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



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.


Reaping The Fruits of Our Labor

I will never have to try to remember this day, August 11, 2010.  A day of symbolism, anticipation, of determination and termination.   A day to literally measure the fruit of our labors, in pounds, brix and pH, all measurements of the present, to be bottled up for the future.  I will only once in my life experience these hours of my very first harvest.
The night before I laid in bed rehearsing, going through the steps of the day to come.  Never having organized a harvest, I ran through my mind all the scenarios I could concoct... not enough lugs, collecting the lugs, too many lugs, not enough room in the truck, too much room in the truck! Cut fingers, not enough fingers.   I felt a bit blind, like I could not quite see the day ahead, only imagine it with a blurred, uncertain vision.

 I woke up as the light of day lifted from behind the mountain ridge.  It was 80° when we went to bed and it was 80° when we woke up.  The   air was thick, moist and still.  Not even the hint of a breeze on this, the muggiest morning of the entire season.  I would have loved to have harvested our grapes on a clear morning of cool, soft breezes, singing birds, humming pickers... idyllic images.  But this morning not a bird could be heard, not a leaf  a'fluttering.  But the grapes were ready and so were we.

Lugs were set out at the bottom of each row.  The netting was dropped, the vines undressed, the grapes exposed.   I reviewed to our small army of pickers the logistics of snipping, what not to pick, the dropping (ever so gently) into the lugs, how high to fill the lugs, where to move them, and so on.  With that, I sent the troops into the vines.  Charge!  Onward we go, into the great moment of harvest.

As we made our way through the rows, I stopped for a moment to take it all in.  An unexpected feeling of melancholy hit me as I looked at a naked row of  vines.  The canes were vacant, barren.  Their purpose fulfilled.  The vines had borne fruit and now would come their time of rest... and quiet.  T'was a bittersweet moment, for I had grown to so love the sight of these dangling clusters of purple berries against the green leaves and blue skies. 
 Before.... and after

It took us over four hours to harvest our little acre of vines.  But the extra time it took in the vineyard would save us time at the sorting table at the winery; the picking was clean.. no leaves to have to pluck out later.  The grapes were clean,  nary a single grape showed any sign of disease or rot.  I saw that as our first true measurement of success.  A season of meticulous care had paid off!

After the last row was cleared of fruit, we rushed to collect all the filled lugs.  We wanted to get the grapes out of the heat, into the truck and on their way to the winery one and a half hours away.  Nathan jumped behind the wheel of the truck, and he and Dennis rushed down the mountainside.  If there had been red flashing lights and a siren, he would have been using them in his "rush to the emergency room" mode!  Get these heated grapes into the cooler as fast as we can! 

When all was quiet, after everyone had left the vineyard, I sat at the picnic table with a bottle of water.  My clothes and hair wet from the heat and humidity.  My feet so very sore after a frenzied few days.  The Pinot grapes were gone.  It should have been a time of great reflection, but I was too tired and consumed with the need to get into my car and drive up to the winery to witness the next phase of our grapes' journey.  I drove up to the house for a quick shower, looking over my shoulder at the vineyard.  The years of striving for a harvest of healthy grapes.. Done!  And from those grapes, a wine of high quality that expresses the site from which it came...We're halfway there!
The thrill of victory... but oh, the agony of de'feet!   I feel a nice cool footbath comin'!

Next.... At the winery!!!


Tomorrow! Tomorrow... It's Only A Day Away!

We have been facing a pressing issue in the vineyard with some of our Pinot grapes. We would like the grapes to hang on the vine a bit after they reach their full ripeness to give the grapes a bit more time to rest without necessarily ripening any more. We need cooler weather to accomplish that. We are raising these babies in a record-breaking summer. They are ripening now during the hottest of the hot! Pinot grapes do not like extreme  heat. That is why we chose them for this site. At our elevation of 1800 feet we are usually about 5 to eight degrees cooler than surrounding areas. But this heat, this heat! Those berries that ripened the earliest are beginning to shrivel in this hot sun.  They are increasing their sugar levels but are losing their juice. It is evaporating and the berries are drying up. We have to get this fruit off the vines.

But Are They Ready?  We have been measuring the sugar levels (Brix) and the pH levels every few days for the last couple of weeks.  How do we measure Brix?  Well, I gather about 50 grapes from all sections of the pinot vines, from all areas of the clusters.  I put them into a ziploc bag and squeeze them, squeezing the juice from the skins and macerating the pulp.  I then drop several drops of the juice onto the refractometer and a blue line reads the measurement of sugar in the juice.  Pretty simple, actually.  We use a pH meter to measure the acid/alkaline reading.  We have been calling in the numbers to our French winemaker, our dear, "Monsieur Matthieu Finot!!"  He wanted a Brix of 22.5-23 and pH of about 3.4.  If we could get the numbers close to that at the same time, he will be happy, he tells me.  This balance of sugar and pH levels will produce a wine of balance and good structure.  We believe the wine is made in the vineyard, not in the wine cellar.  And so, last evening we took a reading and voila!! We are there!  23 and 3.5.  Get ready for delivery! Tomorrow we harvest our Pinot Noir!

Before the sun rose today, I walked down to spend a last quiet morning with the grapes, draped so lusciously from the trellis like strands of deep purple pearls.  On the horizon, behind the mountains, the sky grew pink, then gold and orange, lifting a sea of blue to begin this day of preparation.  I walked through every row, my hands outstretched as if to bless each vine.  I wished for the grapes to touch the hearts of those that sip it, that they feel the love that has gone into this fruit from the moment these vines first set their roots into the gravely dirt.  It was a nearly sacred morning, a final communion with the fruit I have nurtured for so long on this very special place on earth.

The day was charged with an energy I can't quite describe.  It was reminiscent of preparing for opening night, or of the day before a wedding, or graduation or the day before giving birth.   We gathered everything we will need for tomorrow...the lugs, the nippers, scales, refreshments, and of course our pickers!  Our dear friends, John and Char, have owned a vineyard nearby for ten years and they let us borrow lugs for the harvest and will come to lend a hand. It was a near giddy experience to drive down the highway behind our truck full of lugs.  The grape harvest in Virginia was officially underway and we were finally a part of this challenging but exciting time.  Actually, I believe our Pinot grapes are one of the earliest to be harvested.  I felt so proud to be a part of this Virginia vineyard community as I watched our lugs head toward the mountains in the distance. 

The sun was scorching hot today, the last day our grapes are attached to their mother vine.  The near blistering rays were streaming down on us, on the grapes, shriveling, nearly simmering our tender Pinot fruit.  It was one of the hottest days of the summer.  Only one more day... please give them a rest from this sun.  I pleaded for a break, for them not to shrivel any more than they already had.  Right about noon, the sun directly above me, I was walking through the vines, unclipping the netting in  preparation for tomorrow.  I felt the cool shadow of a cloud above... ah, at least a moment's break from the scalding sun.  I looked up.  I stopped.  Above me, directly above the vineyard, and only above the vineyard stretched this long white cloud.  It hung above us for nearly three hours, like a mid-day Milky Way.  It was the only cloud in the sky and it was shading my vines. I do not recall, ever, such a singular long cloud that hung in the air for hours... One of life's little miracles for which I offered my gratitude.

Tomorrow... Tomorrow
We Harvest Tomorrow


Yet Another Battle in the Vineyard

There is a lovely window of safety for grapes.  It is a brief, but cherished time for a vintner.  Once veraison begins, the susceptiblity to fungal diseases, such as Black Rot, dissipates and we breathe a sigh of relief. The skins of the grape are thick, and there is a changing chemical composition to the fruit that prevents certain pathogens from taking hold. But not too long after, a few short weeks, another danger appears in the form of birds and other critters who are drawn to the sugar of the ripening berries.  One day the grapes are safe, hanging brightly on the vine, transforming sunlight into sweetness, then suddenly the word goes out...  Get your sweet berries here!
It goes something like this:  a bird pecks the fruit, if not yet sweet enough it moves on, leaving a small hole into which the bees immerse themselves and suck out the pulp, leaving behind an empty shell of a grape.  Then the smell of the sweet juices attract the four-legged critters who manage to sneak in under the deer fence and help themselves to whatever grapes they can reach.
I am ready to wage war. 
We cover the vines with netting, prop up owls on the line-posts, hang mylar tape that slaps and flaps and shines in the wind. 
The netting did an excellent job in stemming the invasion of the birds.  The flocks of berry-eating birds literally vanished within a couple of days.  I was impressed.  The netting was a success.
Or so I thought.

My sweet grapes all tucked in safely??

It became obvious shortly thereafter the birds would not be our biggest concern.  Walking through the vines I began noticing some very disturbing evidence.. Varmints were still on the attack, leaving their grape-filled scat everywhere, as if to say... Ha!  So there! Take this!

And so we released our snarly, hungry dogs! BoomBoom, Killian, Flippy, Dan and Bella!! A veritable army of canine warriors off to the rescue! If they can't catch'em, at least they will chase them out of the vineyard.

"Sniff, sniff... Don't worry... We'll catch those critters eating your grapes!"...


Until nightime sets in, about the time the critters come out of the woods, which just happens to be about the time the dogs settle in on the opposite side of the vineyard for a good night's sleep!  Just a slight curve of the ground separates the scent of the crawling little beasts from the noses of our sleeping dogs.  And so a munchin' the varmints go, forcing their noses against the netting and grabbing a nice mouthful of delights.  Please just go away.

Harvest cannot come soon enough.  Every morning, day and evening, if I am not in the vineyard, I am peering down on it through the binoculars, scouring the landscape for evidence of a new invasion.  Of all the weeks in a growing season, I have found these last few weeks to be the most stressful, the most vulnerable.  We have worked so hard to get our precious grapes to this point.  For this, our first harvest, it has been nearly five years of preparing, planting, tending, pruning, nourishing, spraying, protecting in every way we can, these grapes that I have grown to know so well.  Harvest is coming.  Soon.  But when?  Being our first year, we cannot anticipate yet the date of the grand event... the day my vines will give birth... graduate... transform into something greater than themselves.  What a day that will be.