French connection: Shaps shapes local grapes' taste

Central Virginia hasn't been kind to New Yorkers lately.

Brooklynite Pete Gillen resigned as the UVA's men's basketball coach in March after seven seasons and a lone NCAA Tournament appearance. Worse off is Albemarle land mogul Mark H. Swartz. The Manhattanite and former Tyco CFO– who was convicted in June of grand larceny ($600 million grand!)– now faces a stretch in decidedly less classy digs than his Enniscorthy estate in Keene.

However, one Empire Stater who has escaped the curse is prominent Virginia winemaker Michael Shaps. In fact, with his wines from King Family Vineyards in Crozet, Keswick Vineyards, and brand-new DelFosse Vineyards in Faber wowing connoisseurs, and the opening of his all-Virginia wine shop VAvino on the horizon, things seem to be going better than ever for the Scarsborough native. But just like the wine he makes, the growth process for Shaps has been long and thorough.

Sharpening his palate in the late '80s while managing restaurants in Boston, Shaps decided to make wine his full-time career when he enrolled in the Lycée de Viticole de Beaune in Burgundy, France. Although he spoke not a word of French at the time, Shaps refused to let that keep him from studying France's winemaking customs and traditions first-hand.

"There's a whole art aspect of winemaking and its cultural impact. You can't learn that at UC Davis. You have to learn that from people who have been doing it for centuries," he says.

With his new degree in hand, Shaps came home in 1991 with job offers from several wineries on the west coast. But he eventually chose to take the more arduous path once again by putting down roots in the less-proven soils of Virginia.

While helping nurture the Old Dominion's wine scene for the last decade, he has continually found that the Commonwealth yields wine every bit as good as those made elsewhere in the country. According to Shaps, the wine world is beginning to arrive at the same conclusion. "We do blind taste tests all the time," he says, "and people always prefer our wine. Word's already spreading; it's just a slow process."

Indeed, Shaps has been so successful in putting Virginia on the wine map that he's decided to return to his roots and open a winery with his former boss in Meursault, a small town near Dijon in Burgundy.

But fans of his Virginia wines needn't worry– Shaps isn't planning to change addresses. "I love France, but I couldn't live there permanently," he said. "What would I do without UVA football?"

Age: 41 and counting

Why here? Challenge. If you can make good wine in Virginia, you can make great wine anywhere else.

What's worst about living here? Hurricanes in September and over-development without adequate infrastructure

Favorite hangout? It will be VAvino in a couple of weeks.

Most overrated virtue? Abstinence [laughs]. I'll just leave it at that.

People would be surprised to know: I'm very sentimental, as my wife says.

What would you change about yourself? I'd be more patient, maybe take a breath every now and then.

Proudest accomplishment? Definitely my diploma from the Lycée de Viticole de Beaune, signed by France's minister of agriculture.

People find most annoying about you: I'm from New York. What else can I say?

Whom do you admire? I'd say all those who pioneered Virginia wine culture and winemaking, especially Chris Hill, who I've worked with for 10 years.

Favorite book? Two I've recently enjoyed: Cork Boat by John Pollack, and The Accidental Connoisseur by Lawrence Osborne, a couple of great real-life stories

Subject that causes you to rant? People who wear their religion and politics on their sleeve

Biggest 21st-century thrill? My Treo 650 World Phone

Biggest 21st-century creep out? The $650 billion current U.S. account deficit

What do you drive? My brother's '98 Nissan Pathfinder

In your car CD player right now: The Best of Louis Prima

 Next journey? Back to Rue de Forges in Meursault, France.

Most trouble you've ever gotten in? I'd be in trouble if I told you.

Regret: Not being able to spend more time with my brother Scott in New York, who's been battling ALS for the last five years.

Favorite comfort food: My mom's chicken soup and brisket

Always in your refrigerator: Arm & Hammer Baking Soda. Everything else comes and goes.

Must-see TV: I don't think there is such a thing, but I do enjoy Yankee highlights on ESPN when they win and Squawk Box in the morning.

Favorite cartoon: Anything in The New Yorker

Describe a perfect day. A cool crisp summer morning, breakfast trackside at Saratoga, followed by an afternoon of races and dinner at Hattie's Chicken Shack with my college buddies, of course.

Walter Mitty fantasy: It definitely would have been if Joe Torre had asked me to pinch-hit for Aaron Boone two years ago, and everyone in New England was calling me Michael Effin' Shaps.

Who'd play you in the movie? Since Groucho's gone, I'd say Billy Crystal.

Most embarrassing moment? Short, fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life.

Best advice you ever got? It's a Calvin Coolidge quote I received in France and helped me get through school: "Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent."

Favorite bumper sticker? "Bourgognes: L'âme des vin de la terre."

Michael Shaps