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



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!

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