Although numerous wineries are located in the Finger Lakes region, most of them are relatively new – at least by the standards of the international wine business. The Finger Lakes wine region expanded in several small waves throughout the 1980s and ’90s, with perhaps the largest period of growth after 2002. While some well-known wineries, like Dr. Frank’s and Wiemer, have been around a long time, many other popular wineries have been in business for less than 20 years, and even among that group, most only hit full production in the last few years.
The history of wine in the Finger Lakes is indeed a long one, but pioneers such as Guy DeVaux, Charles Fournier and Dr. Frank experimented with vinifera grapes and winemaking in a much smaller environment, trying to jumpstart the craft when large commercial production ceased after Prohibition. The Finger Lakes wine scene, as we know it, has long roots but is still actively sprouting. Wineries under their first owner are only now giving way to family descendants or buyers – a process that will further define the emerging region. The recent transfer of ownership at Silver Thread Vineyard, located on the eastern shore of Seneca Lake in Lodi, is a perfect example of the evolution of a Finger Lakes winery, from its founder to a new generation of owners eager to refine the business.
Richard Figiel planted his first vines in the early 1980s and founded the Silver Thread label in 1991. From the start, Figiel committed himself to organic practices and was well-known for his instinctual approach to viticulture and winemaking. As a technically-trained winemaker, Paul Brock appreciates Figiel’s commitment to his views, but seeks to refine the methods formerly used at Sliver Thread. “We believe in sustainable practices,” says Paul, “but we cannot stay totally organic.”
When the Brocks took over Silver Thread, the vineyard struggled to yield 1-1/2 tons per acre – that’s just under half of what typical vineyards can yield in the Finger Lakes even after selective pruning and thinning. Paul cites an over-reliance on strict organic practices for the vineyard’s decline, yet he is wary of becoming dependent on any one solution. Noting soil contamination at vineyard sites in Europe that have been using certain chemicals and compounds for decades, Paul believes in a cautious and sustainable approach to vineyard management.
Paul applauds Figiel’s early emphasis on vinifera, or European-style wines. “He planted Riesling and Chardonnay vines that he grafted himself,” says Paul. “Not a lot of people were doing that in the 1980s.” The Silver Thread vineyard is made up of vinifera vines that are 30, 18 and 7 years old, which attracted Paul to the site. “We want to make dry-style, vinifera-based wines,” he explains, “and this winery has been doing that since it was founded.”
Although Figiel found his stride in the 1990s, he did not grow the production levels significantly, and the facility lacks some important elements such as a press deck. Paul is investing in new equipment to bring the production level up from 1,500 cases to 3,000 cases within the next few years. While Paul stresses the need for the winery to “pay for itself,” he is adamant that the entire operation
THE WINE AND THE FUTURE
With a small lineup in the tasting room, the Brocks intend to keep the focus on just a handful of varietals, even as production levels increase. Sliver Thread currently offers several versions of Riesling (single-vineyard designations in addition to dry and semi-dry), Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, a white vinifera blend, dry rosé (Cabernet Franc), Pinot Noir and a Bordeaux-style blend called Blackbird (Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot).
Knowing that the 2011 harvest was a hurried affair for the Brocks, I was impressed by the quality of wine produced by Paul in less than ideal circumstances. The 2011 Dry Riesling is especially good, possessing a mineral underpinning that lingers on the finish and frames the fruit nicely. Both Paul and Shannon are excited about the potential of the 2012 crop, the harvest of which they had more control of the circumstances and quality.
Overall, the Brocks feel grateful that they have an opportunity to approach their winemaking dream as part of a transition. “Richard Fiegel did a great job starting Silver Thread and setting it apart from other vineyards,” says Paul. “We look forward to continuing on that path, however, with a slightly different focus of sustainability and high quality that expresses what the Finger Lakes has to offer.”
Shannon notes the challenges inherent in taking over an operation, but remains optimistic that the best days for Silver Thread are ahead. “The past year has been challenging in many ways – physically, emotionally, financially – but we feel well-prepared to be winery owners and have been able to hit the ground running. It will probably take us a lifetime to get the winery where we want it to be … but we’re well on our way already.”
Paul and Shannon Brock always dreamed of owning their own winery, but they knew enough about the wine business to realize how difficult ownership can be. Paul has a graduate degree in Enology and Viticulture from Cornell, and cut his teeth making wine at Ravines, Keuka Lake Vineyards and Whitehaven Wine Co. in New Zealand before becoming head winemaker at Lamoreaux Landing (he also currently serves as an instructor at Finger Lakes Community College in the Viticulture and Wine Technology program). Shannon served as a wine coordinator and educator at the New York Wine and Culinary Center.
“We knew how much money was involved in starting a new winery,” recalls Shannon. “We wanted to be really competitive in a short amount of time, but it takes time to get a new winery started.”
When the Brocks saw an article in Rochester’s Democrat and Chronicle about Silver Thread Vineyard and its owner Richard Figiel contemplating retirement, they saw a chance to acquire a winery and vineyard with the potential to produce wines right away under a known label. “The size was attractive,” says Shannon. At seven acres of vines and about 1,000 cases annual production, Silver Thread under Figiel was a small boutique winery with the potential to grow.
Despite the Brocks’ immediate interest in the winery, it took nearly two years to sign the purchase agreement as Figiel considered several options before relinquishing his role. The Brocks took over the winery in early September 2011 with just a few weeks to organize the production facility for the coming harvest. “When we took over during harvest, I had to bottle the 2010 wine in the cellar just to make room for the 2011 wines,” explains Paul. During that hectic initial period, Paul spent many nights sleeping at the winery on an air mattress.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
When they purchased Silver Thread, Shannon and Paul never considered changing the name of the winery. “In the 1990s, the winery received a lot of great press,” admits Shannon. “It’s always been dedicated to vinifera. And we heard from a lot of people that they liked the turtle,” referring to the Iroquois symbol that adorns the winery’s labels.
Instead of scrapping the name or label image, the Brocks simply enhanced the design and doubled down on Silver Thread’s long-term reputation. They view their acquisition of Silver Thread as an opportunity to build upon past success.
SILVER THREAD VINEYARD TIDBITS
Founded: 1991 (vineyard 1982)
Vineyard: 7 acres, including Riesling (2.2 acres), Chardonnay (1.2 acres), Gewürztraminer (1 acre), Pinot Noir (1.6 acres), Cabernet Franc (.5 acre), and Cabernet Sauvignon (.5 acre)
Annual Production: 1,500 cases (2011)
Winemaker: Paul Brock
Owners: Paul and Shannon Brock
Emphasis: Dry vinifera-based wine
Whites: Riesling (single vineyard, semi-dry, dry), Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, “Good Earth White”
Reds: Dry Rosé, Pinot Noir, “Blackbird”
1401 Caywood Road
Lodi, NY 14860
Winter Hours: Call for Appointment, See website for spring hours starting in April www.silverthreadwine.com
by Jason Feulner