After my visit to Ravines and a quick lunch, I headed up to Silver Thread Vineyard, which is under new ownership since being purchased by the husband-and-wife team of Paul and Shannon Brock. Paul, 36, is the former winemaker at Lamoreaux Landing and he also currently teaches viticulture and winemaking at Finger Lakes Community College. He accentuates the professorial background with his tussle of wiry black hair and thin-rimmed glasses. Shannon, 35, was wine educator at the New York Wine & Culinary Center in Canadaigua, so she also knows what it's like to stand at the head of a class and educate others about wine, and she commands attention with her bright, vivacious personality.
The couple, high-school friends who grew up together in Saratoga Springs, got the wine bug early in life while both pursued other careers in Washington, D.C. After going their separate ways through college, they reconnected, married (they have two children) and eventually decided to get into the wine business and feed their passion. They weaned their initial love of wine with regular trips to the Finger Lakes, and being not that far from Saratoga Springs, it seemed the logical plan to move to the region and put down roots.
Housed in the tiny winery down the end of a dirt road, Silver Thread was an enigma before the Brocks bought it. A small estate (just 27 acres, with 7 acres of vines in production) that was basically a one-man show under the previous owner, Richard Figiel, the property was worked organically, but the wines were often riddled with problems, such as brettanomyces, volatile acidity or other faults of shoddy winemaking. However, the turnaround here has been quick and dramatic, with the lineup of 2011 Rieslings providing some outstanding quality.
The Brocks assumed control halfway through the 2011 season and immediately began changing the vineyard's canopy, to allow for a full canopy and thus slightly higher yield. The site itself, next door to Shalestone, is on very shallow soils, resulting in low natural vigor, so higher yields are a relative thing here. The density, with quite a few missing vines, needs to be raised as well. In 2011, the Brocks brought in just 10 tons of fruit from 7 acres of vines. While low yields can mean higher quality, at a certain point they can be too low, providing diminishing returns and an inability to be financially viable. The couple produced just 1,500 cases in 2011 and will make 2,000 in 2012. They're aiming for a maximum of 3,000 cases in five years.
"With full canopies, you get more efficient production while still maintaining ripening," said Shannon. "Getting the vines into full production was the first big step here. It's a process, but it's definitely better this year than it was last year."
Despite the work needed to get the vineyard running at full speed, one of its pluses is its strong health, with some 30-year-old vines at the top of the vineyard still in production (old for Finger Lakes standards). In addition, the Pinot Noir is planted to Dijon clones, also rare for the area, as many of the early Pinot Noir clones in the Finger Lakes are Champagne clones (better-suited to sparkling-wine production and not generally as well-suited for still wine as the Dijon clones).
"Definitely because they were pruned so short, that has helped them survive. They've still got lots of energy to give," said Paul as we stepped over the electrified wire to ward off dear from the vineyard. Inside, rows of Cab Franc look ripe and healthy—where there are bunches. The lower-hanging bunches are often stripped to the stems thanks to turkeys, foxes, racoons and other critters.
"That's the Finger Lakes for you," said Shannon. "We've got it all here."
Inside the small vinification area, the Brocks showed me one of their housewarming gifts. Tacked inside a closet door is a hand-drawn map of the vineyard left by the previous owner, noting which varieties are in which rows—some rows have more than one variety planted. There are also a few scrawled notes as to some areas of the vineyard that might have some problems, where the drains are, etc.
"He did everything by himself and pretty much by hand, so we didn't have a lot to go on. I'd worked with some fruit from here previously so I had some familiarity with the place, but it's been a mystery for sure trying to piece together how everything was done here before," said Paul.
The Brocks have also changed the viticulture from the previous owner's organic methods, though they still aim to be sustainable.
"You can be sustainable in a better way than being organic," said Paul, the teacher side in him showing through. "I can use synthetically derived compounds in the vineyards that are basically biodegradable the moment they hit the ground. In organics, for example, the use of copper is a real detriment to the vineyard as it takes forever to wash out of the soil."
When it comes to winemaking, Paul combines both a technical approach and a willingness to be hands off.
"I'm not against back-sweetening," he said when discussing one of the winemaking techniques the region is known for. "Scientifically, there should be no reason why it doesn't work just as well. It's just glucose and fructose. But ultimately I'd rather not. I like to tinker, but ultimately I want to stay out of the way. However, I'm not a 'natural winemaker.' That school of winemaking has basically ruined lots of good grapes. I give each lot a chance to do something different and maybe tinker as needed. Ultimately the idea is to get the vineyard into the bottle out of respect for the grower."
Along those lines, the Brocks have three single-vineyard bottlings, though only 23 cases were made of each.
"The single vineyards are the individual instruments. The 'dry' bottling is the orchestra," said Paul. "I like to show what the single vineyards bring, so I keep some separate, but I really like to put the components together and make the best possible wine I can make that way."
Sourced from the parcel closest to the lake but on shallow soils, resulting in it being the warmest spot but lowest yielding, the Riesling Seneca Lake STV Estate Vineyard 2011 is intense, with piercing chamomile, slate and quinine notes that are long and intense. Sourced from purchased fruit, the Riesling Seneca Lake Doyle East Seneca Vineyard 2011 features deeper soils but is in a cooler spot, and the wine shows more apple, blanched almond and white cherry notes. Equally distinctive is the Riesling Cayuga Lake Randolph O'Neill Vineyard 2011, sourced from a naturally vigorous but east-facing site (as opposed to the two warmer west-facing Seneca vineyard sites). It offers the highest-toned profile, with lots of talc, white ginger and blanched almond flavors and the boniest feel of the three. All three vineyard sources provide lots which make up the blend for the Riesling Finger Lakes Dry 2011, which pulls together a range of quince, slate, pear and jasmine notes with a long, tangy and mouthwatering finish. Though it's the entry-level Riesling in the portfolio, there are just 275 cases made.
It's an impressive start for the Brocks and their new winery. They will have their challenges managing the low vigor of their site, but they clearly have a bead on smart, skillful winemaking. And with the tiny production, they'll be able to maintain control over the fine details. The wines won't be easy to track down, but Silver Thread is one of the region's new wineries worth seeking out and keeping an eye on.
Chad Dikun — NJ — October 10, 2012 11:36pm ET
David A Zajac — Akron, OH — October 12, 2012 9:14am ET
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