Melanie Natoli, Cana Vineyards, Albemarle Cider Works, and grape diversity are the big winners at the 2022 Virginia Governor’s Cup.

The competition’s glass ceiling is the big loser.

It’s about time!

For the first time in the four decades of the Virginia Governor’s Cup, a woman winemaker has won the prestigious award.  

Melanie Natoli, winemaker at Cana Vineyards and Winery, accepted the award at the annual Governor’s Cup Gala in Richmond this evening for her 2019 Unité Reserve.

It’s unfortunate it’s taken four decades for this milestone considering the many contributions women have made to building the modern Virginia industry.  

From early industry pioneers like Juanita Swedenburg, founder of Swedenburg Winery in Middleburg, who won a landmark case in the U.S. Supreme Court (Swedenburg v. Kelly) removing barriers that kept wineries from shipping directly to consumers in other states, to renowned viticulturist Lucie Morton, who helped establish many top vineyards, to Joan Bieda and Sharon Horton, both of whom invested much sweat equity experimenting with some of the state’s most popular varieties today, the contributions of women can’t be measured.  

The Unité Reserve bested 614 other wines from over 100 wineries to win the state’s premier wine competition.  

The Unité Reserve bested 614 other wines (a record number of entries) from over 100 wineries to win the state’s premier wine competition.  

Though gender demographic data is not tracked for the local wine industry, it’s largely make-dominated.  Less than two dozen of Virginia’s roughly 300 wineries have a lead winemaker or vineyard manager.  

Women are still underrepresented in vineyard management and winemaking but tonight’s win may hep accelerate change.

Situated in the rolling hills of Middleburg, Cana was started in 2011 by the Bell family and purchased by Lisa and Bryce Petty in 2018.

Natoli produces about 3,000 cases of wine a year

Unite Reserve is a Petit-dominant red with 29% Cabernet Franc and 6% Merlot, grown in Cana’s estate vineyard.

A physical therapist by training, she left the field in 2011 to peruse wine when she accepted the role of assistant winemaker at Fabbioli Cellars. Four years later, she took over winemaking and vineyard management at Cana.

Her passion coupled with years of hard-earned experience shows — winning the Virginia Governor’s Cup with a wine she made in her fourth vintage is quite an achievement

“I’ve been here in the industry for years pouring myself into everything I do in the vineyard and winery,” said Natoli.   

The Unité Reserve plus the other eleven other top scoring wines comprise the 2022 Virginia Governor’s Case, used by the Wine Board Marketing Office to showcase local wines to writers.

2022 Virginia Governor’s Cup Case

  • Cana Vineyards & Winery of Middleburg 2019 Unité Reserve
  • 50 West Vineyards 2019 Ashby Gap
  • Barboursville Vineyards 2020 Vermentino Reserve
  • Cana Vineyards & Winery of Middleburg 2019 Le Mariage
  • Maggie Malick Wine Caves 2020 Albariño
  • Michael Shaps Wineworks 2019 Chardonnay
  • Pollak Vineyards 2017 Meritage
  • Rockbridge Vineyard 2018 V d’Or
  • Shenandoah Vineyards 2019 Reserve Red
  • Stinson Vineyards 2017 Meritage
  • Trump Winery 2015 Brut Reserve
  • Wisdom Oak Winery 2019 NINETEEN

An Albarino, Chardonnay, Vermentino, sparkling and a dessert wine from three different regions scored top honors, showcasing the diversity of grapes thriving across Virginia.

Red wines from the 2019 vintage, widely considered one of the best in over a decade, scored more top honors than any other vintage or style of wine.

For the second year, apple cider was judged in a separate round of judging and its own category. The 2019 Virginia Hewes Crab from Albemarle Ciderworks won the ‘Best in Show’ award in the cider category.

The 2022 competition was also a big success for Charlottesville-based Michael Shaps.  Wines from his eponymous label scored seven gold medals and Shenandoah Valley Vineyards (which he purchased in 2018) 

“I came across the Wild Meadow vineyard in 2007 and fell in love with the site,” said Shaps.  “I was looking for Chardonnay with more balance and I found it at this site in the lighter, loam soils.”  

In the past decade, wines made by Shaps under his own labels (Shaps Wineworks and Shenandoah Valley) have earned 14 spots in the Governor’s Case and 61 wines have earned gold medals — more than any other winemaker!

Congratulations to Melanie, the Cana team and all medalists!

See my column in The Virginian-Pilot newspaper next week for additional details.