Two decades ago, Mark Schmidt went searching for a secluded home. Someplace convenient but a bit hidden, where he could relax at the end of a grueling day. He stumbled across an intriguing real estate offering in Covington and wound his way up a gravel lane to a stone house on a steep hillside that looked like a set piece for Under the Tuscan Sun. Schmidt is the founder of Studio Vertu, the local firm responsible for chic marble wine coasters. He knows picturesque when he sees it, and when he saw this, he was smitten. I’m done, he recalls thinking. “It was what I was looking for.”
Nineteen years, a wedding (he and wife Debbie married here in 2015), and buckets of sweat later, Schmidt’s private getaway welcomes guests as Monte Cassino Vineyards—a B&B that includes a pool, wine tasting room, guest cottage, and suites. The eponymous vineyard is there, too—a discovery on the tangled hillside that showed Schmidt he hadn’t just bought a house: He and Debbie own a piece of history. Actually, several of them.
The Schmidts’ property has been an escape-the-crowd spot since the mid-19th century, when Rev. Ferdinand Kuhr, the Prussian-born priest who established Covington’s Mother of God Church in 1841, built the house as his country home.
Digging into the roots of his real estate (and stumbling across a stone wall in the woods) Schmidt discovered that his vintage home adjoined what had been a vintner’s property—the E.A. Thompson Winery, which cultivated thousands of grapevines on the slopes above the Kuhr house in the Civil War era. Thompson Winery was a highly regarded part of the area’s robust wine industry, and its owner, Egbert Abiel Thompson, was president of the American Wine Growers Association. But in 1877 Thompson sold his land to an order of Benedictine monks, who named their new monastery Monte Cassino after the order’s abbey in Italy. The Benedictines grew grapes and made sacramental and table wine here until 1918.
The monks are long gone, of course. Monte Cassino monastery was replaced by a subdivision in the 1960s, and its famously tiny chapel moved to the campus of Thomas More University. Dry-stack stone retaining walls are all that’s left of terraced vineyards that once produced 5,000 gallons a year.
Schmidt bought the hillside vineyard site, as well as neighboring acreage covered with dense woods, a creek, hiking trails, and two more small houses. Then he and Debbie set about creating a destination that lived up to the Monte Cassino mystique.
The Kuhr house had been updated and an elegant pool added in the 1980s. But there was a fieldstone outbuilding (originally Kuhr’s summer kitchen) that was a damp den of pool chemicals and spider webs. “When we met, I really didn’t want to go in there,” Debbie says. They transformed it into an airy guest house with a kitchenette, living room, fireplace, and loft bedroom. Acquiring adjoining property gave them a three-story house they’ve turned into a wine tasting room for parties with suites for overnight guests. The setting is especially good for second weddings, Debbie says. “They’re small and relaxed.”
One element has proved less than romantic at Monte Cassino Vineyards: the vineyard. Schmidt cleared and planted a terrace section a decade ago—an exhausting process, since the extremely steep site had to be hand-cultivated. (He has seen correspondence written by the monks that indicates they used convict labor.) They’re not currently maintaining the vines, but the vineyard is still there, and when guests ask about it, Schmidt points to the stiff hill and invites them to walk up and look around.
They seldom do, he says. After all, they’re here to relax.