A Trio of VA Winemakers

A new generation is earning accolades.

If you’re a winemaker in Virginia, there are only three places to be when the year’s top wines are revealed at the Governor’s Cup Gala: pouring for the guests at Richmond’s glittering Main Street Station; up on stage when the Governor’s Case—the top 12 wines—is announced; or, the pinnacle, standing beside the Governor, accepting the giant silver Governor’s Cup.

At this year’s gala, Chris Harris was pouring. The head winemaker at Old House Vineyards was having a great night; he’d just won his first two gold medals. He’d also become the first Black winemaker to earn a gold in the competition.  

In 2021, Maya Hood White was invited onto the event’s (virtual) stage. Her dessert wine, RAH, won a spot in the Governor’s Case. By the following year, she was head winemaker for Early Mountain Vineyards. 

In 2022, Melanie Natoli was also on stage. At 5’3”, she looked surprisingly Zen next to the 6’7” Governor Youngkin. Two of her wines had made it into the Case, and she was about to win the Cup. What the audience will remember about Natoli, though, is the story she told about her blue suit.

Meet the next generation of Virginia winemakers.

CHRIS HARRIS, 34, likes to say he’s been interviewed zero times in his 10-plus years in Virginia wine. He’s okay being under the radar, but that’s already started to change, due partly to the two gold medals he scored in the 2022 Governor’s Cup for Old House’s 2019 Bacchanalia Reserve and its 2021 Vidal Blanc.

The customers and staff at Culpeper’s Old House Vineyards love him. His boss, Ryan Kearney says, “Ask him about riding the unicycle in the vineyard.” 

Harris laughs, saying, “I just had to prove to them I could do it.” A recent Facebook post about the young winemaker pulled in over 300 likes. He grins when he hears this. “They’re just showing me support.” 

Self-described as “shy,” he’s also confident: “I was surprised my 2019 petit verdot didn’t win a gold, too,” and well-connected, naming several of Virginia’s best-known winemakers as his buddies: Gabriele Rausse, Chris Pearmund, Doug Fabbioli. 

Old House Vineyards sits at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Once covered in overgrown alfalfa fields, the property is now ideal for grape-growing. 

Harris grew up surrounded by trees and younger siblings in tiny Amissville, just outside Shenandoah National Park. Now he and Phil, his pet albino corn snake, live in Culpeper. “City life is an adjustment,” he says. In his spare time, he heads to the river and loves to fish. 

Virginia is home, for now. “In a few years, I’m hoping to work in Oregon or Washington. Not California, though.” He explains, “Other winemakers say California has the perfect weather. I want more of a challenge. I’m still learning.”


MAYA HOOD WHITE, 40, would much rather talk about her wine than herself. When her private label wine, RAH—a passito dessert wine made from raisined petit manseng and malvasia bianca grapes—won a spot in the Governor’s Case, a friend set up a website for it. Hood White’s name is nowhere on the site. “It’s about the wine,” she says, “not the person making the wine.” 

She grew up in wine-savvy Santa Barbara, California, tagging along on her parents’ tasting room visits. “Wine was part of our ecosystem,” she says. Her background reads like a STEM success story: math degree from Virginia Tech, work in engineering, love of chemistry. “I wish more girls who love chemistry would get how it’s connected to winemaking and get into this business.”

“I never intended to be in Virginia permanently,” she says. In fact, eight years ago she’d already decamped to New York—the land of riesling—when the phone rang: Early Mountain Vineyards in Madison was offering her a permanent spot. The well-funded, well-managed, prestige winery was too important to pass up. After deep dives into every aspect of their winemaking program—managing the vineyard, heading up sparkling wine production, getting sauvignon blanc off the ground—she was promoted to head winemaker. “Our goal is not, ‘Oh, this wine is good…for Virginia.’ Our goal is to make something that stands on its own,” she says.  

Experimentation is something all Virginia winemakers cherish, and Hood White tells a story about that. “On a road trip, I met a gentleman who’d been making riesling by fermenting the wine on old lees,” she says. [Lees are leftover yeast; white wines typically “rest” on the lees for a few months to a few years.] He asked if I wanted to taste the lees, and I said ‘Yeah!’ and he opened the spout [of the wine tank] and it’s like soft-serve. I dipped my fingers through it. It tasted amazing. It was like seven years’ worth of lees right there.” She came home and immediately started her own lees fermentation experiment. “Watching the evolutions, that to me is what’s exciting.”


MELANIE NATOLI’s Unité, a blend of petit verdot, cabernet franc, and merlot, surpassed 615 wines to win Virginia’s Governor’s Cup. Astonishingly, a second bottle that she entered, Le Mariage, also scored high enough to earn a spot in the Governor’s Cup Case. Two months after bringing her prizes home, she took a short break from her work—to hike the famous Salkantay Trek in Peru, to Machu Picchu—40 miles, at elevations up to 15,000 feet. Natoli is, to say the least, a go-getter.

“This is not just a job, it’s a passion,” says the 42-year-old, winemaker at Cana Vineyards & Winery in Middleburg. “But that makes it a lot harder most of the time, right? You’re just so connected completely to what you’re doing, and every little decision adds up to be something.” She gives an example: the pick decision (winemaking lingo for when to harvest) for her albariño grapes in 2021. 

“It’s always the first grape I harvest. So, I’m looking at all my neighbors’ social media posts and they’re all picking their albariño, because rain’s coming in,” Natoli says. “And I’m looking at the [ripeness] numbers. I’m tasting the grapes. And I’m really thinking about the wine, and it’s not there yet. It’s not ready. But why is everybody else picking theirs? I really struggled with that. But I held; we picked a week and a half later, and I’m really happy with the wine.”

“Two years ago,” she said, recalling a photo of the winemakers who’d won a spot in the Governor’s Cup Case standing on stage: “Two things caught my attention: they were all men that year, and most of them were wearing blue suits.” She paused, giving the audience time to notice the men in blue behind her, her winemaker colleagues. “I said, ‘I guess I need to get a blue suit.’” She glanced down at her bright blue suit and grinned at the crowd. “So, I did.”


More Young Winemakers You Need to Know

– Alan Thibault, 29, Ashton Creek Vineyard, Chester. AshtonCreekVineyard.com

*Governor’s Cup Gold medalist, 2022.

Winemaker brag: His 2020 Gravity. Blend of noiret and cabernet sauvignon. Earthy aromatics. Great with pork chops.

– Chelsey Blevins, 30, Fifty-Third Winery and Vineyard, Louisa. 53rdWinery.com

Winemaker brag: Her barrel-aged rosé. Bold and rich with notes of cranberry and woodsy vanilla. Perfect winter rosé.

– Caitlin Horton, 28, Horton Vineyards, Gordonsville. HortonWine.com

Winemaker brag: Her 2021 viognier. Hints of lemon. Pair it with a lobster roll.

– David Eiserman, 34, Chestnut Oak Vineyard, Barboursville. ChestnutOakVineyard.com

*Governor’s Cup Gold medalist, 2022.

Winemaker brag: His 2019 Euclid. Blend of petit manseng and viognier. Spicy Thai cuisine is a natural pairing.

– Zach Pierce, 29, Ingleside Vineyards, Oak Grove.InglesideVineyards.com

*Governor’s Cup Gold medalist, 2022.

Winemaker brag: His 2021 Albariño. A great match for seafood.

– Emily Belcher, 29, Coyote Hole Ciderworks, Mineral. CoyoteHole.com

Cidermaker brag: Her Virginia Crush. Full of orange and vanilla cream.

This article originally appeared in the October 2022 issue.

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