PRODUCES AWARD-WINNING, ECO-FRIENDLY WINES
High on a mountainside in Amherst County, where heaven and earth join, some of the nation’s finest wines are being produced at Ankida Ridge Vineyards.
Their pinot noir was just named one of the Top Ten Hot Brands of 2017 by Wine Business Monthly and one of the Top 100 Wines of 2017 by James Melendez, one of the country’s leading wine writers.
The view from their tasting room, facing Tobacco Row Mountain, is breathtaking, even for people acquainted with breathtaking views in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
An accidental clearing of land got it all started.
Christine and Dennis Vrooman bought a piece of property off Mount Pleasant Road in 1999 with the idea of building a home and retiring to their mountaintop roost.
They hired a contractor to clear the land, but when they next visited, in addition to the home site, another acre had been clear-cut down slope. The contractor had taken it upon himself to choose what he thought might be a better place to build.
“If he had not done that, we wouldn’t be talking,” Christine Vrooman said during a recent interview.
The Vroomans kept their original perch for the house, unsure what to do with the additional cleared lot.
They split the price of the timber with the contractor and started building their retirement home.
The Vroomans had a veterinary practice in Virginia Beach, which was still their primary residence. Dennis was the vet and Christine was the practice manager.
By 2005, they had discovered some nice Virginia wines, including those of Veritas Vineyards in nearby Afton. They decided to grow some grapes on that barren lot.
They hired Lucie Morton, one of the nation’s leading vineyard consultants. She visited the rocky, steep slope, located at 1,800 feet above sea level, and declared it a promising place to grow pinot noir, the grape that produces the sublime reds in the Burgundy region of France.
“Soil is very, very important in growing great grapes,” Christine said. The decomposing granite on their land facilitates good drainage and distinctly tasty fruit.
“The best wines are made in the vineyard, not in the cellar,” she said.
“We do everything we can to grow the best fruit. We allow each vintage to express itself.”
So the Vroomans started the painstaking work of clearing rock and establishing a vineyard. Much of the work fell to Christine while Dennis continued his practice.
“Somebody has to keep their day job when you start a vineyard,” Christine said.
Christine had already named their property Ankida Ridge, after reading a book about ancient Sumeria. The word “ankida” means “where heaven and earth join.”
As she began working the ground with the help of a local man, she knew she had chosen the perfect name.
She found joy in learning how to grow grapes organically with celestial advice from biodynamics, which takes into account phases of the moon. Christine describes it as “homeopathy for wine.”
“I’m just a firm believer that everything is connected in some way,” she said.
To avoid herbicides, they bought sheep, which graze between the rows of vines before the buds set and again after harvest. They bought two Maremma sheepdogs, large white protectors of sheep, and three cats to keep rodents from eating the rootstock.
The cats also scare off birds, which love to eat grapes, but the Vroomans also installed purple martin houses because the swallows eat insects, not fruit.
They have chickens and guinea hens, which eat the grubs of Japanese beetles as they emerge from the soil, greatly reducing devastation from that pest.
“The biodiversity adds to our life here,” she said.
For two years, they were able to grow their grapes organically before black rot set it. A common problem for wine growers in the humid, mid-Atlantic, the fungus requires a non-organic fungicide to control.
So they gave up on organic certification, but continued to be as environmentally friendly as possible.
In keeping with the Burgundian theme, the Vroomans also planted some chardonnay grapes.
Still, at that point, they hadn’t planned to make their own wine, but when their son Nathan moved back east from Denver, he found a new career. He studied with Matthieu Finot, a winemaker for the King Family Vineyards in Crozet. There he met a fellow student, Rachel Stinson of Stinson Vineyards in Crozet, and the pair married.
Nathan’s first wine debuted in 2011, and their wines now number six, from vert, a young white wine, to vin doux, a port-style dessert wine. The heavy hitter, however, is the pinot noir, which retails for $44 a bottle and is carried by fine restaurants from Washington, D.C. south to Savannah. Some restaurants, Christine said, charge as much as $110 a bottle.
On a recent visit, I was able to sample five of their wines under the guidance of Graham Wiatt, who has been working at Ankida Ridge for about a year. Wiatt started out as a customer in 2012 and has a deep appreciation for the wine he pours.
The Rockgarden Vert is “divine” when it’s 90 degrees outside, he said, making it a perfect summer wine. The 2015 Ankida Ridge Chardonnay has become his favorite, and I have to agree it was one of the best chardonnays I’ve ever had.
The rich fruity red of the 2015 Ankida Ridge Pinot Noir said cherry to me, and it’s easy to see why it’s a favorite of connoisseurs.
The Vroomans have decided to add another four acres to the two they now cultivate. It will literally require jackhammers to break up the rocks.
Grape-growing and winemaking are expensive propositions. It can take eight years to transform a piece of land into a bottle of wine.
Dennis sold his veterinary practice about 20 months ago and retired last May. Now the Vroomans are turning an old Victorian house they own in Charlottesville into an Airbnb, which they will offer as part of a tour to their vineyard.
The goal, Christine said, is to one day break even, and if they are lucky, eventually make a profit.
“You have to love it, and I do, fortunately,” she said. “It’s the best time of my life.”
Three of their four children live in Charlottesville, along with four of their six grandchildren. Another daughter lives in Atlanta and promotes the family wine throughout the southeast.
In Lynchburg, The Corner at Rivermont carries their wine, as does Market at Main, the Farm Basket and Altus Chocolate.
You won’t, however, find Ankida Ridge wines at a festival. Christine says their wines are meant for fine dining.
Their goal was always to produce great wine, and they are doing just that. Christine has poured their wine in Beaune, France, considered the capital of the Burgundy region, and three-fourths of those who tasted it thought it was a real burgundy. (Only wine grown in Burgundy, France rightfully carries that label.)
She was also the only East Coast winery invited to the International Pinot Noir Festival in Oregon, where, again, their wine was mistaken for a burgundy.
For the Vroomans, the goal was to make the best wine that can be made in Virginia. Arguably, they have.