by Matthew Korfhage
Ankida Ridge is making some of the nation’s finest pinot noir in an unlikely place: the Blue Ridge Mountains.
First, you drive to the Appalachian foothills of the Blue Ridge, where mobile homes and shacks with dangling trellises mingle with columns of colonial estates and stretches of lush greenness are populated by scattered horses.
Now ease into low gear and head up a gravel road so steep that it’s hard to scale, past the sheep that roam without a fence, and a hive of bees gathering nectar from the tulip poplars.
There, nearly 2,000 feet above sea level, you will find Ankida Ridge Vineyards and something no one thought possible until it existed: world-class Virginia pinot noir.
The state is not known for the style; the weather here is too hot and humid, much more like Bordeaux or Italy. But in the chillier altitudes and rocky soils high up on the eastern slope of a mountain, the pinot grapes flourish, alongside chardonnay and a rare patch of Virginia gamay.
Ankida Ridge’s grapes grow on six acres of a microclimate so small it isn’t yet recognized as a wine-growing region. Still, despite being mostly obscure at home, the brand has been lauded by cognoscenti on both coasts.
“Because our site was so different from the other vineyards in Virginia, we thought, let’s just plant what nobody else is planting,” says co-owner Christine Vrooman. “We like to think of ourselves as Virginia’s little Burgundy.”
Ankida Ridge’s pinot bears out that promise. The 2017 vintage is an unbridled cherry bomb up front, buoyed by French-style lightness and acidity, and balanced by startling mineral depth and lingering tannins that amount to a heavenly afterlife.
It is a Virginia pinot that miraculously tastes like the delicate vintages of Burgundy, and it remains the only mid-Atlantic wine to be invited to the prestigious International Pinot Noir Celebration in Oregon. The tasters there were convinced the wine was from France.
It is interesting to note, then, that the vineyard almost didn’t happen. The Vroomans never planned it. Ankida Ridge, it turns out, is the product of both serendipity and jackhammers. Vrooman and her husband, Dennis, spent most of their careers running Beach Pet Hospital in Virginia Beach, where Dennis was a veterinarian.
But in 1999, as they started to think about a place to retire, the couple found themselves a plot in the Blue Ridge. When they finally started to build their house, years later, the contractor cleared an unplanned extra acre of land. “If he hadn’t done that,” Vrooman says, “we would have never thought, ‘Let’s try a vineyard.’”
Inspired by the offerings at other excellent wineries such a Veritas Vineyards, they hired wine consultant Lucie Morton to take a look at their land – mineral-rich soil with half-billion-year-old decomposing granite, on mountains that were once as tall as the Andes or the Himalayas.
“She told us, ‘If pinot will grow anywhere in Virginia, it will be here,” Vrooman says. “We decided to go out on a limb.”
Using money received from the eminent-domain condemnation of their clinic on First Colonial Boulevard, the Vroomans started planting grapes. They had to sift through broken granite to plant each vine, in rocky soil that Vrooman keeps in a jar to show customers. When the vineyard expanded to a second plot – whose fruit is finally coming due this year – the soil was so rocky that it took jackhammers to break through the stone. “The rows are 7 feet apart, and on each row they had to move up 3 feet and do it again for each vine,” Vrooman says. “They did that for thousands of vines. There’s so much rock.”
But the effort, and the risk, has been worth it. The winery’s inaugural bottles of pinot, from 2010, were immediately lauded by world-renowned wine critic David Schildknecht as a “mouthwatering, multi-dimensional, mindset-mending demonstration of what’s possible in Virginia’s Blue Ridge.”
Mouthwatering, multi-dimensional, mindset-mending demonstration of what’s possible in Virginia’s Blue Ridge.” – David Schildknecht
Virginia Beach fine-dining restaurant Terrapin keeps Ankida Ridge in steady stock, and for chef Rodney Einhorn, it’s a testament to what Virginia wine can be.
“I think you can put Ankida Ridge up there with any of those world-class pinots. They’d hold their own anywhere outside of Virginia” he says.
Einhorn once poured a glass of Ankida Ridge for Andy Peay, the iconic pinot maker from Peay Vineyards in Sonoma. “It blew his mind,” Einhorn says. “He loved it so much he took a bottle back to California to share with winemakers there.”
Two years later, Peay said much the same to The Washington Post. And in 2017, Wine Business Monthly named Ankida Ridge one of the top wine brands of the year.
The Vroomans’ wines now sell in fine-dining restaurants up and down the coast. Still, Ankida Ridge remains a down-home family affair. The Vroomans’ son, Nathan, is the winemaker, both at Ankida Ridge and at nearby Stinson Vineyards. Their daughter, Tamara, sells their wine throughout the South. Christine’s sister,
Cindy Wells, helps out in the tasting room – pouring the pinot alongside its creamy chardonnay, not to mention a sparkling brut de brut that tastes gloriously like apples and pears.
And famed California-Virginia winemaker Nicole Abiouness – inspired by the winery’s success, says Vrooman – has scouted the territory to see whether it might become a mountainous pinot region to rival the valleys of the West. Nearby wineries, including 12 Ridges and Stone Mountain, have recently started planting pinot vines.
But for now, most of the Vroomans’ Blue Ridge neighbors aren’t winemakers. They’re instead the sort of farmers who might hold hog killings in the holler, where the whole community gathers to make the only sausage Christine has ever truly loved. Sometimes, she says, her neighbors like to stop by for a friendly chat. And no one in Amherst County calls ahead.
“They just drive up to the house and roll the window down,” she says, “and that means they’re coming by for a visit.”