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Amherst County winemaker brings regional flare to wines

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Posted: Tuesday, August 6, 2013 5:45 am | Updated: 7:02 am, Tue Aug 6, 2013.

The image some have of a winemaker is a person who sits around all day sipping various types of vino from different casks until inspiration, or a headache, strikes.

But those who know a bit about enology understand winemaking is far more than romance, history and artistry. A skilled vinter must be a chemist and microbiologist with a working knowledge of physics, botany, geology, meteorology, plant physiology and, even, etymology — defined as the origin of a word and the historical development of its meaning.

After all, it takes a certain level of expertise to decipher the complexities of a Cabernet Franc (Ka-behr-nay Frahng), a Chenin Blanc (Shen-in Blahnk) or a Pouilly-Fuissé (Pwee Fwee-say).

That's why Cliff Ambers, who owns Chateau Z Vineyard in Amherst County, hopes to demystify the elite atmosphere surrounding the industry while grooming the next generation of local oenophiles.

"There were writers in the '40s, Shoemaker and Marvel, who had a whole chapter in their book on American wine about wine hokum," Ambers said. "That's all it is. It's nonsense that surrounds wine to in-still the mystique of rarity and exclusivity.

"But Lynchburg is a working-class, blue-collar town. And most people here want something that's a little bit sweet. They don't drink dry Chardonnay and Cabernet. They don't buy Bordeaux wine."

With that in mind, Ambers began fine-tuning his craft several years ago and put together a collection showcasing what he considers to be Chateau Z's unique approach to flavor, as well as its particular method of naming the wines after things identifiable to the area.

There's the Vixon Gris, a semi-sweet white suitable for sipping that can be paired with dessert and was inspired by Sweet Briar College's mascot; the Lynchburger, a red that needs no introduction and is compa-rable to a Merlot; and Skippy's Nectar, a white blend that gets its title from grass skippers that frequent the flowers outside the doors of Chateau Z's cellar.

Wine educators say a vinter must make some 200 decisions on each batch of his or her bounty before the cork is finally, with a loud ga-chunk, plunked into the neck of the bottle.

Ambers, who was reared on an 80-acre family farm in rural Ohio, has been training to make those choices for a while. Interested in agriculture and, specifically, the growing of grapes his whole life, the 50-year-old winemaker remembers how his father's grapevines sparked an early fascination with the fruit.

"I saw them growing wild, and I could go out there in the fall, and there was candy," he said with a sense of enthusiasm in his voice. "Grapes are candy, and that's what they've been in America since the beginning. Before cane sugar and manufactured candies, there were grapes."

After high school, he received a bachelor's degree in geology at Ashland University, before earning his doctorate, also in geology, from Indiana University in Bloomington, where he worked as an assistant wine-maker for two years with Oliver Winery, now one of the largest wineries in the eastern United States.

He married his wife, Rebecca, who also has a doctorate in geology, in 1994, and they moved to Central Virginia more than a decade ago, so she could take a position at Sweet Briar College as an associate profes-sor in environmental science.

The couple soon bought a farmhouse built in the late-1800s, which sits in a broad valley on the eastern side of Tobacco Row Mountain in central Amherst County.

There, Ambers rediscovered his passion for grapes, something his friend and fellow fruit enthusiast Tom Burford, who some refer to as “Professor Apple,” can relate to.

“He certainly unleashes his interest in the grape,” Burford said. “That is what makes him distinctive and apart from many who are involved with grapes. He brings creativity to the science.”

Ambers not only cultivates the horticultural crop for his wine, but he is an avid breeder and supporter of the Norton strand of grapes, which have long been thought of as the best native red hybrid variety for winemaking in the East.

They were introduced by Dr. Daniel Norborne Norton, who, in addition to his medical practice, had a 27-acre property called Magnolia Farm, northwest of Richmond. One of his ambitions was to produce a hardy, disease-resistant grape that would make a soft, drinkable, European-style wine.

Ambers shares that same perspective.

“These grapes make wine that’s quite good, if you are willing to let your mind free of the chains and binds of modern-wine snobbery, hokum,” he said. “If you’re willing to venture out, there are flavors and aromas beyond that very narrow range.”

Jennifer McCloud, proprietress of Chrysalis Vineyards in Northern Virginia, considers Ambers a cutting-edge hybridist whose work mirrors the grape breeding of other horticulturists from the 1800s, like T.V. Munson and Norton.

“It’s pretty amazing,” she said. “I’ve been impressed to no end. Credit needs to go to him for his indefatigable effort to recover and protect the genetic diversity of our native grape species.”

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