December 2015 Issue of Wines & Vines

Michael Shaps Wineworks

'Multi-faceted winery' expands in Virginia

by Linda Jones McKee
Michael Shaps
Grapes destined for the appassimento process arrive at the winery in 14-pound lugs.

Michael Shaps started Virginia Wineworks south of Charlottesville, Va., with his business partner, Philip Stafford, in 2007. They called the business “Wineworks” to reflect the industrial feel of the building and to indicate that it was more than a winery—it was going to be “a multifaceted winery.”

According to Shaps, “Our objective was to be a contract winemaking facility that was more of a production space than a fancy winery and tasting room. We wanted the name to reflect the vision of what it would be.” The winery part of the business produces wines from Virginia grapes under both the Michael Shaps and Wineworks labels, packages wines in bottles, bag-in-box format and growlers, and also offers contract winemaking services to approximately two-dozen clients. In addition, the Virginia Wineworks tasting room sells wine Shaps makes in Burgundy, France, under his label, Maison Michael Shaps.


  • Located south of Charlottesville, Va., Michael Shaps Wineworks is a contract winemaking facility that produces wine for Michael Shaps’ labels and approximately two dozen clients.
  • Wineworks recently expanded its production capacity by 50%, adding an office building and (for the first time) a tasting room separate from the barrel room.
  • Shaps was trained in France and uses some Old World wine­making techniques such as fermenting primarily with native yeasts. He also has adapted concepts like the Italian appassimento technique to solve the local challenge of making wine from grapes that are low in sugar.

Shaps’ route to owner and manager of this complex venture did not begin with studies at Cornell, Davis, Fresno or a local community college. After he graduated from Skidmore College with a degree in economics and business in 1986, he moved to Boston and soon was managing a restaurant where he also was in charge of the wine program. Intrigued by the wine industry, he moved to Burgundy in 1990, studied at the Lycée Viticole de Beaune and earned a diploma in enology and viticulture.

He worked two harvests in Burgundy and returned to the United States in 1992 to work at a start-up winery in Massachusetts. “I’m an East Coast person,” Shaps told Wines & Vines, “but I wanted to be in Virginia, so I took a job as winemaker at Jefferson Vineyards in 1995. I started consulting and in 2000 created my own brand.”

By 2004, Shaps was back in France to start a boutique wine label with Michel Roucher-Sarrazin, his friend and boss, as partner. They formed Maison Shaps et Roucher-Sarrazin, which specialized in Chardonnays from Meursault and Pinot Noir from several Burgundy appellations. Shaps bought out his partner in 2012, changed the name to Maison Michael Shaps and continues to produce approximately 1,000 cases per year from some of Burgundy’s best vineyard sites and premier cru appellations. He now goes to France about every other month to supervise wine production there, in addition to spending many mornings in Virginia working with his French staff in Meursault over the phone.

When Shaps started Virginia Wineworks in 2007, he and Stafford purchased the former Montdomaine Cellars property, a winery opened by Michael Bowles and a partner in 1981. The Bowles had leased the facility to Horton Vineyards in the 1990s, while Horton’s winery was under construction, and the Montdomaine facility then stood empty for 10 years until Virginia Wineworks took over the building. Bowles still owns a 4-acre vineyard next to the winery that is planted with some of the oldest Chardonnay vines in Virginia.

    When ‘ripe’ grapes are too low in sugar

    In Virginia, Mother Nature does not always deliver ripe grapes with a high enough level of sugar. A technique that some winemakers in the East are adapting to improve the Brix level is a variation on the appassimento process used in the Valpolicella region around Verona, Italy, for hundreds of years. In this process, the best clusters (those with absolutely no damage to any berries) are placed on drying racks and put into a fruttaio where the temperature and humidity can be controlled. The color, flavor and aroma compounds concentrate as the grapes dehydrate over a period of two to six months. The process also facilitates the polymerization of tannins in the grapes, which gives the resulting dry wine a velvety texture and increases the potential for longer aging of the wine.

    At Michael Shaps Wineworks, the goal of grape dehydration is somewhat different. Shaps uses the process for two purposes: first, to concentrate the grapes to produce his dessert wine, which is more similar to the Italian Recioto, or sweeter wine, often produced along with the traditional appassimento wines that are dry. Second (and more frequently), Shaps uses the process to dehydrate grapes—not for months, but for days. Sugar levels in otherwise fully ripe Virginia grapes can be in the range of 20°-22° Brix, and in two to six days, he can raise the sugar content to 28° or 29° Brix. Bunches of grapes destined for this process arrive at the winery in lugs without any MOG, and each lug weighs only about 14 pounds. These grapes do not go through the crusher/destemmer.

    For this drying process, Shaps acquired two tobacco-curing “barns” that look like metal storage sheds and placed them just beyond the crush pad. Behind each unit are propane-fueled burners that heat air to 120° F; fans blow the air through metal grates on the floor and up through the lugs containing the grapes. In some cases, part of a grape lot will be “dried” to get to a higher Brix number and then put back into the fermentation of the rest of the lot to raise the overall sugar level and improve aromas and flavors. Each harvest, Wineworks will process between 15 and 20 tons of grapes in the drying sheds.

The first expansion of the Montdomaine building took place in 2010. A roof was built over the open crush pad area, and a driveway was created in a loop so that trucks could deliver grapes or pick up wine more easily. Wineworks, however, was not the typical winery: The focus was on creating a better space for wine production, not for marketing. There were no facilities for wedding receptions or special events, no music festivals and no tasting room. Visitors who wanted to try Shaps’ wines were ushered into the barrel room, where a plank was set up on two barrels as a tasting bar. As more people came to visit the winery, the tasting bar was expanded to six barrels topped with plywood, so that more tasters could be accommodated at one time.

More changes took place in 2014. Shaps bought out his partner’s share of Virginia Wineworks, and he now markets the winery as Michael Shaps Wineworks. A new holding company, Michael Shaps Winery Management Group, was formed with Shaps as the majority partner. The other partners are Tayloe Dameron of Upper Shirley Vineyards in Charles City, Va., Francois Cousin of Brussels, Belgium, and Dean Andrews of Pippin Hill Farm & Vineyards in Charlottesville, Va.

Shaps also merged his winery consulting business, KWC, into Michael Shaps Wineworks. The new Wineworks now offers full-service consulting packages for start-up and producing wineries that encompass every aspect from vineyard management and lab services to production staffing. To accommodate these changes, a $1 million expansion project was implemented to increase the production capacity by 50%, add a new office building and space for a tasting room.

The building looks like what it is: a wine-production facility, not a fancy French chateau or Italian villa with elegant spaces for wine tasting events. Visitors and trucks loaded with grapes drive up the same gravel road toward a large covered space. Those interested in tasting wine take a left into a visitors’ parking lot, while the delivery trucks continue past a moderate-sized tasting room on the left and a similar size office building on the right to reach the open-air crush pad.

The original Montdomaine building, topped with a green roof, is now the barrel room, and the small room that had served as the winery office was converted into a laboratory. The former crush pad was enclosed to become the wine-production area, and a cold-storage room was added to replace the refrigerated trucks that had been used to chill grapes and wine. A new, covered and much larger crush pad was built, along with room for equipment storage and tables and chairs overlooking the vineyard. Some new winemaking equipment was added, including an additional Europress (more on this later).

The vineyards
While Wineworks does not own any vineyards, Shaps manages a total of about 80 acres. His Chardonnay comes from the 5-acre Wild Meadow Vineyard in northern Virginia’s Loudoun County; another 7-acre vineyard, Mountain View Vineyard near Roanoke, Va., is at an elevation of 1,300 feet and produces Viognier, Merlot and Cabernet Franc for Wineworks. Honah Lee Vineyard in Gordonsville, Va., is planted with Petit Manseng, Petit Verdot and Tannat as well as other varieties that Shaps uses for his clients. Most of the remainder of the Wineworks grapes are grown in Albemarle County, including Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon at a site high on Carter’s Mountain, just south of Charlottesville.

The winemaking
Because the Wineworks makes wine under contract for clients, the specific processes used during winemaking vary somewhat according to clients’ requirements and stylistic preferences. For his own wines, Shaps believes in the mantra “great wine is made in the vineyard,” and tries to minimize the manipulation of the grapes. Natural gravity flow is used as much as possible during winemaking processes.

Grapes arrive at the Wineworks in MacroBins or individual lugs, depending on the vineyard. In some cases, the grapes are held in a cold room where the temperature is chilled into the 40°s (°F), but all grapes are crushed and destemmed within 24 hours. A forklift from Clark Material Handling with a bin dumper feeds the grapes into a Sthik hopper from Euro-Machines, and the hopper vibrates the grapes into the Euro-Machines A-5 crusher/destemmer. Some of the destemmed grapes go directly into tanks (or occasionally into bins) but if the grapes need to be sorted, they are sent to the C.M.A. Tommy, an automatic sorting system from Prospero Equipment that has both a stainless steel vibrating table and a PVC sorting belt.

Wineworks has two presses from Euro-Machines, a Europress P34 and a Europress P52. White grapes are pressed within 24 hours, with the exception of Petit Manseng, which has some skin contact time. Enzymes are added to most grapes, and Shaps uses a wide range of enzyme products from Scott Laboratories and some from Laffort. He relies primarily on native yeasts. Again, the only exception is in fermenting Petit Manseng. Due to the variety’s high levels of sugar and acid, Shaps starts the Petit Manseng fermentation with native yeast, then adds QA23 yeast from Scott Laboratories to make sure the grapes finish fermentation.

White wines may finish fermentation in 10 to 14 days—or, since they are not inoculated, occasionally they may take several months. Red wines are crushed and destemmed as soon as possible, then placed in tanks for fermentation. Shaps has both open-top and closed tanks, mostly from Prospero and Euro-Machines. Shaps explained that much of his equipment comes from Euro-Machines because “they’re a local company and can provide service quickly. And it’s the quality of the equipment as well.”

According to Joy Ting, Wineworks’ enologist and production manager, the winery often is working with approximately 150 lots of wine. “Consequently, we do most of our analyses in-house,” she stated. “We do an analysis when the grapes arrive and go through the crusher/destemmer. We monitor fermentations and do a third set of analyses after malolactic fermentation.” One specialized piece of lab equipment that Ting uses frequently is the Enolyzer wine analyzer from Unitech Scientific. It is a modified spectrophotometer that will do tests to detect malolactic fermentation, residual sugar and volatile acidity.

Of Shaps’ white wines, only Petit Manseng and Chardonnay are barrel-aged. The Petit Manseng is barrel-aged in French oak for eight months before bottling, with approximately one-third of it in new barrels. The Chardonnay is also aged in French oak, and depending on the vintage, 40%-50% will go in new barrels before it is bottled 10 months later. The barrel makers for white wine are Tonnelleries Damy, Billon, Ermitage-Berthomieu and Cavin.

Red wines are all aged for 18-24 months in French oak. Malbec has the lowest amount of new oak at 33%. For Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, 50% are in new oak, and 50%-70% of the Petit Verdot and Tannat will be in new French oak, depending on the vintage. Nadalie, Vicard, Ermitage-Berthomieu and Cavin are the barrel makers for the red wine program.

Shaps uses Roanoke Valley Wine Co. as his distributor. “They’re doing a great job,” he told Wines & Vines. “The wines are selling through quickly, and we’re getting placements in restaurants. But it’s also frustrating: Demand is higher than our supply, so we sell out before the next vintage is available. We’re increasing production and trying not to sacrifice quality, and still meet the demand.”

The tasting experience
The new tasting room reflects Wineworks’ basic philosophy: The room is comfortable but not fancy, the staff is friendly and knowledgeable, and the wines are excellent. Shaps won the Virginia Governor’s Cup in 2004 (when he was winemaker at King Family Vineyards in Crozet, Va.), and has won numerous gold medals in the Governor’s Cup competition since then. Three of his 2012 vintage wines—Tannat, Petit Verdot and Raisin d’Être White (a blend of Riesling and Petit Manseng)—won gold medals at the 2015 Governor’s Cup competition.

The tasting room walls are paneled with metal siding from old tobacco sheds; the tasting bar is made of reclaimed soapstone and barn boards; the tables were constructed from recycled barn boards stained with red wine must, and the high-top tables are made from barrel heads with a metal hoop as the finishing edge.

What is unique about the tasting experience at Wineworks is the variety of wines that are available to taste and their packaging. The menu features wines made by Shaps both in Virginia and at his winery in Burgundy. In September, eight Virginia wines were available to taste, while the three Governor’s Cup gold medal winners and seven others were for sale as well. Included in the $10 fee for tasting the Virginia wines was one bag-in-a-box white wine and two wines in growlers called Mon Bidon Blanc and Mon Bidon Rouge (mon bidon is French for “my canteen”).

While growlers are available at many craft breweries, Shaps is one of the few wineries in Virginia that is currently selling wine on tap. According to Virginia law, the winery cannot pre-package wine in growlers, but they can be filled and sold at the winery tasting room because a growler is considered to be “a glass of wine.” The growler wines are unfiltered and unoaked; the white is a blend of Chardonnay and Vidal Blanc, and the red contains is a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Chambourcin. Stainless steel kegs sit in a cabinet below two wine barrels, and spigots deliver wine into the growlers, creating the appearance that the wine is being poured directly from the barrels. (See the photo at the bottom of this page, where the cabinet doors are open and the kegs are visible.) A 64-ounce glass growler costs the customer $10; the price for each fill is $25.

For a separate tasting fee of $10, visitors can taste three French wines: a red wine from Mercurey and two from Bourgogne, a Chardonnay and a rosé de Pinot Noir. An additional eight white and five red Burgundies from Maison Michael Shaps were for sale in late September. Another tasting option is $15 to taste both the Virginia and Burgundy wines.

Contract winemaking services
Wineworks offers contract winemaking services to independent growers, wineries with limited capacity and individuals with the stipulation that they must make at least one barrel of wine. Clients can be as involved in the winemaking process as they choose, or Wineworks will create the wine for the client.

Winemaking services include:

  • Sourcing grapes from many of Virginia’s finest vineyards and varieties including Chardonnay, Viognier, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and many others.
  • Developing a winemaking plan with each client, depending on whether the client wants to follow each step in the process or be involved from time to time.
  • Clients can work on their wine using Wineworks’ equipment.
  • Wineworks has new and used barrels available for aging and can offer advice about the impact of oak on different wines.
  • If the client wants to make a commercial product, Wineworks can arrange the label design, bottling and brand registration of the client’s wines.
  • Wineworks can also provide warehousing, distribution and sales.

The next project
More changes are coming to Michael Shaps Wineworks—this time at the warehouse building Shaps rents on the south side of Charlottesville. Currently the building is used for case goods storage, but there are plans to use the 16,000-square-foot building for barrel aging, packaging and a tasting room with retail space. The bottling line has been moved from the winery to the warehouse, and the bag-in-a-box filler also will be located there.

One part of the building has two floors, and Shaps thinks that by mid-winter he will have a tasting room and retail space open on the first floor. The upstairs area already has a balcony and a kitchen, and there is a large space with windows overlooking Carter Mountain that can be used for winemaker dinners and other special events.

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