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Meet the first woman to win Virginia's Governor's Cup award for winemaking

Unité Reserve -- a signature estate red blend of merlot, cabernet franc and petit verdot -- won Melanie Natoli her first Governor's Cup gold medal.

MIDDLEBURG, Va. — For the first time in Virginia's history, a woman winemaker won the top prize for her craft. Melanie Natoli, of Cana Vineyard and Winery in Middleburg took home the prestigious Governor’s Cup, from Gov. Glenn Youngkin. 

But it almost didn’t happen. 

Natoli first moved to Virginia to continue her work as a physical therapist, but she always had an interest in wine. So, Natoli took a leap of faith.

“I had a probably more stable career in health care than I do now dealing with the weather, but I left it," she said. “I had to follow my heart and my passion.”

She changed her schedule to per diem to pay the bills and on weekends worked as an intern and apprentice at different Loudoun County wineries, getting to know the ins and out of the business.

She then took the reins at Cana in 2015, where she made her Unité Reserve—a signature estate red blend of merlot, cabernet franc and petit verdot.

“It’s a pretty bold red,” she said. “Dark on the flavor profile. It’s a blend that leads with a petit Verdot which has a dark flavor.”

That wine, from a 2019 vintage, brought home the gold medal this past March in the Governor’s Cup. The contest is a blind tasting, and Natoli’s wine was one of 615 entries this year -- a contest record.

“I got a phone call that week and that was my gold medal phone call,” Natoli said. “I was expecting to get a phone call because I knew something was special because I put them all out there. Did I expect to get a call saying ‘it’s a gold medal’, ‘ it’s in the case’, ‘it won’? No. It went a bit farther. So yeah, it was a surprise.”

At the award ceremony, Natoli commented on the lack of women previously featured in the contest. 

“I saw a picture of the event from two years ago and the stage, aside from being all men, they were all in blue suits,” she said in her ceremony speech. “So, I said ‘I guess I need a blue suit. That’s what’s missing, right?' After I got the call. I went shopping.”

Now, Natoli has some words of wisdom for people facing a career crossroad.

“I say go for it," Natoli said. "There’s a lot of people in this industry or others who say there’s huge risks to take. Sure enough, know what you’re getting into, but you’re never going to know unless you try.”

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