By Tom Mansell, Science Editor
This series has provoked important conversations about biodynamics, organic growing, and sustainability. Organic grapegrowing should definitely be a part of this discussion, so just as I interviewed Alice Wise regarding organic viticulture in Long Island, the following is a profile of Richard Figiel and Silver Thread Vineyard in the Finger Lakes.
If you weren't looking for it specifically, you might not even know it was there. A small sign on Route 414, the Seneca Lake Wine Trail East, indicates that there is a Silver Thread Vineyard, but unlike many of the wineries on Seneca, it's not immediately off the main drag.
By the time you reach the bottom of a bumpy ride downhill on 3/4 mile of dirt road, you're convinced that you were in the wrong place -- except you see grapevines. Just before harvest began back in September, I journeyed out to Silver Thread to talk organic viticulture.
The winery itself is set into the hillside of a deep slope on the shore of Seneca Lake. I entered to find owner, winemaker, vineyard manager, and pretty-much-everything-else manager Richard Figiel in the cellar taking Brix measurements on gewürztraminer juice. The cellar was much cooler than the outside, even on one of few milder days of early September. Figiel immediately explained that the winery being practically underground provides natural temperature control for his fermentations, though the small wood stove (the winery's only heat source) is there for colder winter days.
Silver Thread grows riesling, pinot noir, cabernet franc, chardonnay and gewürztraminer, producing 1,000-1,500 cases per year in what is essentially a one-man operation. Figiel has been growing grapes at this vineyard since the mid-1980s, and organic production was always part of his vision. Long before organic was a buzzword (when, according to him, the only people interested in organic were "hippies"), Figiel saw organic grapegrowing as "a responsible way to farm."
Organic in the Finger Lakes
The winery was certified organic in 1992, but a change in the buffer zone requirements (i.e., regulations for proximity to conventional vineyards) caused it to lose its certification in the late 1990s. Nowadays, it seems that NOP certification is not really the highest priority, though Figiel's commitment to responsible growing has not gone away with the certification paperwork.
Organic practices are still the baseline here, with only small deviations.
For example, not long after the period where the vineyard was completely organic, grape leafhoppers had become a problem. These insects feed on grape leaves and in high numbers can cause significant damage to vines. A treatment with a pyrethrum-based insecticide took care of the leafhopper infestation, and they haven't been back since.
The familiar, groomed herbicide strips of the average vineyard are completely absent from Silver Thread. In fact, parts of the vineyard are downright wild. Figiel uses no spot herbicides, and his main tool for weed control is the grape hoe.
One of the biggest challenges of organic viticulture is control of fungus, and the biggest problems in this region are powdery mildew, downy mildew and botrytis. Without the luxury of conventional fungicides, organic growers turn to interesting alternatives.
JMS Stylet Oil, which Figiel uses to control powdery mildew, is a highly refined mineral oil, a by-product of the petroleum industry. Its specific mode of fungicide action is not entirely understood, but a possible explanation is the creation of a physical barrier between fungal spores and the air, making it difficult for them to germinate. Other explanations include disruption of fungus membranes and the activation of natural plant defenses. Stylet oil can be effective against powdery mildew and botrytis, but is not effective against downy mildew.
Also part of Figiel's toolkit is Serenade, a fungicide whose active ingredient is a strain of Bacillus subtilis, a bacterium known to be agonistic to fungus. He also uses sulfur (of course) and copper hydroxide, though his soils have not shown a significant increase in copper over the years. "Ideally, in a year, I won't use it at all," Figiel says regarding copper. (See Part 3 of this series for information on copper fungicides and soil health.)
Finally, horsetail grows wild on the site, and Figiel makes his own horsetail tea to spray for fungus control. Horsetail extract is rich in bio-available silica, which, as previously discussed in this series, has been shown to have fungicidal properties. It is also known as biodynamic preparation 508.
Regarding other biodynamic practices, Figiel composts pomace and local sheep and goat manure, and does add some biodynamic preparations to the compost, though biodynamics per se doesn't seem to be too important to him. You won't find horn silica or manure, and you won't find him consulting an astrological calendar for harvest days.
In the Winery
When it comes to winemaking, Figiel likes to keep it simple. No chemical yeast nutrients such as DAP are added. Most of his reds begin with wild fermentations, which are then finished off by inoculation with commercial yeasts.
As mentioned, temperature control is accomplished by the cellar itself. Slight additions of SO2 (20-30 ppm based on pH) and fining with bentonite are common, as is sterile filtration at bottling, a regional standard. Figiel characterizes his practices as "simple, rustic winemaking." I agree.
Silver Thread strives to be a winery that makes quality wines with as little impact on the environment as possible. This is evident in all aspects of the winery from the gravity-fed water supply, the meager wood stove heating, the natural temperature control of the cellar, and the commitment to organic viticulture. Figiel even dreams of replacing his tractor with horses to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Horses would also provide a ready source of manure for fertilization and compost.
In 2010, Silver Thread's viticultural regimen was strictly organic. Some readers might be surprised to learn that there is an as-organic-as-possible vinifera vineyard in the Finger Lakes, but Figiel is not going to be the one shouting from the rooftops.
In fact, if you weren't looking for it specifically, you might not even know it was there.
Dell et al., "The Efficacy of JMS Stylet-Oil on Grape Powdery Mildew and Botrytis Bunch Rot and Effects on Fermentation", AJEV, 1998
Resource Guide for Organic Insect and Disease Management: Oils https://www.nysaes.cornell.edu/pp/resourceguide/mfs/09oils.php