Columnist, Food

Christine Vrooman of Ankida Ridge Vineyards presents her pinot noir during this year’s International Pinot Noir Celebration in Oregon. Ankida Ridge was the first winery from the Mid-Atlantic region to be invited to present its wines at the annual event. (Andrea Johnson/International Pinot Noir Celebration)

“Virginia makes wine?”

Virginia’s vintners are used to hearing that question when they venture far outside the commonwealth, and it didn’t take long for Christine Vrooman to hear it when she presented her Ankida Ridge wines on the world stage at this year’s International Pinot Noir Celebration late last month in McMinnville, Ore.

“I even met a couple who used to live down the street from us in Virginia Beach,” she said of the initial evening event at Anne Amie Vineyards, on the eve of the annual bacchanal. That couple had never heard of eight-year-old Ankida Ridge.

The IPNC is an annual event that draws pinot noir lovers and producers for three days of celebrating, learning about and drinking their favorite wine on the campus of Linfield College in McMinnville, in the heart of Oregon’s Willamette Valley wine country. This was the 30th IPNC and the first in which a winery from the Mid-Atlantic was invited to participate. The event is understandably Oregon-centric, but the organizers try to provide balance by including wineries from California, France’s Burgundy region and elsewhere.

Participation in IPNC is by invitation, and Oregon and California wineries typically submit samples of the pinot noir for evaluation. Event organizers are always looking to include producers from other regions, and invited Ankida Ridge to participate based on its reputation, says Amy Wesselman, the event’s executive director. “We continually seek out stellar new surprises for our guests to discover, and we are honored Ankida Ridge was able to join us,” she said in an email.

You might be understandably surprised by Virginia’s cameo on the pinot noir stage. The state’s exciting growth in red wine over the past decade and a half has been fueled by Bordeaux grape varieties such as merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc, with blends leading the way. Virginia’s hot and humid climate is not considered suitable for pinot noir, which likes cooler climes.

But Ankida Ridge has proved the exception to the rule. With just two acres planted to vines at 1,800 feet above sea level on steep slopes northwest of Amherst, in the west-central area of the state, it occupies a site unusually suitable for pinot noir, with the altitude moderating Virginia’s heat and humidity.

Vrooman and her husband, Dennis, planted the vineyard at their mountain retreat in 2008. Dennis Vrooman has since cut back on work in his veterinarian practice in Virginia Beach. Their son, Nathan, is the winemaker.

Ankida Ridge debuted with the 2010 vintage, from an unusually hot year in Virginia that gave their young-vines pinot noir extra depth and power and helped it gain attention. Since then, Ankida has developed a lighter style, with high-toned acidity and bright fruit reminiscent of the more delicate appellations of Burgundy, such as Savigny-les-Beaune.

That style was on display in Oregon, where Christine Vrooman and her daughter, Tamara Vrooman Lucas, who handles sales in the southeastern United States, presented their 2013 and 2014 vintages.

Most of IPNC happens on Friday and Saturday; on each day, half of the participants board buses to an Oregon winery, with the destination revealed only en route. Three or four other wineries are on board, and participants are treated to a vineyard tour, a seminar and tasting, and then lunch. (The rest of the crowd attends the main seminar — this year on Australian pinot noir — and a bacchanal lunch on the campus at Linfield.)

Vrooman was on the bus to Brooks winery, in the Eola-Amity Hills area of Willamette Valley, about 25 minutes from McMinnville. Mount Hood was lurking in the haze over the Cascade mountain range to the east, and Mount Jefferson made a cameo appearance at the end of the afternoon. After a brief discussion of biodynamic winemaking and a tasting of the outstanding Brooks Bois Joli 2015 Riesling, Vrooman presented Ankida’s 2013 pinot alongside the same vintage from Brooks, Panther Creek and Alexana wineries from the Willamette Valley and Domaine Charles Audoin from Burgundy. The wines were identified only after the tasting, and several of the 50 participants were surprised when they learned which one was from Virginia. The Ankida showed more age than the others, with brick-red color and advanced aromas and flavors of mushrooms and forest leaves. (I mistook it for the original 2010 vintage.)


Five pinot noirs — Ankida Ridge from Virginia, three from Oregon and one from Burgundy — were presented during a blind tasting. (Andrea Johnson/International Pinot Noir Celebration)

“I thought that was the Burgundy. It was very elegant,” said Lindsay Woodard, winemaker of Oregon’s Retour wines, assessing the Ankida Ridge. “She should be very proud of that wine.”

Later that day, the Vroomans poured their 2014 vintage, noticeably fresher and brighter than the 2013, at a tasting on the campus lawn at Linfield College. One admirer was Andy Peay, who has a cultish following for his own pinot noirs from the western Sonoma Coast region in California.

“I fell in love with this wine at Terrapin restaurant in Virginia Beach,” Peay told me. Then he tasted the 2014. “Still love it,” he said. “Great acid.” For wine geeks, that’s a rave.

Vrooman said the IPNC experience was a great opportunity to showcase Ankida Ridge specifically and Virginia more generally. “I spoke to so many people about how great the wine industry is in Virginia, a very collaborative group crafting high-quality wines,” Vrooman said after the weekend wound down.

And now they know that, yes, Virginia makes wine.