The building is hard to find. There’s no sign, and the wrong dirt road will put you in somebody’s front yard. Thirty years old, vacant for the last 10, its concrete floors are cracked and the concrete walls are streaked from floods. Built into a hill and looking abandoned, it’s got a dirt-covered roof. Grass and leaves surround it. But within this structure, Michael Shaps is busy starting something shiny and new. “I’ve always said I’d never own a winery in Virginia,” he says, “and here I am.”
Putting on a new label: Michael Shaps (right, with his business partner, Philip Stafford) has been a winemaker in Virginia since 1995, but never thought he’d be a winery owner here—until now.
Another winery opening in Albemarle County is hardly news, but this one is exciting for two reasons, one being the person behind it. Few Virginia winemakers are brand names (think Robert Mondavi in Napa), but Michael Shaps is definitely one of them. Since 1995, he has made wine here, first for Jefferson Vineyards and then King Family Vineyards, where the bottles displayed his name prominently on the label. Along the way he has consulted for almost every new winery that’s come along. He is, along with Gabriele Rausse and Thomas Jefferson, that rare local winemaker you might expect the average Charlottesville enthusiast to be able to name. But until now, he has never had a winery to call his own.
Inside the humble building near Keene, Shaps and his business partner, Philip Stafford, have founded Virginia Wineworks LLC, and are making and selling wine in a nontraditional way. Shaps and Stafford will produce wine conventionally under two labels (the more modestly priced Virginia Wineworks and, at the upper end, the Michael Shaps label). But in addition, Virginia Wineworks will function as a “custom crush” facility following in the footsteps of businesses like San Francisco’s Crush Pad. Custom crush is essentially DIY winemaking. Virginia Wine Works will sell you a barrel of wine made to your specifications, or let you use their equipment to make your own.
Commercially, custom crush is new to the local scene and Shaps says it’s about time. “The biggest problem in the wine industry,” he says, “is…the start-up cost.” With a custom crush facility, grape growers and itinerant winemakers can essentially rent a winery, thus avoiding the prohibitive expense. Shaps says he has avoided the “trap of spending millions of dollars” on “the Napa Style” where the winery functions as a “showplace.” “Nothing’s gonna be fancy,” he says. “Just wine, none of the sizzle.” This is in marked contrast to the way wineries so often arrive here: on the backs of private fortunes, announcing their presence with grand buildings, rows of vines, and a caravan of tourists. What Shaps calls “the anti-winery” is being sold almost entirely on the strength of his name and skill, not on the luxury of its amenities. True to its factory-esque title, Virginia Wineworks is just that, a place where Michael Shaps, and anyone else, can do the work of making wine.
“I don’t know how many people want to make their own wine,” Shaps says, but he’s hoping it’s more than a few. He envisions holding seminars and classes on winemaking. Beyond just providing an alternative to the chateau model of wineries that dominates here, Shaps’ new venture provides proof that the wine industry is truly taking hold, as it continues not just to grow, but to take on new shapes.
But first, you’ve got to find the place. “Whatever you do,” Shaps jokes, squinting into the sun, “don’t tell anyone where we’re at.”