Love They Farmer: Ankida Ridge Vineyards

Love They Farmer: Ankida Ridge Vineyards
 Hold a glass of wine up to the light, swirl the liquid, and look carefully. What do you see? Christine Vrooman of Ankida Ridge Vineyards sees nature, history, chemistry, community, art, and craft in every ounce. If it’s a glass poured from a bottle made at her small Amherst, Virginia vineyard and winery, she also sees glimpses of the distinctive landscape that created it and reflections of her family’s dedication. Grapes harvested for wine are a special crop; they contain a world beyond their own skins, flesh, and juices. These multilayered connections are why Christine so relishes what she does, even though just a little over a decade ago the retired veterinarian had no idea she’d end up in the wine business.

She and her husband Dennis, also a vet, bought the tract in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains that their vineyard is on as a retirement retreat, and when their contractor cleared land on top of the property’s mountain to build them a house, he cleared a single acre further down the mountainside too. “He thought that lower spot was a better place to put the house,” Christine said. She stuck to the original plan of having her home up high, but the other clearing stirred her imagination. She was already a fan of wines from her home state, so she decided to plant some grape vines on the land. “It was a little side project,” Christine said. “If land hadn’t already been cleared, we never would have done this; it’s like the vineyard found us.” She thought she’d just see what happened. “But I quickly got into it and felt we could grow some really great grapes here.”

Her hunch was right. The location of the plot—at 1,800 feet of elevation—creates a mesoclimate perfect for a varietal not well-suited to other parts of Virginia. “We are a spot that’s not like other vineyards, so we decided to take advantage of that and plant something different,” Christine said. With the encouragement of a viniculture expert who was excited by the vineyard’s cooler temperatures and a slope that draws even more cool air down the mountainside, she took a leap and planted pinot noir. That was in 2008. The vines flourished and produced heavy clusters of healthy grapes. (She planted a bit of chardonnay too, which also thrived, but as it’s easier to grow, that was no real surprise.) They picked their first harvest in 2010, and the winery was completed in 2011.

Ankida’s unique setting makes growing pinot noir possible, but the vines’ success is also due to Christine’s careful cultivation of the delicate grape. And the site has its challenges too. While the forest soil, a mix of decomposing plants with granite, is good for grapes, its rock content makes working the land labor-intensive. “It’s been daunting and expensive, but we knew that when we made the choice to put a vineyard on a rocky mountain,” Christine said. It’s out of the way too, meaning less traffic to the winery’s tasting room and shop.

But Christine has never doubted her initial vision. The raw beauty of the site is a pro that cancels out any cons, and also inspired the vineyard’s name, which in ancient Sumerian means, “where heaven and earth join.” “It was used in a poem in a book about Sumerians I was reading,” Christine said. “I’m such a firm believer that everything is connected, so it just captured my heart.” She tucked the word away, and years later on a spring night soon after she and her husband bought the property, it resurfaced to describe an almost perfect moment. “We had strung a hammock between two old trees on the mountain top and were just enjoying the evening,” Christine said. “Warm air was drifting up and cool air floating down the mountain. Fireflies were everywhere, and the stars were so bright, you couldn’t tell where one ended and the other began. And then I knew it. This was Ankida.”

Almost a decade later, when they started the vineyard, there was no other name for it, and as soon as Ankida Ridge was founded, connections continued to form. Christine’s son Nathan joined the team as the vintner, taking classes and soaking up tips and technique anywhere he could find them—including from a classmate from another Virginia winemaking family who would later become his wife.

Since the natural surroundings define Ankida Ridge’s wines, Christine tightened that connection with Mother Nature by using biodynamic methods to find balance in their vineyard. They rely on chickens to keep away insects and cats to keep away rodents who pilfer grapes. They use sheep to eat away ground cover after harvest in lieu of herbicides, and a compost of sheep manure and grapes leftover from winemaking is a rich fertilizer for the soil. A couple of dogs to protect the sheep and chickens complete Ankida’s connection to the wider circle of life. “I love working with our animals, and seeing how they and the plants all work together,” Christine said. “It adds to the energy here and brings this sense of well-being and purpose.”

That purpose is now growing. Last spring, Ankida Ridge planted an additional four acres, mostly with more pinot noir vines, and Christine’s hard work on the land and in the winery is paying off. Ankida Ridge wines are continually praised by wine experts, and most recently, it was named by Wine Business Monthly as one of the top 10 “hot wine brands” in the country and was the only winery outside of the West Coast on the list.

Much of the attention Ankida Ridge wines garner shines on its pinot noir, rewarding what was initially a risk. And while large wineries are known for turning out a more consistent product year after year, Ankida is not, and Christine is just fine with that. “We make vintage-expressive wines for sure,” she said. “No weather, no season is alike, so every vintage is different and that’s authentic; we embrace that.”

Others are embracing it too, with every vintage so far selling out. The winery produced approximately 250 cases of its 2016 vintage, but with the recent vineyard expansion, will now be producing between 700 to 800 cases annually. Christine believes the best vintage is still to come. “I think it will be what is in the barrels now, our 2017 pinot noir,” she said. In addition to a larger size, Ankida Ridge is growing in scope, adding a sparkling wine to its roster, a blanc de blanc of all chardonnay, though Christine is pondering the possibility of adding some of the prized pinot to create a blend.

Whatever comes next at Ankida Ridge, Christine remains enamored of the community, connectivity, and conviviality that flow through wine—both hers and vino made by others. “I love growing something that produces a product that’s about celebration, that’s shared around tables among family and friends,” she said. “I love meeting other winemakers and the folks who travel to our tasting room. I love that I can go down to my cellar, grab a bottle of wine we made, and drink it. I love it all, but mostly, I’m grateful that I get to live this life.”