A CommonWealth of Women Winemakers

Melanie Natoli Becomes Virginia Wine’s ‘First Lady’

Summer on our deck

Brings red berries and wild mint,

Grill smoke and grass stains.

~Haiku by Alison, Cana Hospitality Manager, on the label of Cana’s 2019 Le Marriage

Jamestown, Virginia’s inhospitable climate and swampy environs nearly defeated America’s early colonists. Virginia’s contrary piedmont limestone, undulating elevation, varied soils and climate are divided into no less than eight distinct American Viticultural Areas. You might think that all these challenges – not to mention Prohibition – would have long ago stomped out the Commonwealth’s unwavering commitment to viniculture.

But with difficulty rises determination. Or, as, organizers of the annual Virginia Governor’s Cup Wine Competition so lyrically put it, “Unpredictability is a gift. Virginia’s diverse landscape and varied conditions demand an attention to detail that has made our winemakers fluent in the language of their land.” Put plainly, “The dirt speaks. We listen.”

The very diversity which has denied Virginia the dominance of a single, soul-less “corporate” label, has given rise to hundreds of family-owned farms, and with them a generosity of spirit and collaboration without parallel in other industries.

Modern winemaking took root in Virginia in the late 1970’s and they’ve been holding a “best of” competition for the Commonwealth for four decades. It was easy in the early days. By 1995, Virginia boasted 46 wineries. By 2005, there were 107. Today there are nearly 300, 100 of which sent 615 wines to be judged under the aegis of the 2022 Governor’s Cup in January. Some 127 of these earned gold medals, and all of the winemakers were invited to share them with a few hundred wine-lovers in the spacious, glass-walled Main Street Station in Richmond in late March. Imagine, if you will, a “wine festival” where every pour is better than the last, and it’s all accompanied with some of the finest local fare from a half dozen local chefs.

But wait, there’s more. From these 6-score gold medal winners, the dozen, top-scoring reds and whites are selected to comprise the Governor’s Cup Case and the single top scoring wine, along with its winemaker, earns the coveted Virginia Governor’s Cup. This year, for the first time in its 40-year history, that Cup was awarded to a woman winemaker. And, yes, Virginia, that is a history-making, very big deal.

This year’s winner is Melanie Natoli, winemaker and vineyard manager of Cana Vineyards & Winery of Middleburg (, and her top wine is the 2019 Unité Reserve, a signature estate red blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot that generated just 30 cases. This year marked Melanie’s first gold medal and she had two bottles, both selected for the Governor’s Case!

In bending down to pass her the cup, Governor Youngkin heaped praise on the tradition that has preserved Virginia’s farmland with ingenuity and perseverance, resulting in some of the best wines in the world. In reaching up to accept it, Melanie told a joke. She said, “Someone sent me a picture of the celebration a couple of years ago and two things caught my attention. All of them were men and most of them were wearing blue suits so I thought I’d wear mine.” Delighted laughter was magnified when the governor good-naturedly shot the cuffs beneath his own blue suit.

Melanie went on to say, “I will take this home not just for myself but for all the amazing women winemakers in Virginia. We may be fewer in number but we are mightier with every day that is passing.”

Basking in the reflected glow of her remarks were Maggie Malick of Maggie Malick’s Wine Caves in Hillsboro, 2021’s Loudoun County Winemaker of the Year, whose 2020 Albariño made the case, and Rachel Stinson Vrooman, who contributed Stinson Vineyards’ 2017 Meritage. Just some of the other beaming women in the crowd: Jennifer Breaux, “just up the road from Maggie,” there to pour Breaux Vineyards’ perennially great 2019 Nebbiolo and 2020 Sauvignon Blanc, and Cana Vineyard co-owner Lisa Petty who bought the vineyard with her husband Bryce in October of 2018 and was savvy enough to consider Melanie one of the deal’s best features. For her part, Melanie says, “I'm proud to work for a woman-owned business. I am grateful for Lisa's confidence in my abilities and allowing me to make my wine for her label. Creative freedom for an artist is priceless.”

Melanie’s journey as a winemaker began as an intern in 2009 while she split her time between winemaking and her first career as a physical therapist. In 2011, she leaped at the chance to become the assistant winemaker at Fabbioli Cellars, working for Doug Fabbioli, whom many in Northern Virginia view as both master of winemaking and dean of Loudoun’s wine consultants. “Doug was my first mentor in the industry. I was set to move across the country and go back to school for an enology degree after another winemaker told me I wouldn't get anywhere without one. Doug suggested this wasn't the case and advised that I should start by interning for someone. He called one day and invited me out to the vineyard to assist with picking and processing his estate Merlot. After a long day, over a beer, he asked if I still really want to do this. I responded, ‘Absolutely, even more.’ He offered me an intern spot, and my journey of learning how to grow grapes and make wine began.”

Standing by to congratulate Melanie on her medals Doug said, “I teach everybody, but I learned from women winemakers in California, so I have a bit of understanding of how to do it a little differently.” Women winemakers don’t just “push” the wine as hard as they can, “they embrace the artistry along with the craftsmanship,” of winemaking, he added. “It was great to be able to learn winemaking that way, and then to turn around and teach it... I surround myself with strong, smart women; that’s my method for success!”

Back to Melanie’s journey, while she was learning the ropes, the Belle family was laying in Cana Vineyards’ first plantings in 2012. In 2015, Melanie joined Cana as both winemaker and vineyard manager, producing several award-winning wines. In 2017, she was the first Virginia winemaker to be named Woman Winemaker of the Year at the Women’s International Wine Competition, notable for its use of all female judges. The two words often used to describe her style are “elegance” and “finesse.”

Why would anyone trade physical therapy for winemaking? Melanie told us, “I'm a winemaker because that is what is in me. My interest in wine started just as I was beginning my career in physical therapy. I thought it was just that, an interest, a hobby. As the years passed, I knew it was more than an interest as it continued to tug at my heart. Physical therapy is a great career that I enjoyed; I just loved wine more. We spend so much of our lives at work, why wouldn't you do something you love?”

She allows that making the career leap “was a risky and challenging move," but she never second guessed it. "I am here because I dreamed big, worked hard, and dedicated myself to my craft.” She’s optimistic about the future for women winemakers in Virginia but doesn’t sugarcoat it. “Our industry here in Virginia is pretty welcoming in general, but we still have room to grow. There are several incidents I can recall in which myself or a colleague has been overlooked, treated as lesser, or completely disrespected because we are women. I hope my winning the Governor's Cup makes a firm statement about the abilities of women winemakers and helps command the respect that should be freely given.”

Of the winning wines, Melanie explains, “Both wines in the case are red blends from a great vintage. I'm proud to say that both wines are crafted from 100% Loudoun County fruit. The Le Mariage is the flagship blend from Cana and has traditionally been a blend of mostly two grapes. In 2019, I was able to source all five Bordeaux varieties – Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Malbec, Merlot, Cabernet Franc – from my partner growers in the county. I knew I had a rare opportunity to craft a blend from all five, so I seized the chance!” Tasting notes say that there’s black cherry blueberry and plum on the nose. The fruit has notes of cocoa powder, vanilla and a hint of tarragon. On the palate, the same fruit profile is accompanied by cocoa and nutmeg and wrapped in silky, supple tannins.

She adds, “The Unité Reserve holds a very special place in my heart, because it is my estate blend. I am also the vineyard manager at Cana and spend most of the season out tending the vines. This wine is in my hands from the first bud break in the vineyard until the final blend is bottled.”

Interestingly, her true passion is rosé. “Rosé is a wine that brings joy. From the rainbow of pink hues, to the lively aromatics, to the layers of flavors and bright acid – how could you not smile when you meet it? It is a wine that is seemingly simple, often challenging to produce, and may be surprisingly complex and thoughtful.” On April 23rd and 24th, Cana celebrates spring, the new growing season beginning in the vineyard, and the release of its 2021 rosés at their annual Budbreak Festival.

For the 2021 vintage Melanie created three very distinct rosés from three different varietals sourced from around the state. But, in addition to the release of Cana's rosé, she’s bringing in some of her favorite rosé from around the world to include in some special tasting flights. Cana's signature cupola would be a great place to enjoy these. 

Read more about the full case and follow the “Virginia Gold Medal Wine Trail” by subscribing to a mobile “passport” linked to the Virginia Wine home page Subscribers will receive texts with discounts to redeem at local wineries. The link is particularly useful because each gold medal wine is linked to an information page that includes directions to each vineyard.

In Loudoun, you'll find 50 West Vineyards' case selected 2019 Ashby Gap at In Waterford, the former Loudoun Valley Vineyards is now The Wine Reserve in Waterford ( after Jon and Cori Phillips bought it in 2015 and started from scratch. Their first gold medal winning wine this year is called Steel Magnolia, a steel-barreled Chardonnay that tastes like anything but. It won best Chardonnay at the Loudoun Wine Awards as well. His own tutor? No surprise here; it’s Doug Fabbiolo.

Steven Bozzo’s Bozzo Family Vineyards sits on Charles Town Pike in Purcellville, but its proprietor has one foot in the traditional realm of family-owned wineries and one in what can only be called “crowd sourced wine.” Groups of his wine club members collaborated on several blends and their chosen winner, Sei What?, a blend of just three of the five reds available, took gold this year from the Governor’s Cup competition, deservedly so.

For those less inclined to an itinerary, consider the Echelon Wine Bar on 32 South King Street in Leesburg (see for hours). A project of the Vineyards and Winery of Lost Creek, it also offers classes in May on such things as Sauvignon Blanc, Understanding French Wines and Burgundy Premier Cru.

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