A personal perpsective of life in our Virginia vineyard... Christine Wells Vrooman



Triple Celestial Event!

Last night the alignment of the sun and moon and the rhythm of the seasons lined up for a rare, and I mean rare, celestial event. Not since the year of 1638 has such an event occured. On the Winter solstice we had a full moon this year. In addition, we witnessed a full lunar eclipse. Well, some of us did at least.
Our skies were clear as the huge round moon rose above the mountain ridge. Our land here at Ankida Ridge is still covered with snow, so to stand outside in the dark overlooking the vineyard and into the woods was bright enough to see every branch, every limb on the ground, every shadow of the trees. It is absolutely magical to stand in that silvery, milky aura of light.

Just after midnight, an hour or so before the onset of the eclipse, a haze stretched across the sky, and just  before the eclipse started, a band of dotted clouds began rushing past the moon, giving the effect of the moon racing across the sky. And by the time the eclipse was underway, the clouds had totally obscured my view of the moon. My eyes did not see one moment of this rare stretch of hours that had not been experienced in 372 years!

But as I lie in bed, tucked snuggly under the covers on this blustery, cold winter's night, I reveled in the rarity of this celestial event, imagining life here in these mountains the last time this alignment coincided. There were no settlers here then. Our mountains and valleys were quiet and unlit and inhabited only by the Natives, the Monacan Tribes. They lived in clusters nestled in small patches of cleared forests, and under the light of the moon their teepees must have glowed. At the image, I smiled as I tucked myself more deeply under the covers and had to settle for imagining what was happening in the heavens above, behind the untimely clouds. I had witnessed a lunar eclipse in the past. I knew that once the first cresecnt slice of white was carved from the bright, white face of the moon, the lunar glow would gradually dim, until at the full eclipse it becomes an eerie, rusty orange ball hanging in the sky. Then the white crescent returns and creeps across the orange face, growing fuller and finally returning the moon to its former glory, illuminating my woods once again with a silvery, magical, lunar light.

I was asleep well before the eclipse had peaked and would have to settle for other people's captured images. But I made the moment special in the only way I could, to reflect on it and imagine its beauty. I look forward to a half moon for this Christmas Eve and the light it will sprinkle into my beloved woods and upon my beloved family who will gather here this Christmas time.

Moonlight and a family gathered....Simple pleasures. But those are the best kind.

This Winter Solstice morning delivered me a beautifully colored sunrise, the sun rising today at its southern-most point.  It will now begin its trek toward the northern sky, across our valley, moving right to left now, and with it lengthening each day just a bit.  We've made it past the shortest day of the year!

 And now... onto the celebration of Christmas! 


A Vitis Aestivalis "Festivalus"

Recently I enjoyed a visit to the home, or shall I say "wild lab" of a very interesting man, Dr. Cliff Ambers, whose passion is re-discovering and working with native grape species. Our vineyard consultant, Lucie Morton, our son, Nathan, and I traveled over the mountain and through the woods, driving through a most spectacular palatte of autumn colors to arrive at the Ambers' beautiful old country home and vineyard nestled at about 1000 ft. on the eastern slope of Tobacco Row Mountain in Amherst Co, VA.   We stood under his "Courdec 3309" (a rootstock!) pergola on a most delightful late autumn afternoon, brilliant sunshine dappling through the diminshing leaves above us.

Growing grapes and making wine at his Amherst County home dubbed "Chateau Z Vineyard", Cliff lives the life of an authentic vigneron, performing all operations by himself with no hired help.  He scours the mountains, creekbeds, roadsides, forests, fields.. anyplace where wild grapes might possibly grow.  He currently has planted in his vineyard nine species of 100% North American wild vines, including grapes with names such as labrusca, riparia, cinerea and more. He pollinates these with selections from his over 200 cultivated varieties, including hybirds and vinifera stock, the intention being to increase the genetic diversity and to gain insect and pathogen resistance from the wild stock, thus allowing for cultivars that require less chemical sprays and more environmentally sensitive practices in the vineyard.  Cheers to that! 

We stepped inside the house into the country kitchen, walking first through an enclosed porch with tubs of fermenting foods filling the air with a sweet, pungent perfume.  Inside the table was "set" with a long line of wine glasses containing a hefty pour of various shades of red wines, all in a neat row, all labeled.

Cliff asked us to place them in order of depth of color.  He sat with this computer and notebook and had us all taste each of them, asking for tasting observations that will help him make breeding decisions for future vintages.  Lucie was impressed by some of the fruit flavors and structure.  Some were a bit too acidic, probably a bit tart for most tastes, albeit they had only been harvested one month ago and had only just finished their primary fermentation.  But all were certainly very interesting and were quite different from the wines most of us are accustomed to drinking.  But his hybridizations will tame this "wildness" and his work might one day bring to the world of viticulture in our region a species that pleases the palate, is indiginous and is pest and disease resistant.

The tasting complete we cleared the table for lunch.  Lucie had prepared a pumpkin peach soup made from her homemade  dashi base (Japanese soup stock), garnished with her homemade "peppy pepitos".  And Cliff had prepared homemade tempeh he sauteed up and served on his wife's homemade rye bread with home grown tomatoes and lettuce.  And I threw in some of my homemade applesauce whilst we sipped some of Cliff's homemade hybrid Vitis cordifolia wine!!  Do you get the  picture?!  T'was a veritable feast, an array of brilliantly prepared foods shared with some brilliant people.  A lovely, informative, delightful day at Chateau Z.  Keep up the hard work, Cliff! Well done!

Cliff and Lucie seeing eye to eye!


Autumn Colors the Vineyard


Crisp and golden leaves
Tired, relinquishing life
Fall softly to earth

 A quiet, crispness fills the silence of this evening's vineyard stroll.  Crunching grape leaves underfoot and lonely autumn crickets are all that's heard.  The birds are silent.  The constant whirr of cicadas and katydids are just a memory of sultry summer nights that remain vivid in my mind. But now the days are noticeably shorter, the nights becoming chilly, the sun is rising far to the south.  Soon the vines will sleep for a nice, long while.

I wonder, as I look at the nearly naked canes and stems, how much vigor the weaker vines were able to store in their roots for next season.  Will they finally come on strong next year, or is there just something inherent in the soil in certain areas of the vineyard that are holding them back?  No one seems to know for sure.  With this year's additional root growth and catching up, hopefully there will be a bit more uniformity to their vigor and size next year.  And with it a more abundant crop.  This was a good year.  They had abundant sunshine, were disease free, were irrigated when needed.  It was in fact a very good year.  Hopefully we will see the results in next year's crop.  In the meantime we wait for the wine from this, our very first season, to develop its inherent qualities and unique expression of all that has brought it to this point.

I have always loved searching the clouds for imaginary figures that feed my imagination.  In this image can you see the bank of angel faces looking down on the vines? 

And Dear ol' Dan... Somewhere along the way, he has lost his grooming skills and has turned into a muddy, gnarly, nearly dread-locked mutt!  He is getting on in years and I cherish the moments we have together.  He is still effective in his guarding duties, although he does now leave the chasing up to Bella while he, without moving a paw, sits and barks at whatever merits his warning!

Ol' ragged Dan!

Oh pretty Bella!

The sheep now roam freely during the daylight hours and every morning I find they have hiked the half mile up the mountain side to graze around the house and enjoy a bit of a different view from up here on the ridge. 

And I was excited today to find this tasty little morsel left on the vine.  It was puckered and nibbled on, but still was a delicious, unexpected sweet treat.

I cannot end this post without including the most magnificent of mornings I enjoyed yesterday. There had been much talk about the fall colors being non-existent this year due to the severe shortage of rainfall.  And up till a few days ago, there really was not much color, and here it was almost November.  But in a near explosion of color, after receiving over two inches of rain the previous day and night, the sun rose and illuminated the most spectacular fall morning.  Ignition!  We have color.. spectacular color that nearly popped overnight and will probably dissipate as quickly as it arrived. In typical years, I've noticed the red-leafed trees lose their leaves before the yellows and golds come on. But this year they all came together for a most unusual and spectacular burst of color.
So here you are.  What gifts such scenes are, a feast for the eyes.  Enjoy!

Next:  Soon we should be getting a sneak taste from the barrels of wine!  Oh, be still my heart!


Goodbye Dear Flippy Dog

My handsome threesome... we've been together for so many years.  Killian is the senior member of the trio, an ol' mixed breed, abandoned mutt, we think an Akita mix.  Then about seven years ago came this most unusual little gal, a Corgi/Bassett (maybe) mix with short, contorted legs and front paws that looked like flippers, thus the name.  And then our big guy BoomBoom found his way to our cabin in the woods as a lost, starving puppy.  My threesome.

Our littleFlippy had been acting a bit confused for a few days.  When I came back from town one morning recently I  heard her yipping loudly and found her stuck in the blackberry patch.  I had to don my beekeeping outfit to protect myself from the prickers and literally cut the briars away from her to release her.. poor little thing.  As the day progressed she grew more confused and unstable and by evening I was giving her subcutaneous fluids as she had gotten very dehydrated.  I was hoping that was all it was, but alas something much more serious was going on.

Within twenty-four hours she had deteriorated enough for us to take her to an animal emergency hospital in Charlottesville.  All of this was going on as we were preparing to attend our daughter, Marisa's, baby shower.  We dropped Flippy off at the hospital while we went to the shower.  Flippy remained stable so we brought her home with us, IV's in hand and enough meds to hopefully keep her alive while we figured out what was going on.  The blood tests they ran on her were relatively normal.  She made it through the night and seemed a bit better the next morning.  I put her outside under a bench next to a tree and she would lift her head occasionally.  I wanted her to feel the joy of the mountain air that she loved, hoping it would send some endorphins through her body and help her heal.

She gradually fell into a deeper sleep.  I layed down on the ground next to her for long stretches, rubbing her back, whispering to her.  She knew I was there.  Then shadows swooped over us in the late afternoon sun.  I looked up and three vultures were circling overhead.  Go away....
What do they know?

If she wasn't improved by morning, we decided there was nothing more we could do.  We were giving her all the meds that could possibly help, but nothing was improving her condition. We tucked her in for the night, rubbing her ears, whispering into them our love.  She seemed cozy in her position, settled in for a good long sleep.

She was gone in the morning.  She looked so peaceful. We cradled her and continued to tell her how much we loved her, hoping she could somehow hear.  We to this day do not know what it was, other than a severe neurological condition, perhaps a brain tumor?

We buried her up on the mossy knoll, Arnold, Dennis and I, along with Killian and BoomBoom, who truly  sensed what was going on and stood vigil throughout the burial process.  And dear Arnold came back with her little "gravestone" he carved from a piece of wood.

Flippy, little girl, we will miss you so.

Oh how she loved to cuddle

My constant companions


Prance those little feet
Your nose lifting for your treats
Silent your steps now



Three weeks to the day after we harvested our Pinot Noir, the Chardonnay were ready to come off the vines. It has been a very difficult year for Chardonnay in Central Virginia. A week of fog and rain at bloom dramatically reduced fruit set. Then just as the grapes were nearly ready to be picked, the Brix just about where we wanted it, we get hit with a deluge of rain, some places over 4 inches of rain. Our brix dropped 1 1/2 points.. from 22 to 19.5. So we have to wait for the sun to come out, dry things up, let the sugars come back up. Just about ready again... another deluge, the brix back down. This was the scenario throughout our region as we all anticipated our Chard harvest.

In the meantime, while our dogs were "guarding" the vineyard at night, aka "sleeping" in the near-side of the  vineyard, some woodland critter had been sneaking in from the forest on the other side of the vineyard, crawling up into the netting and using the space as a convenient little channel to stroll through and feast on the grapes the netting was supposed to be protecting! Here is a critter's eyeview of this bountiful opportunity!

So, what had already been a diminshed crop was diminished even more by the little beasts! Next year (are you beginning to hear "next year" pop up quite a bit??) I will raise a new dog to live on the far side of the vineyard and that will be his area to patrol as the grapes ripen!

The day of harvest for our Chardonnay was the antithesis of our Pinot harvest morning. The skies were bright blue, the air cool with soft breezes drifting by. Our harvest was completed in half the time of the Pinot, and off Nathan went, driving an air-conditioned cargo van of fruit to the winery.

And with that... Done!  A year's worth of raising these grapes from the day the little buds of green broke through in early April, timing our sprays around weather systems, pruning, tying, thinning, watching, searching for disease, testing the sugars, monitoring for the multitude of pathogens and critters that would love to devour our fruit before we send them off to become wine. It is done. The season over. Oh, we must still monitor for foliar diseases and keep the vines as healthy as we can for the next couple months while they replenish their body with sunlight, nutrients and water in preparation for a hibernating winter season, after which it will start all over again. That is the redeeming factor in growing these cherished grapes.. there is always another year. Until then, we will be monitoring and sampling the juice from our fruit and waiting patiently as it sits in the barrels over a season, making that magical transformation into wine.


A season of toil
Completes a measure of time
Light are your arms now


And Back In The Winery

There is something about that smell, the aroma of grapes fermenting... that yeasty, fruity, sweet, pungent vapor that resonates deep inside me.  It is said that a smell of something can create one of the most lasting and impenetrable memories.  Well, I cannot recall any memory of a time long ago where I was in the wrap of fermenting grapes' aroma, but I cannot step into a winery where that intoxicating vapor is present and not close my eyes and inhale this sweet memory I cannot recall. 

In the winery, many different grapes are in various stages of fermentation.  Our Pinot is in primary fermentation and bubbly and sweet and bathing in its beautiful deep blue juice.  The berries need to be punched down twice a day to keep the cap from being exposed to the air for any length of time without being "re-juiced" if you will.  The sugar levels are measured daily, along with the specific gravity and all sorts of other tests that gauge the progression of fermentation.  Our son, Nathan, has been helping the Stinson Winery where they are making the wine from our grapes.  He is learning and recording the process.  He has loved the challenges, loved learning the science and the art of making wine, under the guidance of Monsieur Matthieu Finot!.

It's not easy punching down!

Oh, that perfume!
It makes me nearly giddy!
When fermentation ends the grapes will be pressed and pumped into tanks or barrels, depending on the desired end product.  Our grapes are going into French oak barrels , some new, some old.  And in these tanks the wine will sit for nearly a year, creating its  magic in the dark, undergoing molecular changes and coming out with a juice that is unique only to our land, our grapes and us!


Sweet fumes fill the air
Evaporate into space
A smile to my face



Meanwhile... Back on the Farm

With the Pinot grapes now off the vine and the Chardonnay still not ready to pick, I felt a palapable pause in my days and was able to turn my attentions to other aspects of our life here on the farm.  The lambs are growing up, some nearly as big as their mothers. We had the sad misfortune of having to euthanize one of the ewes.  She had had prolapsing issues since her pregnancy and this particular evening, four months after delivering, she was prolapsing everything and struggling so we couldn't allow her to suffer anymore. I gave her an injection to sedate her before she was euthanized.   It brought me to tears when her lambs were blaating to her from outside the stall and she lifted her sleepy head and blaated back to them. I think of all my moments on the farm this was the saddest and most heartbreaking.  Within a day, the lambs adopted another ewe and lamb as their own and they became their own new little family. Maria is buried with our other lost livestock up on a mossy knoll overlooking the pond, next to our family pets' burial ground.  It is a soft and sacred place.
So gentle are our sheep

The peaches have taken on a lovely blush, and with that have come the squirrels.  I never realized squirrels liked peaches!  But the darn things nearly stripped my trees before I was able to harvest some for us!  Guess we'll have to net the trees as well next year!
My heirloom tomato crop seems a bit light.  I believe the heat and the drought has crimped their style a bit.  I am trying to raise one cross-pollinated volunteer that sprouted on its own a few years back.  I have kept it away from the other tomatoes for three years now and I think it is producing true and might be ready to become its own variety, worthy of a new name.  It is extremely prolific, salad size and is the sweetest tomato I have ever tasted.  I am going to name it in memory of my dear, sweet mother, whom we all called Mimi.  My new heirloom tomato... my "Sweet Mimi".

And the Damson plums are just about ripe so this is the perfect time to pick them to make a plum version of "sloe gin", a liqueur made from sloe berries, plentiful in the UK, but not here.  So a group of visiting women friends (our sons all grew up playing soccer together!) and I picked the plums, with Arnold coming to our rescue! We shook the tree and collected the fallings on a plastic sheet and Arnold climbed up in the tree to get the high plums.

    Everyone loves "the Arnold!"

We cleaned and pitted the plums and stuffed the lucious, plump blue fruit in jars with sugar where they will begin breaking down and fermenting.  In a couple weeks we will add gin to the bottle and let them age.  Before Christmas we will drain out the fruit and let it set and then for the holidays we will pour the liqueur into little bottles and they will make the most delightful little Christmas gifts to sip on a chilly winter's evening... another little taste of Ankida Ridge in a bottle.


Season of bounty
Helps to soften a sadness
Sleep sweet ewe in peace


A New Home for the Grapes

Into the cooler they went, after their hour and a half ride to the Stinson Family Winery, a delightful new winery that is perfectly suited for our precious crop. As meticulous as we are in the vineyard, they too are in their winery. Their equipment was sparkling new. In fact, our Pinot grapes were the first grapes to be processed there.

Soon after I arrived at the winery, the renowned and delightful French winemaker, Monsieur Matthieu Finot, arrived.  With quick and determined steps, he headed directly toward the cold room where the lugs of grapes were stacked.  He stood at the closed door, eyes fixed on it as it lifted.  As soon as the door was high enough for him to walk under it, he squeezed himself between the stacks and began popping berries into his mouth.  My eyes studied his, trying to read his reaction.  This was one of those moments of truth.  Just how good are these grapes?  Will they be able to make the fine wine the Stinsons hope to be able to make from our grapes? 
He stopped, still chewing the grapes and turned to me.  He nodded. And with his delightfully thick French acccent proclaimed, "Eet is goood. Zee grapes are goood!"  I wanted to jump with arms raised in victory-mode, but I restrained myself and uttered something subdued like "Really?  Wonderful!"

The grapes would rest in the cooler two nights.  On Friday at 7 am, we all convened at the winery to destem and sort the fruit.  The clouds were heavy and gray, the air a bit cooler, comfortable enough for us to process everything outside on the crush pad. An intense and exciting energy pulsated as two families of "newbies" went to work.  Matthieu moved swiftly and gracefully around the equipment, with such grace, ease and familiarity... setting up, connecting, arranging, plugging.  It was like watching a ballet.

The grapes were brought out.  In my mind, I heard the drumroll!  And the  process began. First, each lug was dumped into the destemmer that spit out the stems to one side and dropped the fruit onto the vibrating sorting table where we picked through the grapes and pulled out any leftover stems the machine missed.

We were surprised by the arrival of our daughter, Rachel, and little Owen, who came to experience first-hand the grapes-to-wine process.  Owen could not quite figure it all out, but certainly tried.

Below are the stems that were spit out by the destemmer and below that is the T-bin fillling up with the sorted fruit after taking a ride up the conveyor belt.  Up to the sky they rose for one brief, final moment, catching their last glint of sunlight before their life inside a toasted French oak barrel begins.

At one point the destemmer stopped functioning.  We began removing the stems by hand.  Oh... this was going to take a very, very long time.   Matthieu got on the phone and was speaking French to someone from the company in South Africa.  Seems there was a voltage setting issue.  A few adjustments. 
Let it rest. Working again.  Thank you, thank you!

In less time than I expected, we were done, the T-bin was full. 

I rubbed my fingers over the grapes and smelled their sweetness.  Matthieu began working his magic.. a little of this, a little of that.. additions to protect the fruit until the fermentaion process begins after a time of chilling down first.  He plunged a hollow pipe into the fruit, stuck the end of a pump hose into the pipe and pumped over the juice from the bottom of the bin over the top of the fruit.

And then out comes a giant box of plastic wrap!  Mattthieu shows eveyone how to make a removable cover with it, one that keeps out the fruit flies, but allows the CO2 to escape.  After securing the top, Nathan slips the pallette jack under the T-bin and slowly rolls the bin into the cold room where it will spend a bit of time settling down before it is brought up to room temperature to begin the fermentation process.

And into the cooler you go!

You are on your way, my sweet grapes.