By Norman K. Styer

For the third time in six years, a Loudoun County winery has earned the top prize in the Governor’s Cup competition.

During the annual event in Richmond last week, Gov. Glenn Youngkin presented the award to Melanie Natoli of Cana Vineyards & Winery of Middleburg for her 2019 Unité Reserve. The estate red blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot was selected as the top entry among 615 wines submitted by more than 100 Virginia wineries.

Natoli is the first woman winemaker to win the cup in the 40 years of the competition. 

Three other Loudoun wines ranked among the top 12 in the competition—taking slots in the Governor’s Case. Also selected were Cana’s 2019 Le Mariage, 50 West Vineyards’ 2019 Ashby Gap, and Maggie Malick Wine Caves’ 2020 Albariño.

Overall, 20 Loudoun wineries took more than 100 medals during this year’s competition. The Barns at Hamilton Station led the pack with four of the 16 gold medals awarded to 10 local wineries.

Winemaker Melanie Natoli and Cana Vineyards co-owner Lisa Petty display the Governor’s Cup and the top-winning Virginia wine, their 2019 signature estate 2019 Unité Reserve.

A New Jersey native, Natoli came to Virginia to work as a physical therapist, but with a budding interest in wine discovered while earning her master’s degree at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania.

“Wine is something that I was never exposed to when I was younger. It wasn’t around. It wasn’t in the region. It wasn’t on the table. My family didn’t drink it,” she said.

In college she began reading more about it and taking some classes with an eye toward taking a deeper dive into the industry in retirement. But just five years into her PT work, the passion for wine took a stronger pull. 

While she liked her work, “I just found something I love more,” she said. “It just got to a point where I couldn’t ignore it.”

She took a job working a tasting room on weekends and then started working part-time as an intern and apprentice under Doug Fabbioli at Fabbioli Cellars north of Leesburg. 

Today, Fabbioli is known as one of the most influential leaders of Loudoun’s wine industry. When Natoli joined his operation in 2009, Fabbioli’s winery was undergoing rapid growth.

“When I first started there, it was just a row of barrels in his basement,” she said.

By the time she left Fabbioli following the 2013 harvest she was working as the assistant winemaker.

She joined Cana Vineyard as winemaker and vineyard manager in 2015, three years after the Bell family began transforming a portion of the 43-acre hay farm into a vineyard. 

Lisa and Bryce Petty, native Northern Virginians with a passion for agriculture, purchased the property in 2018. They witnessed the conversion of farmland to housing developments over the years. “A winery was something we had in the back of our minds for a long time,” Lisa Petty said. “It has been a really fun experience. It’s been really cool.”

Cana Vineyard’s 2019 Unité Reserve earned the highest average score from the panel of judges that evaluated the wines based on appearance, aroma, flavor, commercial suitability, and overall quality. All entries must be made from 100% Virginia-grown fruit to be eligible.

The grapes used in Natoli’s top-winning wine were all grown on Cana’s hillside just east of Middleburg. As an estate wine made with Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot grapes, she said the blend naturally is different each year.

But she knew 2019 was special.

“The blend on this vintage, the 2019, the vineyard did it. I didn’t do it,” she said. “I grew the grapes, but the blend is the vineyard, and it is because there was so little of it.”

The 2019 vintage generated great fruit, but in lower quantities as the weakened vines recovered from the challenging 2018 growing season. She fermented the Cabernet Franc and Merlot together and the later harvesting Petit Verdot separately. However, because there was so little fruit, she pressed and aged all three together in new French oak barrels.

Typically, they would age separately before deciding on the blend. “This time it was like, ‘you guys are all going together because that is all I have,’” she said. “We only put up 70 cases—that’s all I had from those three red grapes.”

“It’s a spectacular wine,” Petty said. “I think there is a lot of depth and complexity to it. You can taste all the different pieces.”

“2019 was great. Things got riper. Flavors developed in places that they can’t always hit,” Natoli said.

However, because of the limited quantity, the medal count isn’t likely to grow for the 2019 Unité Reserve. Entering it in other competitions isn’t in the plans.

But if there is an accolade to win, Natoli said the Governor’s Cup is it. She had never won a gold medal in the competition before, but got her first two this year. Her 2019 LeMariage, not only earned a gold medal, but also secured a place in the Governor’s Case among the top 12 wines selected by the judges.

“The Governor’s Cup for us in Virginia is our most important competition. You’ll see all the wineries around the state, if they don’t enter anything else, they enter that. And we put our best wines in that because we want them to show well,” she said.

Previous cup winners in Loudoun were the Barns at Hamilton Station’s 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon in 2017 and 868 Estate Vineyards’ 2017 Vidal Blanc Passito in 2020.

Having a Loudoun winery again win the cup is celebrated as a confirmation of the high quality the county’s winemakers strive for.

“I am so proud to bring it to Loudoun. I got lots of messages real quick from lots of Loudoun County winemakers happy to see it come home,” she said. “We believe in what we’re doing up here, so it is nice.”

The commitment to make top-quality wines is critical as the industry continue to grow. 

“We want someone who goes into a tasting room—whether it is up here or anywhere in the state—to get something fantastic no matter where they are,” Natoli said. “We are proud of our Virginia wines, so we want them to be Virginia. We don’t want to be called the ‘next Napa.’ We’re Virginia.”