Small winemakers are setting new standards for wine in Virginia—by emphasizing quality and doing it all from the comfort of home
Think of Virginia wine, and you tend to think of grand Hunt Country estates, new money seeking a patina of gentility, and a few wines showing promise. You don’t tend to think of the garagistes.
Never heard of them? Most wine lovers haven’t. Nor, for that matter, have most wine writers. The garagistes shun the limelight, but their emergence has infused new energy into Virginia’s maturing wine industry.
Like the garagistes of Bordeaux who produce small-yield, distinctive wines without the trappings of the established chateaux, these local garagistes are raising the bar for quality in Virginia wine. Show up at their doors and they’ll pour you a taste and sell you some wine, but don’t ask them to host a wedding. Their focus is on the wine, not the lifestyle.
Two of the most interesting and influential are a low-key farmer and a winemaker for the well heeled now setting out on his own. Though they approach the making of wine from different perspectives, they have two things in common: shoestring budgets and a conviction that the Old Dominion can consistently produce top-notch, marketable wines.
Bernd Jung’s basement is cluttered—not with the usual detritus but with six stainless-steel tanks; eight oak barrels; several metal kegs and carboys; assorted hoses, clamps, and hooks; and, if he scrounges around a bit, a corkscrew.
And that’s only for his white wines. The reds age in a “barrel room,” a long, low space just off the basement that will never be photographed for a glossy wine magazine. Nor, apparently, will it be converted into a bedroom.
“I’m afraid this will never be Alexander’s bedroom,” Jung’s wife, Kristi, says wistfully, referring to the couple’s 14-year-old son and the room’s intended beneficiary.
“Yes,” Bernd Jung concedes, “I’m afraid this is one of those permanently temporary arrangements.”
Vineyard manager and winemaker, carpenter and mechanic, gatherer of grapes and hunter of grape-eating crows, Jung is aided by his family and five dogs that live in the vineyard to ward off hungry deer and bears.
Jung’s basement houses Chester Gap Cellars, just south of Front Royal, where he produces 1,500 cases of wine a year from eight acres of vines. The site offers steep, sloping vineyards with eastern and southeastern exposure and views of the Blue Ridge foothills. The Jungs live upstairs with Alexander and three-year-old Luke, whose arrival made them defer building a separate winery on the property.
Until this year, visitors were welcomed under a catering tent on a concrete slab outside the basement door. The Jungs recently erected a building to provide storage space and a tasting room. It was a concession to their growing success but still a compromise—the new building isn’t big enough to house a winery, so that remains in their basement.
Jung planted his first vines at Chester Gap in 2000, when the family moved from Florida, where he had been growing hybrid grape varieties for other wineries. Since then, his wines have earned a following. They include a Merlot, a Cabernet Franc, two Viogniers (with and without oak), and a wine based on Petit Manseng. They have been on the lists at Charlie Palmer Steak, Vidalia, and Bistro Français, and they’re available at the DC cheese store Cowgirl Creamery.
A farmer at heart, his complexion tinged with a permanent sunburn, Jung admits he’s more comfortable in the vineyard than in the winery. He seems to be in sync with the soil, the vines, and the weather. When I visited last August, the summer drought had stressed his vines to the point where Jung feared they would “shut down” and the grapes wouldn’t ripen. Desperate for rain, he would stop midsentence and listen whenever a rumble of thunder echoed over the mountains. “Nope,” he’d say, “that’s two valleys over.”
Three harvests ago, Jung intended to make a dessert wine from his Petit Manseng in the style of Jurançon from southwestern France. Drought slowed the ripening, and the harvest forecast called for rain. So he picked earlier than he wanted and had wine that was too sweet for dinner but not sweet enough for dessert. He blended in some Viognier to round out the acid and sugars and called the wine Cuvée Manseng. The result was a racy wine with tropical and citrus flavors, lots of verve, and a round, sweet-fruit finish.
Petit Manseng is the trendy white grape in Virginia because its thick skin is resistant to humidity and mold, the longtime bane of Virginia vintners. But winemakers haven’t really figured out what to do with it once they grow it. Should it be a dessert wine? An off-dry white? Or should it be blended to create a new wine, something uniquely Virginian? The Chester Gap Cuvée Manseng is an inadvertent wine, born of desperation. By blending in Viognier, the white grape that a decade ago put Virginia on the wine map, Jung did something nobody else had. And it worked.
Jung acknowledges that his Cuvée Manseng is a success, and he’ll keep making it. But he’s reluctant to take credit for it because it was born of necessity. “All that my 20 years of grape growing means,” he says, “is that I’ve done this 20 times.”
While Jung approaches wine from the vineyard, Michael Shaps works his magic in the winery. Over the last 14 years, Shaps has built a reputation as one of Virginia’s premier winemakers, helping startup wineries produce good wines from the beginning. His hallmark is rich, stylish wines with color and tannin able to age for several years.
Shaps is the winemaker at DelFosse, a palatial winery built in an abandoned apple orchard southwest of Monticello. DelFosse is winning raves for its initial releases of Viognier and Chardonnay. This year, Shaps will help launch Pollak, west of Charlottesville, and Barrenridge, a fledgling enterprise in Augusta County near Staunton. A decade ago, he was influential in the early success of Jefferson Vineyards and Keswick Vineyards. For eight years he made the wines at King Family Vineyards, earning plaudits for its reds, before going out on his own last spring.
Shaps and Philip Stafford, a friend and wine importer and restaurateur, took over the old Montdomaine Cellars—which helped give Virginia wine a good name from the mid-1980s to the early ’90s but then lay fallow for a decade. The two men gave it new life as Virginia Wineworks, the state’s first custom-crush winery.
When I visited Shaps in August, he had just taken possession of the facility, a long concrete structure built into a hillside and almost swallowed by ivy down a nearly impenetrable wooded lane south of Charlottesville. The winery was empty save for a new shipment of French oak barrels. But it was clearly an ideal place to make wine—naturally cool against the summer heat because of protection from the hillside.
Here, Shaps says, he’ll do his consulting winemaking. This will allow clients to establish their reputations before investing capital in new facilities and tasting rooms. It’s a sign of maturity in the Virginia wine industry, which has exploded from a handful of wineries in 1980 to almost 150 today.
Shaps is a bookish sort with a playful wit, as seen in the name he gave his winery. He would look equally at home behind a podium in a University of Virginia lecture hall or in a Washington law office. Educated in France, he commutes regularly to Meursault, where he produces well-regarded Burgundies with a former boss under the Shaps & Roucher-Sarrazin label. There are French winemakers working in Virginia but only one Virginian making wine in France.
At Virginia Wineworks, Shaps made wine for three clients producing their first vintages in the 2007 harvest, in addition to wines for his eponymous label and four wines under the Virginia Wineworks name from 2006 juice purchased on Virginia’s growing spot market. Juicy and affordable, these wines are Shaps’s answer to the criticism that Virginia can’t produce enough good wines at everyday prices to be a viable wine region.
“Virginia doesn’t have enough wines selling at $12 to $14,” he says.
This venture is a departure for a winemaker accustomed to the unlimited budgets of wealthy clients eager to make expensive trophy wines—and whose own wines under the Michael Shaps label are to be sought out despite their more ambitious prices.
“I used to go to my clients and say, ‘Buy me the best of this,’ and ‘I want the best of that,’ ” Shaps says. Now he forages for used equipment as far away as Long Island. “It’s quite a different perspective putting a winery together with my own resources.”
Although Virginia Wineworks wines will be distributed to retail outlets throughout the Washington area, Shaps has no plans to create a tourist-style tasting room common to the wineries around Charlottesville. Visitors will be welcomed by appointment only, and no signs will point the way through the woods.
Says Shaps: “You can taste our wines if you can find us.”
This article appeared in the March, 2008 issue of The Washingtonian.
Click here to read more about Virginia's garagistes and author Dave McIntyre's evaluation of their wines.