Gervasi Vineyard off 55th Street NW in Canton remains an Italian village in the making.
Nine years ago, Gervasi Vineyard was the last workable farm in Canton and seemed to Ted Swaldo a good place to grow grapes.
In less than a decade, Gervasi has evolved from a modest winery on the 55 rural acres Swaldo bought just before retirement to a destination resort that attracts visitors from throughout a large region of the country.
“I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do with the farm. I had no plans for it. I just knew it was beautiful,” said Swaldo, who sold his previous company, ASC Industries, an automobile water pump manufacturing company on Route 241, and reflected in Florida about how he should put his Ohio farmland to use. “I decided I was going to plant a vineyard, and I was going to grow grapes. I wanted to be a winemaker.”
The Swaldo family traces its roots to Italy, so it was only appropriate that the property quickly evolved into a touch of Tuscany. His son, Scott, who had worked for his father at ASC Industries, came aboard the first day to help transform farm buildings into a wine production facility and restaurant.
“I just started helping out with the aesthetics, lighting and floor patterns,” said Scott Swaldo, general manager of the entire Gervasi operation. “At some point, I realized we were building something bigger than we planned. I approached dad one day and said, ‘If we’re going to do this, we should have family doing it, and I’d like to be involved.’ He just told me, ‘I was hoping you’d say that.’ He was waiting for me to come to the realization.”
So, Scott Swaldo stayed with the family enterprise, which includes Ted Swaldo’s wife, Linda, and his daughter, Christie Blackerby. “He runs the place,” Ted Swaldo said of his son. “I just have fun designing things.” Indeed, many details have been added over the years.
The Bistro restaurant, an upscale Italian restaurant, came first, built from the farm’s barn. Then the Swaldos added the outdoor dining area, The Piazza, with the old milk house converted into an outdoor kitchen.
The Swaldos continued “clearing and beautifying the property, reviving and reinventing the land and buildings,” according to a history on the Gervasi website. “They even replanted every tree that had to be moved for construction or vineyard planting,” the history notes. The Conservatory and The Pavilion wedding venues were offered amid that greenery.
With Gervasi increasingly being for special events, “people needed a place to stay,” recalled the elder Swaldo. So, the Villa Grande, with its six four-bedroom villas, event center, conference facility and expanded kitchen, opened in 2011. The Veranda, an adjacent patio, looks toward the Villas.
People came, and they came early, Scott Swaldo recalled.
“That’s why we added The Crush House, our casual lunch restaurant,” said the younger Swaldo, who called the venue an outgrowth of requests by guests. “If you listen to your customers, they’ll tell you what they want and you’ll know what projects will work.”
In 2014, the only off-farm eating establishment was added, across the road on Route 241 from the site of the former ASC Industries. Winemaking was exceeding the capacity to sell at other Gervasi venues, Ted Swaldo explained.
“We sell our wine on-premises, so we decided that the best way for us was to open another restaurant. That’s how Twisted Olive came about,” said Swaldo, who noted the restaurant has a family-oriented menu.
Gretchen Wendell, an original hire at Gervasi as a part-time bartender who became its director of food and beverage and quality control, calls her workplace a “gem in the community” because of the “amazing” creativity of the Swaldo family.
“It’s fun for the employees to be a part of the vision of the owners and see it unfold,” she said. “The Swaldos offer an idea to people, and they allow us to bring it to life.”
The latest venue to be brought to life, opened in December 2018, is The Still House, which Ted Swaldo called a “coffee shop by day and cocktail lounge at night.”
Scott Swaldo notes that the distillery in The Still House produces a variety of Gervasi Spirits, served with draft beer and wine with live music during evening hours. During the daytime, Gervasi Cafe coffee and pastries are preferred.
“The Still House is my favorite because it’s a really cool space,” the younger Swaldo said, who noted there also is a story behind the architecture of a building made to feel like an Italian Tuscan Chapel. The spire on the structure, he said, is inspired by the shape of one on a chapel in Italy where his grandmother was baptized. “It’s a beautiful building.”
Ted Swaldo professes to have no favorites among the increasingly numerous offerings of Gervasi. Each new venue earns his favor, and soon a new 24-room hotel—The Casa—is to be added to the south end of the property. Views of all rooms will overlook Gervasi’s lake.
“I like them all,” said Swaldo. “Each one is different. I work right across from the Crush House, so I go there for lunch, and we live close to Twisted Olive, so we often go there. And my wife and I like to go to The Bistro at night for dinner.”
Susan Monteleone, director of hotel and resort operations, has been with the Gervasi team since its beginning, starting as a part-time hostess at The Bistro. Monteleone said she remembers first recognizing Gervasi’s growth when a guest told her, “This is a nice resort.”
“It’s become a destination … and not just for the community, not just for Stark County,” she said. “You can come and park the car and you don’t have to leave. If you’ve got an important occasion, we want to take care of all the details. It’s a great place to come and enjoy life. We celebrate life.”
The evolution of the ever-growing Gervasi has been one of the best parts of Ted Swaldo’s life. And he has shared the experience not only with guests—more than 220,000 people visit Gervasi venues each year—but with many longtime employees. After eight years, Gervasi still has 22 of its original employees, he said.
“It’s been exciting. It’s been creative. It’s been the most rewarding work of my life,” said Ted Swaldo. “And the best thing is I get to work with my family every day.”