Women Take Top Honors in Maryland and Virginia
By Matthew Fitzsimmons
For the first time ever, both Maryland and Virginia recognize women as the top winemakers in their most recent wine awards.
In October 2021, Lauren Zimmerman of Port of Leonardtown Winery won her second Maryland Governor’s Cup for her 2019 Chambourcin Reserve. This March, Melanie Natoli of Cana Vineyard & Winery won the Virginia Governor’s Cup for her 2019 Unité Reserve red blend, the first time Virginia awarded this prize to a female.
These honors highlight not just their own accomplishments, but those of women across the entire wine industry. When Melanie received the Cup from Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin, she spoke to how last year’s award stage was entirely occupied by men. She then said of her fellow women winemakers, “We are fewer in number but we are mighty in passion and skill.”
Both of Melanie’s statements are accurate. Today only roughly 12% of Virginia wineries and 20% of Maryland wineries have a female head winemaker. Even those numbers are an improvement from a decade ago.
Yet these numbers are hardly surprising. Nationwide, women in the wine industry face additional barriers to advancement, often due to the lack of apprenticeships or funding for education. As wineries are often family-owned, opportunities for promotion to senior positions are slim. Both Lauren and Melanie observed that women need to work extra hard to prove themselves.
That said, both Maryland and Virginia are still emerging wine regions, with room for growth and the flexibility to experiment with new styles of winemaking. This helps level the playing field as the local winemaking culture hasn’t yet had time to develop an entrenched ‘old boy’s network’, set in its ways.
Melanie Natoli – Cana Vineyards & Winery of Middleburg
When Melanie started, the number of women in the Virginia wine industry was even smaller than it is today. “Initially I didn’t think anything about it” she explained. “But if there were other women winemakers I didn’t meet them”.
Her road to winemaking was a circuitous one. In 2009 Melanie was a physical therapist with little exposure to the wine industry when curiosity caused her to reach out to Doug Fabboli of Fabbioli Cellars.
“I wasn’t exposed to wine growing up. So when I started, I just wanted to suck in any information I could from Doug”. But working at Fabbioli Cellars gave her the realization “OMG, this is what you do!” After that, she was hooked.
Melanie split her time between PT and winemaking, becoming his assistant winemaker in 2011. She debated going to school in either California or Oregon, but luckily for the Virginia wine industry Melanie decided to stay local until landing at Cana in the winter of 2015.
Today, Cana has 7.5 acres of vines on their estate vineyard in Middleburg, and produces around 3000 cases/year. While she loves the acidity from her petit manseng, Melanie’s true loves are grenache, syrah, and mourvèdre (GSM) blends and rosé.
While the former rarely thrives in Virginia, she is able to indulge her passion for the later. So much so Cana recently unveiled three different styles; a Rosé of Cabernet Franc, Rosé of Cabernet Sauvignon, and a Rosé of Merlot.
Melanie’s top-winning 2019 Unité Reserve is made with Bordeaux-grapes, but its heavy petit verdot composition is uniquely Virginia. Saying of Unité, “The vineyard blended the 2019, because I used everything it gave me. Since 2018 was so wet, it was like the grapes were hung over. It was a high quality/low quantity year.”
Her advice for women who wish to enter the field of winemaking? “You have to be willing to take that risk. I put myself in credit card debt to get a gig. But I say – go for it”.
Lauren Zimmerman – Port of Leonardtown Winery
Lauren received her inspiration for winemaking in the booming Canadian wine region of Prince Edward County, north of the Finger Lakes. Growing up she would walk her dog through rows of Chardonnay across from her parent’s home, tasting the grapes as she strolled along.
After graduating from Niagara Falls College with a degree in enology and viticulture she worked in New Zealand before returning home to Ontario. At the age of 22 Lauren became the youngest head winemaker in Canada, and by 23 she owned her own five-acre plot.
Advancing so quickly brought its own challenges. Lauren explained via email, “I do remember the shocked faces of guests who asked to meet the winemaker when I walked out. They would even tell me “I expected a man with gray hair.” I have also been asked, multiple times, if I’m the only winemaker. When I respond “Yes”, they would ask again as if they don’t believe me.”
Lauren points out that being a woman winemaker also has special advantages. “The biggest advantage female winemaker have is our sense of taste and smell, which are proven to be heightened compared to male senses. Despite using a full lab, smell and taste are the most important test when it comes to making gold medal winning wine.”
“Being young is another advantage, since as we age our sense of taste and smell diminish. So it is no surprise that young female winemakers are producing some of the best wine on the East Coast.”
Her position at Port of Leonardtown gives her plenty of opportunities to put those skills to the test. The winery is perhaps unique on the east coast in that it’s a wine co-op; a network of 12 different growers with Lauren making wine from all of them. The wines resulting from this cooperation showcase a variety of terroirs from coastline to mountains to flat farmland.
Her 2019 chambourcin is also reflective of southern Maryland’s terroir. Being several degrees warmer than the rest of the state allows it to develop dark, jammy characteristics and a heavier body. It also demonstrates how hybrid grapes, a variety that rarely gets critical respect, can be made into top-winning wine.
Lauren’s advice for future winemakers? “Travel and taste from different regions. Work with other winemakers, because everyone crafts their art differently. Respect old school traditions, but don’t be afraid to play outside the box for new and exciting concepts.”
Author: Matthew Fitzsimmons is a blogger who has visited nearly every winery in Virginia – most of them twice. Follow his progress at https://winetrailsandwanderlust.com/.