Three Brothers Transforms What Winemaking—and Drinking—Can Be

When Three Brothers Wineries & Estates opened their doors 15 years ago, the Finger Lakes wine region was going through an awkward phase in its evolution.

Winemaking was largely still either a small-scale multi-generational family pursuit or a large-scale corporate project; the region had gained notoriety among the wine cognoscenti as an incredible source for cool climate wines, but the phrase “Finger Lakes” was not on the tip of anyone’s tongue.

These days? It’s a very different story—and it took forward-thinking entrepreneurs who were fluent in the emerging digital landscape to help land #FLX where it is today.

“The winery is really the brainchild of Dave and his wife Luann [Mansfield],” says the winery’s COO and president, Erica Paolicelli. “The concept was to open three different wineries on the same campus, all of which had very different personalities. I joined them as a partner when they shared the concept with me, and we agreed that there was an enormous opportunity to appeal to different types of people, and also to reach them in a new way.”

The Three Brothers Team (Photo Provided)

Paolicelli was fresh out of college, before the era of Instagram and TikTok, but just as Facebook was evolving  from being a college-students-only platform to becoming a community hub for all comers.

“Facebook was part of my everyday life then, but for most producers up here at that time, the digital landscape was a mystery,” she says. “They were making incredible wine, but they were the farmer, the vintner, sometimes the tasting manager. There was no bandwidth for learning how to market to people online.”

Three Brothers started small, around 5,000 cases. And Paolicelli insists that they were “green” when it came to building a classic wine business. But she understood how to reach younger consumers. While the vision for Three Brothers has evolved considerably, their initial instincts of appealing to a broad range of people—of offering a fun and relatable experience and of doing it all online—remained the same. 

Paolicelli admits that building a community of engaged followers, and remaining top of mind, is a full-time job. 

“We have a full-time marketing person in-house, and we’re thinking of hiring another,” she says. “We are thinking all of the time about our audience. What do they want now? And how can we help grow with them in the next 10 years? It’s a very different audience on Facebook, Instagram and TikTok, and we need to be reaching different types of people on each platform.”

She says that she’s seen the entire region’s approach to social media change. 

“A lot of winemakers are now realizing that they need someone else to do outreach,” Paolicelli says. “I love seeing that because I want the entire region to succeed, to keep drawing new visitors, and returning guests.”

Three Brothers certainly has their share of visitors. On the weekends May through October, they’ll seat anywhere between 500 and 1,000 people a day for tastings. 

The winery’s 47-acre estate farm and property are anchored by three wineries. Stony Lonesome Wine Cellars serves classic vinifera wines from an elegant tasting room with views of Seneca Lake. The Passion Feet Wine Barn, on the other hand, is more laid-back. Labels are inspired by bold women who have made their mark on history—from Rosa Parks to Annie Oakley. The wine is fun and unpretentious—though many visitors gravitate to the housemade wine slushies and spritzers. Bagg Dare Wine Company’s vibe was full-on party, with a bayou style tasting room and sweet wines. Bagg was destroyed in December of 2021 by an accidental fire, but no one was injured, and as the tasting room is being rebuilt, a temporary Bagg has been erected.

Diversity is clearly part of Three Brothers’ strategy, and Paolicelli says that soon after opening, they started making hard cider. A year later, a brewery followed, and they created a separate production facility and tasting room for Bombshell Hard Cider and War Horse Beer. While the brand has a lot going on—there’s also Iron Heart Craft Soda—the spirit is unified. 

“Everything is here,” Paolicelli says. “You can come here with a group and find something for everyone.”

Before COVID, Paolicelli says, the parking lot was clogged with limos and party buses.

“COVID changed everything,” she says. “When we were allowed to welcome people back, we had to take a different approach. And we discovered that we preferred it.”

Now, groups of people come, but not in buses. Tastings are sit-down only. 

Their mode of selling wine has changed too.

“We already had a community of 40,000 engaged fans on Facebook, so it was just a matter of reaching them,” she says. “Our online sales increased 100-fold during COVID, and while they’ve gone down somewhat, we’re determined to keep that as part of our business model.”

Three Brothers was recently honored with the New York Wine & Grape Foundation’s Winery Award, in recognition of its major contributions to advancing the image and reputation of the New York wine industry, something that caught the team off-guard.

“I was shocked to be completely honest,” Paolicelli says. “It feels particularly special because we are celebrating our 15thanniversary in September, and we just got through that terrible fire.”

The award is a nod to their inspiring past, poignant present and delicious future. We’re excited to see how Three Brothers continues to elevate, challenge and inspire the New York wine world.

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About the Unity Awards

The Unity Awards were created in 1990 as a way to recognize, encourage, and celebrate cooperation among grape growers, wineries (and their staff), researchers, retailers and others to advance the entire industry. The winery and grower community in New York state has a rich history of working and succeeding together despite facing a variety of challenges through the years. Recognizing the longstanding and bold spirit of our community members and their numerous achievements, the New York Wine & Grape Foundation is proud to continue honoring industry leaders & champions of New York wine for more than 30 years.

Click here to learn more about more 2022 award winners!

Picture of Kathleen Willcox and Robin Shreeves

Kathleen Willcox and Robin Shreeves

Kathleen Willcox and Robin Shreeves' work frequently appears in Wine Enthusiast, Wine Searcher, Wine Industry Advisor, and many other publications. They co-founded Thinking Outside the Bottle, which provides communications services to the drinks industry.