A Road Trip into the Heart of American Terroir
BY STEVEN GRUBBS
Propelled by a startlingly good Virginia Pinot Noir, a star sommelier zips through the hilly wine country between Atlanta and Washington, DC, discovering native American grape varietals along the way.
Sommelier Steven Grubbs takes a tour through Southern wine country.
Photo © Bobby Fisher
FOOD & WINE magazine
Southern Wine Tour
Late last summer, in midtown Atlanta, my restaurant hosted a tasting of grower Champagnes. Toward the end of the event, among the empty bottles and their cast-off, mushroomed corks, my friend Tamara pulled me aside.
“Do you want to taste my mom's wine?” she asked. This question is like the question, “Do you want to hear my band?” or “Do you want to read this poem I wrote?” It sparks dread.
I didn't know her mother had a winery. I asked her where it was. “Virginia,” she said. The dread reasserted itself.
“The wine's Pinot Noir,” she added. The new detail didn't help. The grape has many genetic gifts, but it is notoriously difficult to grow. Outside of California and Oregon, most places in North America have all but given up. I said of course I'd try the Pinot and gave myself over to the novelty.
I mostly resist any push for Southern wines, as I've generally found them pretty awkward in the glass. I have imagined this to be a matter of making wine where one probably should not. So I was taken aback when Tamara's mother's wine, the 2010 Ankida Ridge, was as good as any other Pinot Noir I commonly run into. Better, maybe. Tastes like Pinot Noir, I thought, adding a mental exclamation point.
Across the border in Virginia, in the high country close to Dugspur, we stopped by a well-known cider works called Foggy Ridge. Owner Diane Flynt studied cidermaking in England and has visited Normandy's top cider producers, but her style is her own. She works with an assortment of apple varieties, a mix of old American heirlooms as well as French and English types, and makes ciders with backbone and all the marks of her restrained, intelligent hand.
A late lunch was awaiting us at Virginia's Veritas Vineyard & Winery, near Afton, a few hours away. We sat at a rectangular table draped in white linen and furnished with ornate flatware, and the winery chef, Jonathan Boroughs, presented six courses, each paired with a Veritas bottling. The flowery Viogniers and hearty reds made from Petit Verdot and Tannat—grapes from vines originally brought in from southwest France—were very good. They were not the loud cowboy wines of California or the earthy, eco-intelligent wines of Oregon's Willamette Valley. They were easy to understand, but also well-bred and composed; attractive, yet temperate.
Across the table was Lucie Morton, a roving vineyard consultant and viticulturalist who works with Veritas and other wineries both locally and overseas. Virginia winemaking has developed significantly in the last decade, and Lucie has been one of the catalysts. She described the advances as a matter of sorting out “first the right place, then the right grape, and then the proper viticultural practices.” This sequence of solutions appears obvious, but in Europe it took thousands of years to accomplish that work.
Leaving Veritas, we headed upstate and made our way to Early Mountain Vineyards, a Virginia producer that also serves as a rallying point for the local scene, selling bottles from a selection of the area's winemakers alongside its own wines. The tasting we had that day was humbling. We tried wine after wine, every one of them legit.
Our last stop was Ankida Ridge, outside Amherst, Virginia, at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. We met up with Tamara's mother, Christine Vrooman, and learned that it was Lucie Morton who'd suggested growing Pinot Noir on the steep, mountainous site. The site, which had never been farmed, is rich in ancient decomposing granite. Sheep and chickens roam the vineyard, eliminating weeds and pests.
It was getting late, so Christine showed us to the guest room over the new tasting facility at Ankida Ridge. When I woke up the next morning, I could still smell the drywall and spackling from the just-finished building. Jordan had slept on a grand leather sofa and was on the porch, looking out onto the valley. Christine was driving down from her ridge-line house to bring us up for breakfast.
Christine poached eggs pulled from her chicken house, and we ate sausage from the neighbor's hogs with honeycomb from the mountain. She opened a bottle of Chateau Z's Vixen Blanc, a white wine made by a local geologist from wild Virginia grapes. We imagined what kind of food would go with its raw, distinctly American forest flavors. We settled on some kind of wild river fish.
Soon we were driving back down the Blue Ridge slope, catching the interstate south. Jordan spent part of the trip home trying to locate the best chopped pork in western North Carolina. I spent the time attempting to make sense of what I'd tasted over the last few days. I'd expected Ankida Ridge Pinot to be an Eastern anomaly. But it turned out that Virginia was full of wines that were equally good, and even my own home state was performing better than I had thought. The East is still a work in progress, but hope certainly abounds for those who produce its wines—and I, too, have become surprisingly optimistic.
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