2019 in Virginia Vineyards, a Time to Saber

By Nancy Bauer

2019 in Virginia Vineyards, a Time to Saber

Like a life raft for the forsaken after 2018, this year’s Virginia grape harvest started a little damp and unsteady, but when the sun came out in late spring, all was well. More than well, actually—splendid. Superb. All the right feels–wet, dry, sunny, cool, hot–at all the right moments. Some who live that life 24×7, like Melanie Natoli, might even say that 2019’s is a vintage beyond compare.

So a few weeks ago, the winemaker from Cana Vineyards in Middleburg did what many an exhausted, giddy winemaker did to mark the end of this year’s knock-out harvest: she knocked the head off a bottle of champagne with a machete–“sabering” it. When you have a job that, at times, makes you want to turn the machete on yourself, a completion ritual like sabering is relief: mental, emotional, physical. One more harvest over, one more transition from the heat of the vineyard to the chill of the cellar. One more start of the cycle, complete.

These days, the wine industry is such an important part of Virginia’s economy that harvest success and failure regularly make the 6:00 news. But twenty years ago, while most of us had some vague, glamorous notion of life on a vineyard, few of us knew anything real about what it takes to run a winery. And what we did know – or thought we knew – looked a lot like those Bartles & Jaymes guys relaxing on their porch. “You call that a job?” we would have scoffed, if we’d thought about the wine life at all.

My window into the lifestyle grew from a peephole to a porthole one sunny fall day when my now-husband and I stopped by the now-closed Piedmont Vineyards. After sampling a couple of nice Chardonnays, we asked to try some reds. “We’re out,” they said. Turns out they’d lost nearly an entire vintage of red grapes to deer. Deer? We were floored. Deer like grapes?

If, like me, you’ve never farmed, it’s hard to fathom the slow, sad feeling of defeat that must come from an entire season of growing ending in a whole bunch of nothing.

Wineries have learned much over the years, and they now have better ways of controlling the wildlife onslaught, the bugs, the rot and the mildew. Weather, though, is forevermore the big unknown.

An early frost can kill all the tender vine buds that deliver the grapes. A drought will stress the vines and cheat wine of its flavor. A late-September hurricane, always perfectly timed to coincide with the harvest, can drench vines and dilute grapes at the final critical stage of growth. And a year like 2018 can just break your heart.

Last year, the rain never stopped. Most wineries got their usual rainfall quota, plus another 50%, with many areas suffering their rainiest year ever. Growers had to choose between picking too soon or letting the grapes hang to potentially rot on the vines.

But then, along comes 2019.

I’ve been following Melanie Natoli’s Facebook posts for several years and always admired the truth in her stories: the unvarnished bad, the unembellished good, and the long stretches of mundane in between. After harvest, Melanie found herself needing to think, and to write, to process both the enormous effort and the confusing juxtaposition of 2018 and 2019, two very different seasons.

What she shared was beautiful, insightful, and full of humility. To her, 2018’s guiding question was “Can I fix it?” This year, by comparison, it’s “Can I do it justice?” I love that, because it’s at once specific – it’s about the grapes – but also inclusive, about all the mentors and the history, the land and the helpers that came together to put those perfect grapes into her care.

I share her words with you below, and I hope that 2019 was a “year to saber” for you, as well.

“It’s been one week since the last press of 2019, and I feel myself slowly assimilating back into the rest of the world. Every harvest is its own journey, and this was one I felt I really needed to decompress from.

Why this year, a vintage of beautiful fruit? Why not last year? I’m not sure I have an answer to that. Maybe it’s because in a tough vintage like 2018 the goal is to just survive, so when you do, success is easy to recognize, and you can just move on.

Following that vintage, the cautious optimism that typically prevails through the growing season was accompanied by a heightened anxiety. An anxiety that was not quelled when the most beautiful fruit I have ever seen came out of the vineyard and into the cellar. There was no relief that Mother Nature didn’t steal it from us this year. Instead I felt more pressure to do it justice, to allow that beautiful fruit to shine, to extract and showcase that beauty so I could share it with you.

Winemaking is more than an occupation, more than a harmony of art and science. It is heart and soul. I think that’s why I felt the need to decompress and readjust to life after this harvest.

For 10 weeks I poured all of me into this vintage. My heart is with my wine all year, but for harvest time it gets almost all of it. That may sound hokey, but it’s the complete truth. Life/Wine is real and beautiful in its entirety…spraying yourself in the face with the hose because you dropped the nozzle, ripping your pants on a barrel hoop nail, mysterious bruises from climbing under/over/behind/around everything in the crowded cellar, total exhaustion coupled with the inability to sleep because you’re busy planning the next day/week in your head, walking into a wall because you took the corner too tight again, essential equipment breakdowns, wet socks…it’s all part of the journey.

I could not share those parts with you and just paint the romantic picture of it all that some think is the truth, but I really couldn’t. And now, just one week out, all of that makes me smile and I struggle to remember the toughest days of this vintage. I’m left with joy in my heart and memories of: the gorgeous fruit; the amazing aromatics of my Albarino filling the cellar; the Tuesday I tasted the first rose’ in and it made me jump up and down and hug the tank; when my second rose’ surprised us all and made me think; that one barrel of Chardonnay that felt so complete already; the amazing promise of depth and complexity the reds are showing; and how good it felt to saber those bubbles last Saturday.

This vintage is so beautiful and filled with love and I can’t wait to share it with you in the bottle.”

You can taste Melanie’s wines at Cana Vineyards, 38600 John Mosby Hwy, Middleburg, VA; canavineyards.com; open 12-6 Thursday through Monday, 11-6 Saturday.

Nancy Bauer is the author of the book, Virginia Wine Travel Journal (available on Amazon), and the founder of the website and travel app, Virginia Wine in My Pocket.com. You can reach Nancy at nancy@vawineinmypocket.com.

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