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



What a Beautiful Time of Year

I seem to find myself walking around the house, the farm, the vineyard, the winery with this little smile on my face lately.  The rush is behind me and the air is brisk and smelling oh so lovely.  After a rain when I step outside, the fragrance of wet leaves permeates the air... leaves that are fallen, yet still spicy with the remembrance of life.  The woods are opening up and welcoming me.  This is the time of year that I can reclaim the forest and immerse myself in it without fear of ticks, snakes and all the other lifeforms that claim these woods as their own during the warm months.  It is now when I can stroll amongst the tall poplars and mighty oaks, and crawl up on large rock outcroppings and sit and marvel at the intricate patterns of lichen wrapped tightly onto the rock upon which I sit.  And I can study the shapes and follow with my finger the Bonzai-like torsion of Mountain Laurel branches that grow on the north and west facing slopes.  Each tree is a work of art unique to itself.  I find irresistible, the soft green moss that beckons me to crouch down and study the tiny tendrils that I suppose are seeds, that rise above as if a sentry to this tiny kingdom resting so close to the earth. It is so peaceful, so centering.

As I head into the vineyard I find myself smiling again... at the chickens pecking away in the soil that the sheep have massaged with their hooves. The kittens chase each other up, up, up a tree and wrap their front legs around the trunk, tails wagging in wide sweeps.  How fortunate these kitties to experience the joy of such freedom.

Soon the rush of the holidays will be here and then we head into the new year when we will return to the vineyard and begin pruning the vines, setting the stage for yet another vintage... where hope always springs eternal.  But for now, I am savoring this lull... my soft lullaby of life between the rush.  And it is oh so sweet.


Turning the Corner to Christmas

In the Vrooman household, Christmas is big... really big.  We celebrate the magic of Christmas and all that it embraces... tradition, ritual, spirit, family, mystery, ancient history, giving, sharing, decorating, celebrating... music, traditional foods, wine, friends, and of course, the message of the newborn Christ child.

Since our dream began many years ago to plant some vines and try our hand at making a very special wine, this will be our first Christmas with a cozy tasting room to open up to our fellow wine lovers and friends and share with all of you our love for Christmas.  And so we are inviting you to come help us "Celebrate and Decorate!" for the holidays at our first annual Ankida Ridge Christmas Party, our "Fête de Noël" to be held on Sat, Dec 1, 1-5pm with an Open House format.. come and leave anytime during those hours.  Space of our room and the narrow road is limited, so reservations are a must.

The tree will be up, the lights strung.  But because this is our first Ankida Christmas tree, we're going to need ornaments!  So the option is open to all guests to donate a Christmas ornament for the tree (with your name on it) in lieu of a tasting fee. And your ornament will become a treasure for years to come.

So mark your calendar and email your reservation to contact@ankidaridge.com.  Bring a basket of food to enjoy.  Weather permitting, we will have hayrides up to the vineyard (bottles of wine allowed on wagon!).

We look forward to sharing this first Ankida holiday celebration with you!


Stomping The Night Away

With the pressing of the Cabernet Sauvignon last week for our new Rockgarden Cellars label, more on that later, Nathan now has all of the 2012 vintage tucked safely away in dozens of French oak barrels.  While resting in these barrels, the molecules that make up wine perform their secret magic.  Just what goes on inside those barrels over the winter is a bit of a mystery to me.  How can it go into the barrel tasting so raw, for lack of a better word, and come out the following year transformed into a luxurious, complex wine of elegance?  I marvel at it all.

In this image you can see the "bladder" in our press as we released some of the water from it.  As it fills, this expandable rubber bladder presses against the perforated side walls of the press and provides a beautifully gentle pressing, perfect for our red grapes, especially our delicately flavored Pinot Noir. This gentle press helps to prevent the over-pressing of the seeds that can inject a bitterness into the wine if pressed too hard. This bladder press however, falls a bit short in the pressing of our Chardonnay or any other white grape. You see, red wines are made by fermenting the grapes first, then pressing after the juice has set on the skins for weeks.  For white wine, we press the grapes before fermenting, dumping the whole clusters into this delicate press.  We found we were losing too much juice in the unpressed clusters near the top and bottom.  This press just wasn't going to cut it... unless! We decided we had to pre-crush the Chardonnay clusters before tossing them into the press.  This would break up the individual berries enough so the press could squeeze out the juice.  But how??  Hmmm...  I've got it!!  I'll do the Lucy routine! Turn up the music!  Give me my Rolling Stones station on Pandora.  Some water.  Some wine.  Let's go to town, guys!
My red boots go to work!
And so we did... an afternoon session and an evening one.

View from the crushpad during my afternoon stomp
I donned my red rubber winery boots, and one 25lb lug at a time, we crushed nearly two tons of fruit.  Nathan and Dennis dumped each lug of grapes into a lightweight tub, two of them side by side, and I stomped (aka danced) away.  I would stomp one, then step into the next while they replaced the stomped one with a new lug of grapes.  I stomped about thirty seconds per tub. Stomp, step, empty... dancing away to some incredible rock'n'roll. We got into a rhythm... dance.. step..stomp... the Stones.. Start Me Up.. stomp, stomp.. water... Learning to Fly.. wine...step ..Hendrix....stomp.. Jumpin Jack Flash....step, stomp, dance, dance, dance. Bring it on! The music was incredible, the energy high, gulping quarts of water, sipping our delicious 2011 Chard throughout. Then... suddenly no more lugs.. all empty!! What?! No more?! No......  I want more! Outside on the crush pad, a stack of empty lugs had been tossed into the night air as we made our way through the 2012 vintage of Chardonnay grapes. I truly didn't want it to end. We should add a warning to the 2012 label... "Caution: You may be overcome with the urge to dance at first sip!" If you could taste in this wine the joy I felt as I stomped away, you will have found a treasure. Cheers to the 2012 Chardonnay! Ahhhh....

The cold room slowly emptying

Ready for more!

Empty lugs tossed with abandon into the dark night!

You can see how dry these grapes are.  We got a wonderful pressing this year,
thanks to The Stomp!

As I sat writing this blog in the pre-dawn hours, I happened to look up from my computer just as daybreak lifted.  And I am so grateful I did.  This morning's sunrise was breathtaking.  I grabbed my camera and ran barefoot onto the cold deck, the wind howling over the mountain range to our north and streaming over the valleys below.  I was once again awestruck by the beauty of nature, while at the same time, this particular morning, humbled by her wrath.  I reflect this beautiful morning in this beautiful place where I am warm and sipping hot coffee, with my electricity that allows me to write this and the internet to send it to you.  And I am surrounded by a warm home and my comforts and possessions and my loved ones.  And I think of the poor souls in lower Manhattan and New Jersey and their burned out homes and flooded towns and no subways or electricity for some time to come.  Many have lost all their material possessions, their homes, treasured family heirlooms,  clothing, everything. My heartfelt thoughts go out to all of those affected by Sandy, the unfortunate ones to feel the full impact of nature at her worst.... a force that can create such wrath, yet bless us with so much beauty.


A Bear In WHOSE Car?!

In my last post I promised to talk next about our grape stomping marathon and fruit processing.  But I have to share with you first, this story about what happened this past weekend, totally unrelated to grapes and wine.

The second weekend in October for the last ten years our fabulous staff from Beach Pet Hospital back in Virginia Beach comes to the mountain for a campout, replete with campfires, smores, starlit nights and the annual Garlic & Wine Festival at Amherst County's Rebec Vineyards.  

The Beach Pet Hospital Campout setting up.  The blue streak in front was from the lit up sneakers of a six year old running.
Friday nights of the campout weekends are usually late nights, with the last of the stragglers this year arriving around 1am!  It was a crystal clear night.  Chilly, but not too cold. Perfect sleeping weather in the mountains.

The campers say goodnight and finally everyone is tucked in their tents on the level below the house.  Everyone has arrived safely and are now asleep under the stars.  All is well.  Around 6am everyone is still asleep in the chilly, quiet calm of pre-dawn.  It is still dark but the light of daybreak is rising on the horizon.  From our sleep we hear a car horn beeping.  Short beeps, long blasts, no pattern whatsoever.  Long pauses, then again, long blasts, short blasts.  I thought at first it was Melissa trying to wake everyone else up to see daybreak rise on the horizon. The honking continues.  Finally we get out of bed to scold the naughty staff member.  Dennis goes to the front to yell down to the campers.  "It's not from down here," they yelled.  Dana is out on the balcony deck overlooking the parking area behind the house. "It''s coming from Chris's car."  In my foggy state, I think, who else is here named Chris besides me?? No one.  My car?!  I run to it, marching across the gravel in my barefeet.  All the doors are closed, the windows are all steamed up.  All I can see is black inside while the car seems to be thrashing from side to side.  Did I leave Boomer in the car I thought?  He must be desperate.  I hear loud crashing sounds inside.  Just then Dana yells down to me, "It's got to be a bear!"  I peer in the passenger's side window and try to open the door which is jammed and can't open.  Then the blackness retreats and the figure turns.  I am staring a bear in the eyes.  His long orange snout and big ears four inches from my face! "Ahh!! It's a bear!! In my car!  He's ruining my car!"  I try to open the back door.  It doesn't open.  I run to the side door of the house to make sure it is not locked so I can enter it quickly, then go back to my car that is thrashing from side to side.  I go to the side door behind the driver and it opens!  I swing it wide open with the door protecting me, then make a beeline to the house door.  Dana watches from the balcony as the bear jumps out the back door and then looks up at her.  Just then Guppie Puppy is walking up the driveway with Melissa who is coming to see what is going on.  He growls at the bear, the bear looks at him and lunges on all fours away from them, back up into the woods.  We hold Guppie back.  Still in disbelief, I walk to my car and try to open the front doors to assess the damage.  They can't even open. I climb in the opened side door and look around inside.  He had ripped off the inside panels, ripped off headrests, seat belts pulled apart, seats are covered with bear... you know what.... I don't know how long he had been in there, but the fact that he could open the doors (along with the doors of two other vehicles) is amazing.  This is a bear from the wilderness.  We have no park grounds or suburbia around us.  I don't know how the door closed behind him.  But he was stuck in there and could not get out and he was not a happy bear.  Black bears are afraid of humans.  They don't want to attack.  They just want to get away, so opening the doors was not a concern for me.  But I did make sure first that I had a quick get away because he was so agitated.   My one regret is not stopping first, before letting him out, to capture an image of the bear looking at me from inside the car!  All I wanted to do at the time was to save the car, but alas it was too late.  My car was towed away and will one day return to me, hopefully as good as new.
I am posting the least graphic image.  It was a mess!
So far, he has not returned. 


Harvest 2012

The lapse in blog posts over the last couple of months offers some insight into the "crunch" during "crush" season when all energies and time are consumed by harvest and everything that goes into it.  I find it hard to believe we have now harvested our third crop of grapes.  I so clearly remember the night before we planted our vines in 2008 when I tried then to imagine three seasons ahead to when we would harvest our first vintage.  We had no idea at that time if we would even be able to grow the finicky Pinot Noir grape up on this mountain. 
And here we are four and a half years later, still somewhat stunned by the beautiful wines this mountain has given us.  We are so very grateful for all of it. 

For this, our fifth year and third vintage, the season began with an abnormally warm spring, but actually ended up as very average in temps and rainfall.  We harvested our Pinot Noir on August 22 and our Chardonnay on August 25.  Every year presents its challenges... too much heat, not enough sun, too much rain, too little rain.  This year seemed to be balancing it all just beautifully, not too much or too little of anything.  All seemed to be going so very well.  That is, until I noticed a strange swarm of fruit flies that I had never seen in the vineyard.  Dr. Pfeiffer, of the entomology department at VA Tech posted something about a new import from Japan that hit Hawaii just a few years ago and was making its way acrosss the US.  This new pest is named the Spotted Winged Drosophila, or SWD.  I renamed it the WMD... weapons of mass destruction!  The difference between this fruit fly and the ones we are accustomed to is that this variety attacks healthy fruit and can ruin a crop in a short amount of time.
My father was visiting at the time and I put him to work to make traps out of plastic water bottles, filling them with a cider/wine mixture and using the plastic label to hang them from the line posts in the vineyard.  And my oh my, we trapped many a fruit fly.

Dr. Pfeiffer and our vineyard consultant, Lucie Morton, both came for an impromptu visit to confirm what I suspected.  It was confirmed... the SWD had made its way to Virginia and had found our vineyard.

While visiting, Dr. Pfeiffer and Lucie got to enjoy a bit of the Peaceable Kingdom. 

The guinea fowl and chickens were no match for the vast numbers of SWD we had to deal with.  Dr. Pfeiffer explained that there is ongoing research to determine how Virginia will be able to deal with this new pest, which I am sure you will be hearing more about. Preventative measures, monitoring and treating are all being discussed.   For one thing, the SWD is attracted to berries such as black, red and blueberries.  The hillside above the vineyard is covered with wild blackberry and red raspberry bushes.  So our winter task will be to remove them from the premises.  I noticed it was when the blackberries were finishing their season that the influx of SWD hit the vineyard.  We will set out monitoring traps early in the season and monitor closely, helping us to stay on top of the issue from an earlier point.  The SWD will be a serious agricultural issue in the years to come until a solution is discovered to minimize the damage to crops.

In spite of this new pest, we had a successful harvest on August 22, thus officially opening "Harvest, 2012!"

Coming next:  Processing the fruit and a stomping marathon!


Happenings In the Kingdom

We are making progress on our army of vineyard and critter defenders.  I left you a month ago with the assemblage of animals for the Peaceable Kingdom nearly complete and everyone living in their separate quarters (new readers, please refer to previous post, "The Peaceable Kingdom Goes to War," for more details). Since then we have added four egg-laying chickens and the army has now begun sharing living quarters.  It didn't take long for the hens to begin scratching in the vineyard and I have watched them eat several June Bugs already. And they are providing us with freshly layed eggs as well.   Good job, girls! 
Base camp consists of a windowed, enclosed 12x20 barracks inside the vineyard perimeter. I introduced the guinea fowl to the dogs with the guineas confined to a small coop. The chickens are in a large dog kennel inside the shed.... all guarded fiercely by a dog named Jack.   The story of Jack is quite amazing and will be shared another time, suffice to say he was nearly euthanized because of unpredictable behavior. But now his instinct to protect is being put to good use and he seems a changed dog, a dog with a purpose... at last... a job, and an important one at that for poor Jack.   When our puppy (now named Guppie) snuck behind the guinea pen, Jack growled him away and then looked up at me for approval. Yes, good boy, Jack!   I will have to capture an image of Jack when he is happy.  He literally smiles with his teeth showing.

The kittens, now named JoJo and Lily by the wee grandchildren, are nearly big enough to join the army. We are going to add them to the base camp this week, putting them in the (empty) chicken crate at first until everyone gets used to them and vice-versa. And we will spend a lot of time holding them and loving them as we introduce them. It is amazing how well these animals can detect which animals are a part of the family.  Up till now, the kittens have enjoyed the deck and living the life of house pets.  We'll see how well their barn instincts develop once they join the ranks.
JoJo shows his gymnastic abilities

And Lily displays her athletic prowess

Guppie catches a mouse!
Little Guppie has proven to be an amazing hunter. He has caught a bunny, a mouse and a skink or two. We found a den of newborn bunnies in a rabbit hole in row 39 of the vineyard.  The inner conflict created by their cuteness led to a bit of reservation to let Guppie run loose in the vineyard. We kept him out. The next day we went to row 39 to check on the babies and alas, they were gone. Either the mom moved them, or more likely another of the natural world found its way to them. Is that critter a part of the team? Perhaps.... as long as he doesn't eat grapes, vines or fowl. But then, we always have Jack.... good ol' Jack.

And nature continues to surround us with new life popping up everywhere... lambs (twenty-one new lambs to be exact!), baby bluebirds and the discovery of our resident crushpad toad, nicknamed "Crush".
Bella guarding the newest of her flock

And how are the grapes?    We started veraison (the time of the ripening process when grapes begin to change color) around the first of July in the Pinot Noir. I am noticing a vast array of ripening stages at this point. I am beginning to wonder if we might have to do a small first harvest, followed by the larger main harvest. Some clusters are nearly all purple already, while the majority are still a bright, unripe green. I will watch closely as the ripening process continues.




My Peaceble Kingdom...... Goes to War!

In a recent column I wrote for the Virginia Vineyard Association quarterly newsletter, I described my plan to create a team of critters to fight various pests found in the vineyard.  To read the article in its entirety, you can click here.  Essentially it is hoped to work like this:
  • Bluebirds and martin houses surrounding vineyard to swoop up the multitude of flying insects. 
  • Barn owl boxes installed around vineyard perimeter to snap up voles, moles and mice I am seeing in increasing numbers in the vineyard
  • Barn cats who instinctually hunt for these same critters
  • Guinea fowl and egg-laying hens (for our daily eggs) to peck at the earth and eat weed seeds and insects like cut-worms that cut the canes early in the season
  • Dogs (BoomBoom, Jack and Little Puppy) to chase away raccoons, possums, etc who want to eat both the grapes and the chickens and eggs
  • Sheep to graze the vineyard floor
  • Dogs (Bella) to protect the sheep
  • One crazy human to try to make it all work.. that would be me:)
At this moment, I have the tiny guinea fowl (keets) in a bathroom, the kittens (dropped off by Pam of Flavor Magazine who graciously drove four hours to get the babies here) playing in the basement, the sheep are grazing in our front yard and the lambs are peering in the basement window at the kittens.  The chicken guarding dog, Jack, is running around the house, digging himself out of the vineyard every night.  At least he bluebirds and martins are doing their job.
I have some training to do because... Jack likes to chase sheep, BoomBoom likes to eat chickens, Bella likes to chase cats. 

So far, the star of the show is my Little Puppy who proudly came up to me while working in the vineyard with a rabbit in his mouth!  Go, little puppy!!

This should be very interesting....

Stay tuned!

The Peaceable Kingdom... the Beginning


Oh, The Merry Month of May

May is probably the busiest month of the year in a vineyard, especially when we receive an over-abundance of rain.  The growth is uncontrollable and we find ourselves moving about in a jungle of vines gone wild!  We are in the thick of it now, and perhaps in the next couple of weeks we might feel like there is some semblance of order in there.  But for now, it's bedlam in the vines.
May 3

May 31

Our fruit set in the Chardonnay was not the best, as we had a long stretch of drizzly, foggy weather while the fruit was in bloom, just like in 2010.  Fruit set in the Pinot was nearly two weeks later and the sunshine was more abundant during that stretch, giving us a beautiful fruit set. 

Loose clustered Chardonnay

Tight clustered Pinot Noir
We have gone from tiny, tight flower buds to large, berry clusters in just three weeks.  Usually this happens in June, so we continue to run about three weeks ahead of normal.  I have only sprayed four times, following weather patterns closely, and am happy with the health of the vines.  Our vineyard consultant, Lucie Morton, came down yesterday and was extremely pleased with how everything looked, so I would guess we got an A for our vineyard report card!

I have taken on a new pursuit in the vineyard, a "Peaceable Kingdom" of animals to control a variety of pests.  Here is an article I wrote for the quarterly VA Vineyard Association Newlsetter where I describe this endeavor of creating a team of protectors and caretakers of the vineyard... dogs, guinea fowl, chickens, cats, owls, bluebirds, sheep.  Quite interesting this experiment will be!  You can "like" us on Facebook for all the updates as they happen.  Should prove to be quite interesting to say the least!  Much more to come on this later.

 On the honeybee front, our single hive has multiplied to three, with an additional two swarms (at least) that got away to start new colonies somewhere in the wild.  I am grateful they appear healthy, given the current issue of Colony Collapse Disorder. My "bee mentor", Bill, came by and we intentionally divided the single hive into two.  In doing so, we ran the risk of losing all, but they did what we had hoped; the second colony created a new queen and started a new colony of their own.  And then a few days later, a swarm came out of one of the hives.  We didn't want to lose it. Our bees are very docile.  I called Bill.  He couldn't come to the rescue.  I had to capture it myself, with Arnold's help. I had never done this before, nor seen it done!  Help!  We only had one suit, which I donned.  Nathan came down from working on the winery to assist as well.   It turned into a five hour ordeal.  The bees swarmed and settled high up in a tree near the hives.  We had to wait for a friend to deliver a ladder tall enough  to reach the limb.  We quickly put together a new hive, all the while hoping the swarm would not take off.  We were finally all set.  Arnold, then Nathan, climbed the ladder and sawed off the high limb, only to have the limb get caught in a nearby tree.  The bees swarmed into that tree.  We then sawed off that limb and the limb hung in the air just out of reach.  I desperately needed another set of hands to snip off that limb while I grabbed it to shake the bees (and hopefully the queen within the cluster) into the new hive. So Arnold went to the cabin and returned about ten mintues later wearing the outfit you see in the image below.

Arnold's resourcefulness shines with this impromptu beekeeper's suit!
As odd as the outfit looks, it worked great!  He was able to maneuver in it, use his hands to snip off the limb while I held it and then quickly shook it over the empty hive box.  Touching the limb covered with bees was one of the oddest sensations.  I was struck by how soft the bees were covering the limb.  I have never experienced anything like it.  I shook and shook and quickly set the frames back in the hive and hoped the queen was somewhere within the hundreds of bees now inside the hive.  After a few hours, we could tell she was in there because of the quick adaptaion to this new home by all the bees flying in and out of the hive.  Success!  And what an experience!

Lambs, Lambs!  Our ram, coined Stud Mutton, surely has lived up to his reputation. Nine of the ten ewes pregnant gave birth to twins, so we now have nineteen lambs, many with colorful patches of brown and black.  More pix to follow.  I am planning on working with these lambs to train them so they can stay in the vineyard nearly year round.  This should be interesting!