As owner and manager of Ankida Ridge Vineyards, Christine Vrooman is the self-appointed leader of a family that, at one time, wasn’t sure her dreams of having a winery were such a good idea.Moving from New York State to Virginia Beach, where they owned and operated husband Dennis’ successful veterinary practice. Vrooman says she always felt sort of “out of place” living there. “I’ve always had a pull to the mountains,” she explains. “We’d been living in Virginia Beach, and I just kept looking to the mountains for answers.” Emitting a sigh, she adds, “For the last 15 years Virginia Beach just never felt like home.”
A firm believer in the power of dreams and intuition, Vrooman’s search for her destiny culminated far from the cities, on the eastern slope of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, near the historic town of Amherst. Located along the Jefferson Heritage Trail, she found her “place” while searching for a spot to build a home she and Dennis would retire to. “I knew it had to be remote,” says Vrooman. “So, when we drove for what seemed like forever down this dirt and gravel road, down to where state maintenance actually ended, and onto a rocky-tree-filled-forest of a property, I knew I was home.”
Vrooman is convinced she was standing in the middle of a dream she’d had, a prophecy, if you will, about where they would build their home and live out the rest of their lives. She saw the trees from her dream. In fact, she saw all the signs that told her to buy the property right then and there…so she did. “I was standing there, looking up and around and instantly knew I’d found the place—all 100 acres of it.” She says she called her husband and said, “Guess what I just did?”
Vrooman’s husband already knew about her dreams, and took to heart the strength and faith she had in them. So, before they knew it, they were hiring a contractor to clear land and start the construction of their new home.
According to Tamara Lucas, one of the Vrooman’s four children, and the family’s official “wine expert”, the land backed right up to the George Washington National Forest and was full of beautiful trees and hills. “There was a propane hook up at the old cabin, but not much else,” explains Lucas. “Electricity was eventually brought through the property by the county, but until it was, we camped out up in the mountains while the excavators cleared the plot for the dream home for my parents.”
There, on a small parcel within those 100 acres, with a perfect view of Mount Pleasant, the Vrooman’s found the spot they wanted to live. So, armed with designs and having told the excavator where to begin work, Vrooman began further exploration of the land she’d bought, searching out trails and learning about the land while wrapping up their old life in Virginia Beach.
On one of those return visits to inspect the progress, they saw, to their dismay, that the wrong piece of land had been cleared. It seems that the excavator had cleared a spot large enough, but it was in the wrong place. Confronted for an explanation, he insisted, “This is a better spot for a house.” The Vrooman’s did not agree. They told him, instead, to clear the trees and rocks from the place they wanted, farther up the hill, and wondered what they could do with the already cleared land below.
Devastated with the property that had been needlessly destroyed, Vrooman knew she had to figure out something to do with it so the loss would not be in vain. She fleetingly considered planting Christmas trees, but it just didn’t feel right. And once again, she was led by intuition. “I’d been talking to my neighbors up here in the mountains, and learned that some were actually planting grapes and making quality wines,” says Vrooman. “I’d already been thinking about it, so when it was suggested to me, to plant grapes myself, I just decided to do it.”
But, all along her path to making the decision to get into the business of wine making, Vrooman’s daughter, the “wine expert”, kept trying to tell her not to do it. “I knew a lot about wine already,” says Lucas. She’d been working for a wine distributor for several years in Atlanta, GA, and as such, she had learned what made a good wine and how to tell if a wine wasn’t drinking well. “I said, ‘The rocks will make it so the grapes won’t grow the way they need to, Mom,’” explains Lucas. She also said something she now regrets. “I told her she was making a huge mistake with her time and her money.”
Never one to be deterred, Vrooman set about finding another expert to give her advice on the feasibility of her chosen path. She enlisted the help of renowned viticulturist, Lucie Morton. With an elevation of 1800 ft, very rocky soil, and excellent air drainage, Morton felt they would be able to grow Pinot Noir grapes. Vrooman was surprised, but excited, at the possibility. Most people in the wine business advise you can’t grow a decent Pinot Noir in Virginia. However, she was up for the challenge and of growing it in an eco-friendly vineyard in Virginia.
With Lucas only somewhat convinced, the Vroomans needed more to make this new dream a reality – the help of their family. Finally, in 2008 the entire family got to work planting the grapes and Ankida Ridge Vineyards was born. The whole family was out there, digging and planting and crying; every one of them hot and tired, but dedicated. Even the kids and grandparents helped. “There were four generations out there.” Vrooman says proudly.
On just under two acres, they planted tightly spaced vines of the Burgundian grapes, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Yet, even while this part of the plan was taking place, Lucas held to her reservations about the vineyard. Eventually, her parents wore her down with their devotion and conviction on making the winery work. “I kept telling them how big a chance they’d be taking by making wine. About how hard it would be and the unknown taste or quality they’d be producing…especially at first,” she recalls. “But, they kept going, so I got involved. I knew that in the end, I’d rather have been a part of what they were doing, hoping to help guide them in any way I could.”
Son Nathan says that in the end, he sort of ended up “volunteering” to make the wines for the family business, and eventually took classes to learn about winemaking and the science of it all. That’s where he met his now-wife, Rachel Stinson Vrooman and her father, Scott Stinson.
Vrooman signed up for a Piedmont Valley Community College Winery Equipment and Design class and admits that at this point, he knew nothing about the wine business. They didn’t even have a winery, just growing vines. But he wanted to get started, to be able to help the family business as much as he could. “Rachel and her father had also signed up for that class,” he explains. “They were in the same position as us, learning about wine-making and using the same vineyard consultants we were.” The father/daughter team was in the process of starting Stinson Vineyards, in Crozet, Virginia, and it was during a break in the class he really started talking to Rachel and her father more, because, while they were also new to the business, they were beginning actual construction of their winery. They had extra space at Stinson, so we wound up making wine together that first year.
During the time he and Rachel were dating, the Stinsons successfully built their own winery and it was operational one day before the first Pinot Noir harvest at Ankida Ridge, in 2010. These days, Nathan Vrooman spends his time, as wine maker, divided between the two wineries and there are even times when the Stinson team helps the Ankida Ridge family and vice-versa; harvest, in particular. “There’s no real competition between our two wineries; it’s more like cooperation,” Nathan says. “We all just want the best for both businesses and we try to support each other every day.”
Ankida Ridge derives its name from Ankida (pronounced “An-kee’-da”), an ancient Sumarian word meaning “where Heaven and Earth join.” And in this Heaven on Earth, pet sheep roam the hills of the winery and graze in the vineyards during certain times, making them God’s weed eaters, while fertilizing the soil as they consume the unneeded plant life, allowing the grapes to grow. The cats keep the bird and rodent population down. Chickens take care of the bugs and weed reseeding. And the dogs guard them all.
By May of 2011, all the Vrooman’s hard work finally paid off, and with the help of a neighboring vineyard’s bottling facilities, the family produced their first harvest of Ankida Ridge wine. Lucas was anxious, “I got the very first sip of Pinot and I was really scared that what I feared the most would be true. That it wasn’t that good or that it was just okay.” But, adds Lucas, “It wasn’t okay at all – it was great!”
With a vineyard expansion underway, planting has been completed on just under an additional four acres of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and are adding some Gamay to the vineyard. Planting proved more time consuming than originally expected when the GPS planter was a no show.
During those early days, they primarily sold to friends – producing only 48 cases of Chardonnay and 92 cases of Pinot Noir. But, these days, the Ankida Ridge label produces about 950 cases of wine per year, and with the addition of their wine club, they are poised to ship to every state in the country. According to Vrooman, the new vineyard harvest is planned for 2019 and should bring the number closer to 1300 cases per year.
Ankida Ridge Winery also maintains a second label called Rockgarden, a line of wines that are vinted and produced by Ankida Ridge with fruit sourced from neighboring Virginia vineyards. By balancing old world wine making philosophies with modern technology, the Vroomans are able to hand craft beautiful artisan wines. Their small production allows them to carefully sort through their grapes so only the best fruit makes it into their wines. They whole berry ferment red wines in small lots and whole cluster press their whites.
Harkening back to 2008, when they all worked so hard to plant those first vines, the family still assembles each year to help with the harvest and production. The Vrooman’s three daughters, Tamara Lucas, Marissa Braeuer and Rachel Abdella; son Nathan, his wife Rachel and even their five grandkids, pitch in. You’ll find them all lined up, pulling out twigs and other debris from the conveyor belt, inspecting the fruit as it moves along. It’s hard and dirty work, but everyone is willing to help and share in the love of their home and work endeavor.
In the end, it seems Vrooman’s intuition and dreams were right all along – moving to the mountains allowed her to produce quality wines under the Ankida Ridge label and led to a successful family run business, as well as finding the home she always dreamed about.
Looking to the future, Vrooman describes her ideal scenario. “I smile at the thought of our grandchildren and their children gathering for the holidays in years to come, and pulling from their wine cellar a cob-webbed, dusty bottle of a vintage 2010 Ankida Ridge Pinot Noir…and glasses are raised and a toast is offered to the year their ancestors first harvested the fruit of their dreams.”
IN PRAISE OF ANKIDA RIDGE WINES FOOD & WINE’S “BUYING GUIDE 2015” Ankida is included as one of the 500 most exciting producers across the country. … “Winemaker Nathan Vrooman is looking to alter the paradigm here as he boldly makes Pinot Noir where no Pinot has gone before.”Richard Leahy, wine critic, author and writer of “The Richard Leahy Report” had this to say about Ankida Ridge Pinot Noir 2011, “The new, small, Burgundian-style winery, Ankida Ridge high in Amherst County is not only focused and passionate, but has done their homework from the ground up, hiring viticulturist Lucie Morton and paying attention to every detail in the process. The result is the most remarkable Pinot Noir I’ve had from the Eastern U.S…the best wine in the state made in a wet harvest could be this Pinot Noir!” And about Ankida Ridge Chardonnay 2011, “If you want elegance and finesse in Virginia Chardonnay, here’s one you don’t want to miss.”
Written by Elizabeth Tate / Photography by Gordon Lynch