Written by Anna Raddatz | Photos by Ellen Gwin
For owners of businesses that are popular with summer tourists, Sally and Steve Tatum sure are busy on a winter morning. They zip back and forth from the locations of their two businesses, field customer phone calls, answer questions from staff, and share laughs with each other, all the while being orbited by a crew of friendly canines. In the midst of the bustle, you somehow get the idea that they wouldn’t have it any other way.
[dropcap]N[/dropcap]orth Carolina natives, but transplants to the High Country, the Tatums long ago made Banner Elk their home. Over 36 years of marriage, they have built two businesses and a family, which today are completely intertwined, like the grape vines growing behind their home and the dovetail joints in their handcrafted dresser drawers.
At first glance, owning a furniture store and a winery might seem like disparate and unrelated undertakings. But in the Tatums’ case, the connection seems natural, fitting, and homegrown. In the mountains of Avery County, they’ve built complementary businesses—Tatum Galleries and Grandfather Vineyard Winery—that delight their customers from the living room to the wine cellar.
From the Ski Slopes to Small Business Owners
Sally and Steve, both 63, met when they were fresh out of college, both working at Appalachian Ski Mountain near Blowing Rock. Steve, originally from Burlington, North Carolina, was on the ski patrol during the winter, working construction in the warmer months; and Sally, who hailed from Charlotte, worked in group sales year-round. They were married in 1978. “People have asked us how we’ve worked together and stayed together for all these years,” says Sally. “It probably has something to do with the fact that we got married on April Fool’s Day.”
Steve had always enjoyed building things, and the year after the wedding, he found a woodshop he could use. When he wasn’t working on the slopes, he was building furniture, and sold some small items made of wormy chestnut through a local “hole in the wall” shop. The pieces sold well, so Steve and Sally decided to open their own store, Native Wood Reproductions. At the beginning, the store sold only Steve’s handmade furniture and a few local crafts. As sales picked up, the couple decided to work on the business full-time. In 1981, they received a bank loan to buy a plot of land and build a store—the building that would become Tatum Galleries.
They moved the business into the new woodshop and showroom in 1982. Like mothers everywhere, Sally remembers dates by recalling what her children were up to at the time. One day in that year, her then eleven-month-old son, Dylan, took a tumble out of a window, which was open because of all of the wood dust and wallboard dust from the new construction. “He fell two stories and only got a scratch on his thumb,” she says. “An angel caught him!”
The Tatum’s young family grew up in the store. “Our kids were raised in here,” says Sally. “They’d get off the school bus and spend the afternoon here with me.” At the time, it was probably impossible to imagine just how involved the children would become.
Tatum Galleries is chock full—couches, dining room tables, lamps, wall art, throw pillows, rugs, trays, and dressers. Everywhere you turn, there’s another vignette, another inviting seating area, another luxurious fabric or accessory for the home. While the eclectic selection ensures there’s something for every taste here—a mix-and-matcher’s dream—the large store somehow also maintains a cohesive flavor, a cozy sense that it all belongs together.
A key part of managing a home decor store is appointing the space in a way that’s appealing to customers. Sally, with a degree in elementary education but no formal interior design training, found that the decorating role suited her—a fact that she credits to her parents, both of whom she says had excellent taste.
“Customers liked how I decorated the store, so they would ask me to come out and help them,” says Sally. She started doing some interior design work in the evenings, since she was responsible for managing the store during the day. In 1986, Sally began hiring other interior designers to join her team, realizing that interior design would be a large component of the business. Today, she has four or five ladies that help out at the store, depending on the time of year—including her daughter, Jesse Rose, 32, who holds an interior design degree. “Because we all help people with things like picking fabrics for upholstery,” says Sally, “everybody on staff has to have a good sense of design.”
A constant challenge in the interior design industry is keeping up with new trends. Sally has purposefully hired younger designers to ensure that the styles they offer are up to date. But much of the store’s “look” is due to Sally herself. She spends a lot of time sourcing new merchandise for the store, making sure the shop has a fresh look every season, since many of her customers are return customers. “This store would not be what it is without her eye for design,” says Steve. “She’s able to pick out the things that other people want to buy, and that’s a hard thing to do.”
Sally says that she enjoys projects that involve working with a client’s existing furniture and belongings. But in a region with many second homes—the Tatums estimate that around 75-80% of Tatum Galleries’ customers are people with second homes in the area—Sally also has many customers who hire her to completely outfit their High Country vacation houses or condos. “She can load up a whole truck, from picture frames to tables, and take it to a client’s house, and the client will keep 95% of it,” says Steve.
In an area heavily dependent on warm-weather tourism, the Tatums have found that the interior design business also helps balance out winter revenue. “We work on interior jobs all winter long,” says Sally, “because it’s a perfect time to remodel.” Clients sometimes give their keys to Sally and trust her to decorate their home in their absence.
Then, when the summer months roll around, those clients make it a point to stop by the shop. “One of the best compliments we get is, ‘Every time I come to the mountains, I come to see you,’” says Sally.
Custom Work for Discerning Customers
Ten years ago, the Tatums doubled the size of their building, expanding the retail shop to fill the top floor, and moving the woodworking shop into the 2,500 square foot basement.
Here, Steve and two employees cut, sand, and stain new furniture pieces amid stacks and piles of wood. Increasingly, Steve spends his time on the winery business, but at the top of their production, he and his team were making 50 to 75 new pieces each year—everything from tables and chairs to dressers and beds.
Back in the early years, the store sold only Steve’s handmade pieces, but as things progressed they started doing custom orders, which is most of what they produce today. “There are still certain people who don’t settle for things,” says Steve. “These are people who have looked to find a certain table or chest of drawers in a certain size or color, and can’t find what they want.”
He gives the example of a customer who owns a round dining room table with an inset lazy susan. The customer plans to give the table to his daughter, and has ordered a new and larger version for his own home—sixty-six inches wide, made of curly maple, and with that same clever lazy susan inset into the middle.
The shop also carries furniture from other makers, ranging from local craftsmen to larger producers. “We like to look for solid wood furniture made in the United States, but it’s getting harder and harder to find,” says Steve. “The furniture industry in this country is drying up.”
But Steve and his craftsmen are doing their best to keep the American handmade legacy alive. “Our furniture is as good a quality as money can buy,” says Steve proudly. “It’s built to last through generations—what some people call the ‘antiques of the future.’”
These days, though, another project has taken over much of Steve’s time, energy, and imagination: the winery.
Cultivating A New Business
If you pull out of the Tatum Galleries parking lot and drive two miles down Highway 105, then turn right onto Vineyard Lane, you’ll cross a charming little bridge that spans a rushing brook and come upon Steve and Sally’s newest endeavor: Grandfather Vineyard Winery.
As you face the green-roofed, barn-style building that contains the tasting room, to your right will be a steep slope of criss-crossing terraces, tangled with grape vines. To your left, Adirondack chairs invite you to relax on the grassy bank beside the boulder-edged brook. And behind you, you can make out the horizontal profile of a face in the contours of the landscape—Grandfather Mountain, the namesake of this business.
If you happen to glance behind the tasting room, you might notice another building—this is Sally and Steve’s home, where they’ve lived since 1979.
In 1998, the owners of this 13-acre plot of land decided to sell, and asked the Tatums if they would have any interest in purchasing it, since it abuts their property. The couple, who had dreamed of owning it for many years, jumped at the opportunity. Once it was theirs, they wondered what to do with it. They played with a variety of options, including starting a tree farm, but nothing seemed quite right.
Both Sally and Steve are wine lovers (in fact, they both remember the bottle of wine they shared on their first date), so eventually the idea of grapes came up. They had noticed that most of their “old-timer” neighbors had small grape trellises, just enough for producing a few jars of jam each year. “Most of them didn’t know what kinds of grapes they were,” says Steve. “They considered them red grapes, pink grapes, or white grapes. But they grew, that was the important thing.”
Steve started doing research to find out if there were any wine grapes that would grow at their elevation of 3,100 feet, especially considering the High Country weather patterns. In 2003, he planted six varieties, which did remarkably well. “The next year, me and Sally not getting any younger and knowing how long it takes for wine grapes to mature, we thought, ‘We’ll just terrace the land and grow grapes. We can sell them and it’ll be beautiful to look at, too.’”
While they had no plans to open a winery at that time, once the grapes started producing, the Tatums began making wine for themselves in their garage. They slowly realized that if they did put in a winery, it would be a hit because of the location. “When you talk to the owners of other wineries that are fairly removed from main traffic flows,” says Steve,” their main challenge is getting the tourists to pull off an interstate and drive five or ten miles.”
Being only a few hundred feet off of a main road means that Grandfather Winery receives a constant flow of tourists during the warmer months. In a twist that seems to bring this couple’s story full-circle, the Tatum’s winery also stays busy in the winter due to visiting skiers. In fact, the clientele for both Tatum Galleries and Grandfather Vineyard Winery are similar—folks with disposable income who enjoy the finer things in life. As a result, many of the Tatums’ customers frequent both businesses. Last year, 7,400 people visited the winery for tastings.
The tasting menu includes about a dozen different wines, from a smoky Zinfandel to a honey-sweet ice wine. The vineyard now produces fifteen different varieties of grapes—Steve describes it as an “experimental vineyard”—and as a result they do a lot of blending. Their Profile Red contains ten different red varieties, making for a very unique flavor.
“A lot of people tell us that they can’t believe they’re drinking wine from North Carolina,” says Steve. The North Carolina Wine Growers Association lists Grandfather Winery as one of only six wineries in its “mountain region,” which is comprised of most of Western North Carolina. With only five acres of grapes, the business also purchases grapes from other local vineyards to meet production needs.
The Tatum’s son, Dylan, 29, is the winemaker. When the couple planted their first vines, Dylan was a college student and became intrigued by grape-growing. He went on to study viticulture (the study of grape production) and enology (the study of winemaking) at Surry Community College. He also received a business degree from Appalachian State University, providing a solid knowledge base for managing the winery. Today the winery produces 1,500 to 1,700 cases of wine annually, most of which is sold at the winery itself, with some bottles being sold at local restaurants and shops.
It should come as no surprise that Steve built many of the wooden elements in the tasting room—from the giant eight-foot-tall front door (which Steve describes as a “dungeon door”) to the white oak wood-slab bar, complete with clever wine-glass-shaped inlays.
He also made the wooden mantel shelf that juts out from the stone fireplace, which displays about a dozen bottles wearing medals. Steve explains that they are awards from the North Carolina State Fair and the Mid-Atlantic Southeastern Wine Competition. Last year at the latter, Grandfather Winery won best in show for its Legacy blended red, beating out nearly 600 other wineries. “It was a huge honor for us because we’re such a small winery,” says Steve.
When asked about any expansion plans for either business, Steve says that he and Sally already have their hands full and are happy with how things are. These days what he likes most is taking a break to literally enjoy the fruits of his family’s labor.
“I just love to grab a glass of wine and sit out there with the customers and talk,” says Steve, smiling.