has been successful enough in that field to be selected to supply a work to the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York City.
Three years ago, the brothers were able to win a competitor’s property in a foreclosure auction, but their plans for what used to be Warm Lake Estates aren’t limited to wine.
Now, they are combining their interests in art, collecting and winemaking to add another dimension to the winery experience: hands-on art lessons that can be combined with wine tastings and stays in a renovated cabin in the woods on the edge of the Niagara Escarpment.
The scene, to be opened in the next few weeks, will be on the grounds of the former competitor’s winery, acquired by the Mannings for $260,000 in an April 2011 foreclosure auction.
Warm Lake Estates, on Lower Mountain Road, had been an all-pinot noir winery owned by Michael J. VonHeckler, one of the pioneers of the Niagara Wine Trail, but it went bankrupt.
The Manning brothers have been resuscitating the 45-acre vineyard that fell into disrepair, with full production expected by 2015. They’re planning to add that yield to the pinot noir they grow in part of Freedom Run’s original 15-acre vineyard, four miles to the east of Warm Lake, also on Lower Mountain Road. In all, the Mannings say they have the largest planting of pinot noir east of the Rocky Mountains.
VonHeckler had touted the area against the cliff of the escarpment as a perfect microclimate for growing pinot noir grapes. Larry Manning said VonHeckler was right about that, but there seemed to be a problem in the execution.
So instead of a simple, standard wine tasting and retailing venue at Warm Lake, the buildings VonHeckler left behind are being converted into something new for the region: an art haven where visitors will be able to try their hands at painting or ceramics, including lessons from top artists, a category that includes Sean Manning himself.
He said the National September 11 Memorial & Museum has selected a ceramic work of his, a 10-foot-tall conceptual Twin Towers piece that he’s working on in the Cambria studio, as part of the permanent collection for the museum in lower Manhattan.
The portions already completed are to be found amid a jumble of other art and assorted odds and ends that the Mannings have acquired. The stash ranges from six original paintings by Salvador Dali, which Sean Manning said he bought from the 90-year-old daughter of Dali’s former French printmaker, to the contents of a closed Catholic church in Erie, Pa. Those include all the pipes of the church’s old organ.
They’re stacked next to a collector’s edition Harley Davidson motorcycle and near a pile of 380-year-old pecky cypress lumber cut from trees submerged for 150 years beneath the surface of a small river that feeds the Florida Everglades.
Some of the cypress has been used to furnish an efficiency apartment on the second floor of the former retailing space, where VonHeckler’s office was, and in a refurbished cabin in the woods on the brink of the Niagara Escarpment.
Larry Manning, 53, was the owner of Pyromet, a flourishing Pennsylvania high-tech business, which he sold in 2005 with plans to take an early retirement.
“I was retired for 29 days,” he said.
A family member tipped him off to the fact that the former Kappelt family farm on Lower Mountain Road was for sale. Larry and Sean, now 52, bought it and decided to go into the wine business.
Freedom Run opened in 2007. It now employs 15 people and produces 10,000 cases of wine per year in a wide range of blends and varietals. But the Mannings didn’t stop there.
In the neighboring barn, they created a wedding chapel that seats 250 people and is booked solid every summer. The stone house in front of the barn is used to accommodate wedding guests – it sleeps six for $250 a night, with an extra $20 a person for those willing to sleep on air mattresses – but there was talk at one time of installing an art museum there.
Sean said that’s why the French printmaker’s daughter, one of his art world contacts, offered him the Dalis, which date from 1968-70. He said they’ve been authenticated by the curators of the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Fla., where Sean has a home.
According to his page on the 9/11 Museum’s website, Sean moved to Florida in 1985 and joined a circuit board company. By the time he was 40, he had moved into management and made enough money that he was able to retire and work on his art. His St. Petersburg headquarters is a 31,000-square-foot former train station that he restored.
It includes studio and gallery space and numerous kilns, including a rare wood-burning Anagama kiln.
“I just wanted to make art,” said Sean. Ceramics and glass are his specialties. “I never painted in my life. I just started a year and a half ago,” he said.
However, he’s spending less and less time in Florida and more and more in Cambria. Last week, he swept a pile of grape clippers and other vineyard paraphernalia off the seat of his pickup truck – this is the season to prune grapevines – and drove a reporter to a cabin built by a local veterinarian, “Doc” Badger, perhaps as far back as the 1930s.
It’s a stunning setting, with a waterfall cutting down the stone face of the escarpment visible out the south windows and a large artificial pond Badger dug dominating the view to the northeast. Some of those windows are set in walls built at a 20-degree angle and equipped with sensors that make them close automatically if they detect rain.
The brothers thinned the overgrown woods to improve the views, and a tree trunk, cut on the property and moved indoors, stands in the middle of the open-plan cabin.
Larry and Sean installed a full kitchen in the cabin in two days last month. “We like to work. Put any four men against us. We’ll outwork them,” Sean Manning said. “We had a structural engineer, but we built it.”
Also visible at times is a 12-point buck that likes to visit the cabin, along with muskrats, beavers and other wildlife around the pond.
Although the cabin, to which the brothers added a second story, clearly would be marketable as a weekend retreat, the Mannings say they are refurbishing the cabin only to offer to people who take part in their planned artist sessions or simply to friends.
“We want to get to know whoever stays here,” Sean Manning said. He has pledged to paint 3,000 original works of 9/11-themed art to commemorate the victims of the terrorist attacks of 2001. He said he has completed 1,800 so far.
Christian crosses and other symbols are typical parts of Sean’s art. A Bible was open on a bench in the studio.
From May 13-30, the Mannings plan to install eight different types of kilns at Warm Lake, including an Anagama kiln, in the building where the former owner had his winemaking facilities.
“We just poured the (concrete) pads to have every kind of firing kiln known to man here,” Larry Manning said.
“It’s only been done one other place in the world. That’s in St. Pete, Fla. I know that because I did it,” Sean added. “There’s eight Anagamas in the United States.”
“This is the art side of Freedom Run, with Sean and the art and the grapes up here. We’re going to do tastings up here with art and stuff,” Larry said.
As in everything they try, the Mannings are shooting for success.
Larry said, “I tell my kids and everybody I run into in life, the difference between good and perfect isn’t much.”