Story by Sarah Thompson / Photos by Heather Ainsworth
In 2018 Finger Lakes wineries faced one of the most challenging growing seasons in recent memory; many vineyards saw heavy disease pressure from sour rot and Downy mildew, two common grapevine diseases. Silver Thread Vineyard on the east side of Seneca Lake was no exception. To deal with it, winery owners Paul and Shannon Brock did what they always do during harvest: walking the vineyard daily, picking fruit as needed and dropping damaged grapes.
The couple kept an especially close eye on one Riesling block they’d been farming differently from the rest. In the end, the fruit from this block was “pristine” with no split skins or rot. What made it so special? Paul and Shannon had spent the last three years farming it using only biological disease and pest controls as part of their painstaking nine-year transition to biointensive viticulture. As Paul says, nothing is fast.
IN THE SOIL AND THE VINE
The goal of biointensive viticulture is to create a strong ecosystem on the farm by rebuilding soil organic matter, restoring soil and ecosystem biodiversity, improving the water cycle and drawing down carbon from the atmosphere. A stronger farm ecosystem improves vines’ natural immunity to diseases and pests. So, a living vineyard— one buzzing with bees, blooming with native plants and teeming with worms and microorganisms—is a healthier one that makes better wine.
When the Brocks began their biointensive journey, they were already deeply entrenched in the Finger Lakes wine industry. Paul had been winemaker at Lamoreaux Landing Wine Cellars and is now the head of FLCC’s Viticulture & Wine Technology associates degree program. Shannon, who holds a Level 4 Diploma in Wine, was leading the New York Wine and Culinary Center’s (now NY Kitchen) wine education, tasting and buying programs. They bought Silver Thread in 2011, eager to become part of the story of the region’s rise. But the new venture was rife with uncertainty, the original owner producing just 700 cases from nine acres of vinifera grapes.
“When we bought the vineyard, it was underproducing,” says Shannon, the winery’s general manager. “We really care about the Finger Lakes wine industry, that was our main driver for doing this.”
Paul and Shannon knew they needed to do things differently. Slowly, they began the process of renewing their vineyard’s ecosystem in the service of making sustainable world-class wines. They replaced chemical herbicides with undervine cover crops, and stopped hilling up each winter to reduce soil degradation and erosion. In 2015, the winery building went 100% solar.
Then three years ago, Paul started a pilot biological spray program in single vineyard blocks. Instead of synthetic chemicals, he used improved organic and newer materials made from extracts of plants, fermentations, bacterium or yeast. This year he’ll add compost under the vines, and chickens to eat insects and fertilize as they go.
“What you get in
the bottle is an
expression of the
vintage. I try to
make the most
I can, getting
the most flavor
potential out of
what comes in.”
As you’d expect from someone who prefers the term “winegrower,” Paul makes wines that are clean and unapologetically vineyard driven.
“What you get in the bottle is an expression of the vintage,” he says. “I try to make the most complex wines I can, getting the most flavor potential out of what comes in.”
To do this, Paul prioritizes clean fruit and closely watches fermentation. But once fermentation is complete, he says his job is done. He doesn’t clarify his wines, add sugar or adjust acidity. And oak is a spice rather than main ingredient since he uses only decade-old neutral barrels. Yet blending still plays a big role; Paul’s dry Riesling will have eight or nine components made from separate fermentations of grapes harvested at different times and from different blocks.
This highly varied, hands-on winemaking approach engenders a strong sense of community and place at Silver Thread, which Shannon says customers are drawn to. Consumers today increasingly want to know the provenance of their wine and what goes into making it. To expand Shannon’s ability to provide a deeper education about what’s in the bottle, Silver Thread opened a new VIP Wine Cellar tasting room where guests can sample library, limited-release and other special wines not available in the regular tasting room.
“Our Phenology [wine] club members like us and they like this place,” Shannon says. “Paul and I have never regretted making this choice.”
By all accounts, the Brocks have achieved what they set out to do, renewing their vineyard to make wines that have received several 90+ point ratings in top wine publications. In a culmination of their sustainable efforts, Paul and Shannon will soon manage their entire vinifera vineyard biointensively.
“We’re always trying to get better,” Paul says. “But we’re very optimistic.”
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Sarah Thompson is a writer, certified yoga teacher and vineyard owner in Penn Yan. She is the author of Finger Lakes Wine Country (Arcadia, 2015).
Heather Ainsworth is a regular contributor to a myriad of publications and serves as chair of the National Press Photographers Association’s NY/Int’l region.