WINE LIFE QUEST: Christine Vrooman Brings Her Whole Heart to Ankida Ridge Vineyards
Updated: Mar 26, 2020
"It was never harder than I thought, because I didn’t have any expectations. It was totally unknown."
Christine Wells Vrooman’s winery is loved for its fiery sunset views and for its pinot noir, a grape which, contrary to popular belief, apparently can be grown in Virginia. But that comes later in the story.
Christine is a built-to-last 65+ brunette with thick, wavy hair and natural, clear skin--a hugger and compassionate earth mother with a marketer’s turn of phrase. She welcomes you into her orbit with a penetrating blue-eyed gaze that says you are heard and a hand rested on your arm or shoulder that says you are safe. All comers are Honey, Darling, Sweetheart; all are worthy.
“When we bought our mountain property in Amherst [south of Charlottesville, Virginia], it was not to plant a vineyard. It was just to have a beautiful place to retire to. I kept longing for the mountains--looking west to the mountains when we were in Virginia Beach. We’d been looking off and on for 10 years, and when I found it, I put down an offer within an hour. Then I called my husband and told him. That’s just the way things work around here,” she laughs.
Standing on the deck of her winery’s 1400-foot-high tasting room today, looking up the steep, pine-covered hill to the summit, yet another 1000 feet farther up, it’s hard enough to imagine hiking the mountain today, much less back when there were no trails or toilets or easily-accessible spider repellents--bushwhacking to the top, as Christine and Dennis did, to explore the land and the views.
“It was just so magical, it hit me so hard,” she says of finding the land. “We figured we’d come here and camp and stay in the little cabin. Try and make it respectable. It was bare, and there was sheet rock falling down, and snake skins inside the walls and the wind would howl through. There was a ladder that climbed up to the attic space where the previous owners slept. It was all open to the rafters and the rafters were open to the wind.
“Little by little we got it repaired, on weekends. We had a propane lamp, refrigerator, and stove. It was totally off the grid. And then we decided, well, we could expand on this. Seems like two lifetimes ago.”
“Once we got the opportunity to start a vineyard and a winery, then it became a quest,” Christine says, “and the quest for me personally has evolved.”
At the beginning, when she considered planting apple trees or maybe Christmas trees, “it was just about finding a way to work with nature in a symbiotic way, to create something together with nature.”
“The second quest was bringing the animals in,” she says, “and letting them have a sense of purpose. Not only for us to have purpose, but for them. When living things are living a purposeful life, they are fulfilled.
"We brought in sheep to mow the lawn and then the vineyard, and dogs to protect the sheep. Then came chickens and Guinea hens to handle the insects. Then the kitty cats, whose job was to get rid of the rodents, but they also helped in getting rid of the [grape eating] birds. And when you’re out here working with all of them, and they are all living a purposeful life, I’m living a purposeful life, the plants are living a purposeful life, it’s sort of this utopia.
“There are no guarantees on any of it. But we went ahead and said let’s do it. We didn’t know if we were going to just grow grapes or have a winery. I can’t say I’m living the life I dreamed of, because I never dreamed of this. But I’m loving the life I’m living. I never dreamed it was possible.”
“We’ve always wanted to have a family business. But with [husband] Denny’s early veterinary work in upstate New York with large and small animals, it was a hard, grueling life and sometimes he would come home smelling like the inside of a dead cow. One freezing night he was helping to deliver a calf and had to be scraped off a barn floor with a shovel because his clothes had frozen to the ground. There was nothing glamorous about the veterinary profession in our kids’ minds. They never saw their father, and when they did see him, they smelt him.
“When we started this second career thing, we thought maybe some of the kids would want to take part in this, so we were thrilled when our son Nathan came back from Denver to help [as winemaker]. One of our daughters was already in the wine industry, though, and she said, ‘Oh my God, no, you can’t. Don’t do it. You have no idea how hard and competitive it is. There are so many people with so much money and it’s so competitive and so expensive. You’re crazy, don’t do it.’
“I said Well, let’s just start small, let’s just see. We’re not planting ten acres, we’re just planting two acres.”
After a few years’ worth of weekends living off the grid on their new land, Christine and her husband knew they’d found the right spot for their future, but where to find the $20,000 needed to bring electricity to the mountain? Opportunity knocked, literally, when the local power company visited with a proposal to install an emergency cell tower, which would require a right-of-way across the Vrooman’s land. With the tower came electricity, free of charge.
Serendipity’s second act looked more like a major blunder. Christine hired an excavator to clear a patch of land for a new house, and when he unilaterally decided to bulldoze trees from an additional large tract, the lemons-to-lemonade scenario ultimately led to the Vroomans’ decision to plant their first vineyard.
But before the vineyard could be planted—an expensive undertaking, but especially when the land is riddled with rock, as theirs is--money again became the challenge. And again, the universe provides, in its own peculiar way: Dennis Vrooman’s animal hospital in Virginia Beach fell victim to the city’s road expansion plan, and the resulting compensation paid for an entire hillside of baby vines.
Serendipitous critical mass was achieved when the couple’s son, Nathan, decided Denver wasn't the place for him after all; winemaking sounded like a better way to live life. (It didn’t hurt when he met future winemaker--and future wife--Rachel Stinson of nearby Stinson Vineyards, while in wine school.)
Today, Veritas Vineyards in Afton is one of Virginia’s powerhouse wineries, but in 2003, owners Patricia and Andrew Hodson were building their business out of a little barn and pouring their wines at local wine festivals. At one festival, Christine and Dennis were taken with the Hodson’s Cabernet Franc, time and again returning to the Hodson’s table.
“We became friends after that,” Christine remembers. “They had a little family business growing grapes and they really inspired us with the possibilities of agriculture and growing grapes here. So, we thought maybe we could just do a little vineyard.”
“Hire the right people and connect with the right consultants” is Christine’s guiding principle. “Get the best.”
Christine knew that with only two acres of grapes, she’d need something different to make an impact—planting more Cabernet Franc or Chardonnay wouldn't interest her, much less anyone else. “We had a sense that this site was different. It was unspoiled. It was not anther cow pasture-turned-vineyard. It was rocky and high and had cool temperatures and air movement, and the porous granite soils were very different than the lower, clay-soil vineyards in other areas of the state."
She brought in a prominent viticulturist named Lucie Morton to consult on the site. Lucie said, “You know, if pinot noir could be grown anywhere in Virginia, this would be the place.”
From the beginning, there have been struggles and adjustments. Christine says, “We wanted to be organic and biodynamic. We did that for about a year and a half, and then started seeing little brown spots on the leaves. We found out it was black rot. We thought we’d address it by just pulling off the affected leaves, but then we were hauling dozens of bag loads of leaves down to the dump.
“Usually, in the first few years of a vine’s growth [before the grapes become viable for wine], you remove the grapes, but we left some on just to see what it would taste like, and at the end of the season they were shriveled up black berries, totally consumed by black rot.”
While the winery now sprays a synthetic fungicide “as minimally as possible,” Christine says they didn’t give up on all the other things that are so important, such as decoctions—or natural medicinal “teas” used on grapevines--and composting, and the use of animals—dogs, cats, sheep—to maintain vineyard and farm health and order.
“I grew up on the shores of Lake Erie. I never had a flower garden because I couldn’t stand the boredom of weeding, but I can prune a vine over and over and over again. I don’t know what this force is that’s consumed me, this all-consuming force of nature that has guided me and lifted me up and held me and directed me and embraced me. It’s something wonderful I can’t describe.”
“You have to be open to destiny, and to new ideas, and to not be filled with fear. Be a risk taker. You have to be if you’re going into viticulture. You have to love 100% what you’re doing. I didn’t know I was going to love what I was going to be doing, but I knew I was entranced by the possibilities of having a vineyard and walking through the vineyard, and maybe we could make a wine that we’d be proud to serve and that we’d enjoy drinking.
“I’d work out in the vineyard every day. It's almost surreal, but there's never been one second I’ve questioned or doubted that what we chose to do is what I wanted to do and what we should have done. When I’m sweating out in the vineyard, exhausted, it doesn’t make any difference.
"It’s a true family affair, but the depth of passion for this--a woman's passion for nurturing and creating--is just profoundly hard to explain."
REFLECTIONS UPON COMPLETION
“We’re not done. We paid for the house at the vineyard from selling our Virginia Beach business's real estate. The land we got for a really good price, and Dennis is now retired, but we’re able to meet our needs. So we wouldn’t be done, even if the vineyard were to fail. We’d still have our family, our children, and a place to live that I love so much…what a beautiful place. I don’t buy fancy cars or fancy jewelry. I live a peaceful, simple life.
"I don’t see this project we began on this mountain as ever being complete. There is always room to create a new way to more fully experience life here."
“What I love more than anything is when people come up here--and if we didn’t have the winery that wouldn’t happen--but for people to come up here and feel touched and inspired from just being in this place, being in nature, and somehow sensing the energy that is up here. Watching the sheep graze and our dog Luciano running around, listening to the leaves rustling while sipping wine made from grapes grown here. I want them to have a soulful experience here.”
Christine describes it as a “connectedness.” She says, “The spark of life that is in us, and that connectedness that everybody has, and in nature, it’s imbued here.”
“As we go along, I’m recognizing that this whole vineyard and winery was not an end in itself,” she says. “But rather a means to an end. And that end continues to evolve.”
Now the powerful woman behind Ankida Ridge Vineyards is thinking how to entice more people to come up to the mountain to connect in a spiritual way.
“I’m thinking of creating eco-therapy workshops during the week,” she says, eyes far away as she constructs the dream. “Working with area B&Bs and having people come out on a Sunday evening, and then on Monday morning we could do Tai Chi and tea on the winery deck. Something to connect them to the space. Each four-day week could be different: photography, plein air painting, maybe psychology, maybe shinrin-yoku, a Japanese practice that translates to ‘forest bathing’. Pottery. The list is endless.
“And then everybody goes home connected to themselves, more at peace with themselves, with a sense of purpose in their lives. And then they spread that little element of joy – which is my mantra – into their own little corner of the world.”
Tips for Starting a Winery Quest:
Passion: "If you want to grow grapes or build a winery, you have to have passion and a drive for it."
Money: "You can’t do it for money. You have to have someone earning an income or you need a lot of money. We have a little bit of income from retirement, and we have the [Charlottesville rental] cottage income. Since we planted the vines in 2008 and before, we’ve never taken a penny from the company. That’s a reality for something this [small in] size and with this much rock. We’re hoping that someday the wines will be valuable enough or our new program expansion plans will grow enough to generate more income."
Experts: "Hire the right people and connect with the right consultants. Viticulture and winemaking consultants – get the best. Attend courses, take seminars, read."
Go with the Flow: "Expect to be surprised and expect not to have expectations. Be open to all possibilities – something will surprise you that was not expected – like black rot."
Work: "You have to not be afraid of hard work. I’ve never worked a moment in this whole project. It’s not work –it's only what I do to fulfill this dream."
The Backyard Vintner: An Enthusiast's Guide to Growing Grapes and Making Wine at Home
Written in 2005 by Jim Law of Linden Vineyards, one of Virginia’s pre-eminent wine growers, this guide is still one of the best for enthusiasts getting started.
Cheeky, funny, smart and graphics-oriented. Founder Madeline Puckette’s book, Wine Folly: Magnum Edition: The Master Guide is for anyone looking to up their wine game.
Print and digital magazine covering all aspects of the winery business.
"Wine Higher Education," Wine Spectator Magazine
Helpful article outlining the opportunities that now exist in the wine industry.
Also, check out your state’s USDA Extension Programs, as well as your local winegrowers association – most state’s now have them.
Read about more women's quests chronicled by Nancy Bauer.
Read about Nancy's infatuation with quests (and why you should consider one, too).