Silver Thread Vineyard was established in the early 1980’s on the site of an abandoned Catawba vineyard. Today, it consists of eight acres of premium wine grapes, including Riesling, Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The soil is shallow silt loam over shale rock. Watch our vineyard video here.
At Silver Thread, we follow a holistic, systems approach to farming. Healthy grapes can’t grow in a sterile environment. To make the best wine, grape vines need an entire ecosystem. It’s not enough for grapes to look clean and pristine, they must be structurally healthy and robust from the inside out. From the roots to the stems, leaves, and berries, vines need a population of helpful microbes to assist in fending off pathogens.
Our holistic approach to farming is analogous to the concept of probiotics in humans. Scientists estimate that 90 percent of the cells in the human body are non-human (bacteria, fungi and viruses). They help keep us healthy when the right balance is maintained. Overuse of chemical sprays in vineyards can kill beneficial microorganisms and thereby weaken the vines. This vicious cycle creates dependence on chemicals for grape production.
The cornerstone of our vineyard management strategy is healthy, living soil. We amend our soil with organic fertilizer, mulch hay and pomace (composted grape skins leftover from winemaking) to recycle nutrients that are depleted during the growing season. We add locally-produced biochar as a natural soil enhancement when planting new vines. We consciously minimize tractor traffic through the vineyard to avoid over-compacting the soil. Under our vineyard rows, we established a low-growing cover crop that improves nutrient and water availability to the vines and encourages a healthy microbial population.
In addition to providing healthy soil in which to grow, we strengthen the vines by other means, too. We cultivate native microflora in the woods around the vineyard and spray it on the vines annually. We spread teas and extracts from beneficial plants on the vineyard to support the vines.
There are very few successful wine growing areas that are as humid or get as much rainfall as the Finger Lakes. Despite challenging conditions, we use the best of both biology and chemistry to grow premium wine grapes each year. Some years are more difficult than others due to varying weather patterns.
Thanks to our under-row cover crop program, we are 100% organic and no-spray for weeds. Another environmental benefit of our weed management program is that it requires no tractor work (weed spraying or cultivation), thereby reducing our carbon footprint and soil compaction.
We strive to be 100% organic for insect control. Our main insect pest is grape berry moth, and thankfully there is an organic, biological spray available to control this pest. The spray is highly targeted (meaning it only affects the berry moth pest). It is a biological spray—a bacteria that grape berry moth larva eat that interferes with development.
Fungal Disease Management
Our first line of defense is to strengthen the vines to reduce their susceptibility to disease. This approach was described above, under Soil Health and Vine Health.
Secondly, we use cultural practices such as leaf pulling and canopy management to improve air flow around the ripening grapes. This helps them stay dry and reduces fungal infection. Also, netting is used to protect varieties that are attractive to birds and mammals. By protecting the grape skins from being punctured, the nets reduce entry points for fungal disease.
If, despite our prevention efforts, fungal infection is detected, our first preference is a biological spray. This method inserts a “good microorganism” to consume or out-compete a “bad microorganism.” If a biological method is ineffective or unavailable, our next choice is an organic chemical spray such as sulfur or copper (used sparingly). Finally, if absolutely needed to preserve the crop, we use non-organic chemical sprays. We pledge to use highly-targeted sprays whenever possible, to reduce impact on the environment, the lake and our employees and visitors. Many next-generation fungicides are both highly-targeted and biodegradable.
Again, consider the human health analogy. People try to keep healthy by eating well, exercising and other habits. But occasionally, everyone gets sick. A mild illness might call for extra vitamin C and rest, while more serious conditions require prescription medication. We care for the vines in a similar way, only introducing chemicals (i.e. medication) as a last resort to save the crop.
Is our approach organic? Biodynamic? Unfortunately, we can’t easily label ourselves. We’re using elements of organic and biodynamic viticulture as appropriate for our region. We call our approach Bio-intensive: production of outstanding quality fruit by combining scientific knowledge with a holistic, biological, systems approach. It is healthy for humans, the larger ecosystem and our vines. Our method has some overlap with but is not associated with Grow Biointensive, a program for gardeners and subsistence farmers.
Silver Thread was planted over 30 years ago and its original vines are still thriving. If we take good care, it will continue to bear fruit for a long time to come.