Not surprisingly, Virginia Wineworks appeared on the list of wines that won gold medals in the 2019 Governor’s Cup Competition.
Then, it appeared again, and again, and …
Twenty-two times, in fact, Virginia Wineworks was listed as the producer of gold medal-winning wines. That’s an incredible 22 out of 68 gold medals awarded in a competition that drew 510 wines.
But what is Virginia Wineworks? It’s the first contract winemaking business in the state. It’s a producer of about 30,000 cases annually of (obviously) quality wines. It’s an innovative company that created “bag in a box” and a refillable wine growler.
And, above all, it’s Michael Shaps, one of the pre-eminent winemakers in the state.
Shaps, who has dominated the Governor’s Cup competition in recent years, broke into the Virginia winemaking scene in 1995 with Jefferson Vineyards. He then enjoyed great success at King Family in the early 2000s — his cabernet franc won the Governor’s Cup in 2004 — before purchasing (with a partner) Montdomaine Winery in 2007 and establishing Virginia Wineworks. (In 2004, he also established Maison Shaps in Meursault, France.)
With new partners in 2014, Wineworks — generally called Michael Shaps Wineworks — grew to a company making wine for nearly 20 clients throughout the state, as well as making the Michael Shaps label.
That label — and, of course, the wine — won 10 of those golds this year. Virginia Wineworks also produced wines for Hamlet Vineyards and Upper Shirley Vineyards, both of which had wines in the prestigious Governor’s Cup Case Top 12 scoring wines. Other Shaps-produced golds were won by The Barns at Hamilton Station, Brix & Columns Vineyards (two), Nicewonder Vineyards, Pippin Hill (three), General’s Ridge Vineyard (two) and Shenandoah Vineyards, which Shaps recently purchased. Because of a Governor’s Cup rule, all wines must be submitted by the winery that made the wine.
Upper Shirley owner Tayloe Dameron, who is a partner with Shaps in Wineworks and who owns a vineyard management company with Shaps, thinks there are three keys to Shaps’ success:
“First, he has an exceptional skill set. He is an extremely good winemaker. I think his winemaking in Burgundy gives him additional breadth. Two, is he is a risk-taker. With risk you can hit very high highs and, unfortunately, sometimes it doesn’t work out.
“But lastly, and most importantly, he has been able to build a business that attracts some of the best talent anywhere. If you look at the lineup of staff that he has had: Ben Jordan, Joy Ting, Jake Bushing, and the success that they have post Wineworks, to me it is unrivaled in Virginia winemaking. And now they have Michael Heny.”
Shaps, always jovial and humble, still had that intimidating presence because of his successes.
“I think at first, I was afraid he would figure out how small our vineyard was and decide he had bigger fish to fry,” said Virginia Hamlet of Hamlet Vineyards in Bassett. “Thank goodness, he didn’t. I know how busy he can be, but I always feel like he has plenty of time to make sure we get the best from our fruit. I feel so much more comfortable with Michael now that we have worked together for ... [eight] years.
“Early on, I had to focus on very simple wines because the grapes were still young and I was a novice (but not young!). It gave me a chance to ask a lot of questions and focus on what would work for our business. He constantly encouraged me to trust my palate and make what I liked. Early on, he said something that has resonated with me and has become a mission: ‘When you grow great fruit, the winemaking is easy.’
“Michael was willing to work with us and never doubted our commitment or passion for the business. I have really appreciated that, and it has helped me get the confidence needed to work in a competitive business. I also like that he continues to try to raise the bar for Virginia wines even outside of the prominent regions.”
Shaps, born in Chicago and raised and educated in New York, worked briefly in the restaurant business before moving in 1990 to France, where he enrolled in the Lycée Viticole de Beaune in Burgundy to study oenology and viticulture. He then opted to start his career in Virginia and eventually started consulting for wineries.
“My goal has always been to help improve the quality and reputation of Virginia wines,” he said. “Our goal is to help them produce a wine that is the best possible presentation of their vineyards, their wine philosophy and aspirations. If a client is fully invested in our services, then we work with them, starting in the vineyard and then throughout the wine processing and aging to make sure we maximize their potential. If they are committed to us and our years of experience, then our job as winemakers is quite easy.”
Even though Shaps won the Governor’s Cup in 2004 while at King and another in 2017 for The Barns, his recent Michael Shaps wines, though laden with gold medals, have not won a Governor’s Cup. That fact doesn’t seem to disappoint him.
“I feel very fortunate to have the success that I’ve had in the Governor’s Cup,” he said. “There are so many good wines out there, and I have always felt it is like a horse race and I’m the trainer bringing my stable of entries to the field. After that, anything goes. I have a great team that executes the vineyard and winemaking plans that I lay out. Without their commitment, I wouldn’t be successful.”