Getting to Know Virginia’s Assistant Winemakers
By Matthew Fitzsimmons
When Melanie Natoli of Cana Vineyards was handed the 2022 Virginia Governor’s Cup wine competition’s highest award, Doug Fabboli of Fabbioli Cellars was there to witness the event. Doug had a personal interest in watching Melanie ascend the stage; she was his Assistant Winemaker a decade earlier, one of a long roster of people he’s mentored in the Virginia wine industry.
Melanie’s journey demonstrates how today’s assistants are tomorrow’s leaders. Many also have their own projects which deserve attention.
Not only are these young winemakers introducing new ideas, their progression is changing the industry’s demographics. A number of today’s Head Winemakers such as Chelsey Blevins, Christopher Harris, and Corry Craighill got their start elsewhere in Virginia before moving to their present gigs.
Kent Arendt, Assistant Winemaker for Walsh Family Wine & maker of his private label Boden Young
What drew you to winemaking? “My last job was in data analysis. I was always interested in wine, but I didn’t think much about it until 10 years ago. But the more I enjoyed wine the more interested I became in the details; like how different wine is regionally, why it tastes so different, why different winemakers use different styles.
So in 2016 I decided to give it a try. I’m the kind of person who needs tangible results in his work. I interned in Washington State and worked a harvest at a big facility. When I came back, I realized that’s not the kind of place I want to work at. So I applied to an ad from Nate Walsh and was his first hire.”
Describe your role of an Assistant Winemaker: “Winemaking is 90% organization and cleaning and 10% winemaking. But being an assistant varies depending on the winery. For us, the Head Winemaker becomes more and more hands-off in the cellar work as the business grows.
I do much of the day-to-day cellar work. Nate will have a list of things to do and I work through that list, whether it’s running the lab, checking sulfur and acidity levels, topping up barrels, maintenance of equipment, and getting ready for bottle. And cleaning, cleaning, cleaning.”
What parts of the business are you in charge of? “Anything that happens in the cellar is done by me or scheduled by me. I meet with Nate on almost a daily basis to talk about what’s going on in the cellar.
But the best part is the farming. A big part of what makes Virginia wine special is the farming.”
Do you have any side-projects of your own? “Nate creates an environment that is conducive for small projects. I make a wine named Boden Young. Boden translated roughly as “Soil” in German. Albariño is one of those varieties that I’ve enjoyed for a long time and I’m excited that it’s picked up in the past 5 years. I’ve made 43 cases of albariño and 38 of viognier.”
Katrina Buccella, Assistant Winemaker at Paradise Springs Winery
What drew you to winemaking? “I originally went to Virginia Tech to study veterinary medicine but fell in love with microbiology and food sciences. That led me to their fermentation course.
Five years ago I interned at Rocklands Farm Winery (in Maryland). I had the chance to do every step in the process from planting a vineyard, to harvesting grapes, to making wine, to sales. I’ve also worked in New Zealand and finished my UC Davis winemaking program.
I love the cyclical nature of winemaking. It spoke to something older, and winemaking is so much more soulful.”
Describe your role of an Assistant Winemaker: “I’m basically Rob’s (Rob Cox, Head winemaker at Paradise Springs) right hand. He makes the decisions in the cellar, but I’m in charge of the estate vineyard. It’s only one acre but it’s a well taken care of acre.
In the production facility I do the barrel maintenance, upkeep of the barrel room, punch down, racking, but most of all cleaning. I also do a lot of the laboratory tasks. It’s a small team so it’s all hands-on deck.”
What has been your career path to become a winemaker? “I’ve heard of so many different ways to get into this business. But there’s no one way, you just have to be moved to take it. As long as you have the drive and ambition and a little science smarts you can go far.”
Are there any specific parts of the winery you are in charge of? “Rob asked me if I had any project ideas and I suggested a pét-nat. So we’re planning on making 80 cases using seyval blanc. It will be a cool first for Paradise Springs.
I’m hoping it will be more of a natural fermentation pét–nat, but we haven’t made any final decisions. I’d like to be as intervention free as possible but I won’t know what will happen till I’m in the thick of it!”
Ashleigh White, Assistant Winemaker for Glen Manor Vineyards
What drew you to winemaking? “I was still in school for biology with a concentration in ecology when Jeff (owner/winemaker Jeff White of Glen Manor) opened the winery. After I graduated I was doing different internships but I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. Jeff offered me a position in the tasting room in 2014, and the next year I moved to a full time job in the vineyard and then in the cellar.
Being a winemaker blended different parts of my degree; being outside in nature as well as growing into the winemaking. I also got to work in different cellars around the world which was exciting.”
Describe your role of an Assistant Winemaker: “Jeff makes the decisions and trajectory for what will come for the year and I work alongside him learning things like making picking decisions in the vineyard. I’m kinda his shadow, learning his approach to processing the fruit and monitoring the fermentation.”
What has been your career path to become a winemaker? “I would say do multiple internships; you gather knowledge from different winemakers. I learned you can do the same job 5 different ways and none are wrong but you learn to pick and choose what works for you best.
I’ve worked in New Zealand, Australia, British Columbia, and California. I miss the traveling, I miss learning. But the experience is always worth it. I’d like to keep traveling but I now feel like I need to stay put.”
Are there any specific parts of the winery you are in charge of? “It really depends; every week is a bit different. I’m in charge of managing our Instagram account, and this year I was in charge of blending trials for our 2021 red blends. I’ve also been leading our research into future varietals, like warmer climate reds.
We also did a bit of carbonic maceration for the first time, which was my idea. The color was really pretty. We did the blending trial for our rosé blind and we all ended up liking it. Jeff is open to trying new things.”
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/.