Day in the FLX – James Molesworth

Day 2 in the Finger Lakes: Red Newt Cellars and More

With the Stonecat Café next door to Bloomer Creek winery, it was easy to decide on my lunch spot on my second day of visits in the Finger Lakes. It remains one of the best dining spots around, with an eclectic menu (orange fennel sausage) that relies heavily on locally sourced ingredients. The casual back deck is a great way to unwind midday. The wine list is modest in size but features the top local names. Hours are quirky though, (especially off season) so call ahead for a reservation.

After lunch, I continued up Route 414, popping my head in at the new Hector Wine Company, which was started just this past fall by Jason Hazlitt (of the well-known grapegrowing family which owns the Sawmill Creek Vineyard) and Justin Boyette, the former assistant winemaker at Atwater Estate.

I dropped in on Marti Macinski at Standing Stone too and as we walked the rows of her expanded Saperavi plantings, husband Tom buzzed up on his motorbike.

“Are all the tractors working?” asked Marti with her infectious laugh.“So far,” said Tom. “But the day is young.”

Red Newt Cellars

Debra Whiting, Finger Lakes Chef
Debra Whiting, chef 1959 – 2011

From there it was off to Red Newt Cellars, which took a major blowlast week with the passing of the bistro’s chef and owner, Deb Whiting. Her memorial service on Tuesday night a week ago saw an overwhelming display of community and wine industry support, with attendees saying easily 1,000 people showed up. The receiving line to comfort Dave Whiting and the couple’s two sons stretched out the winery and down Tichenor Road.

Despite the tragedy, assistant winemaker Brandon Seager said I was more than welcome to keep my appointment. The Whitings have assembled a strong team and both the winery and bistro are moving forward with a positive attitude.

“As terrible as the past week was, it’s shown how great this area is. Our neighbors are our friends,” said Seagar. “I just called Atwater [a winery down the road] for some help on the bottling line and someone came right over. We’re a close-knit family, so pain is more painful, but joy is also more joyful.”

Seager, 34, joined the winery in 2007, after finishing up a winemaking and viticulture degree at Cornell. After wrestling the bottling line into running properly (they are notoriously fickle machines), he grabbed a box of tank samples and we headed upstairs to taste.

“2009 was pitiful for other things but great for Riesling,” said Seager. “Then along comes 2010 and it looks like its going to be great for everything, but we trip at the end with some rain, and low and behold, it’s Riesling that comes out on top again.”

Red Newt Riesling Lineup

Whiting has taken the most aggressive approach to vineyarddesignated bottlings in the Finger Lakes, working with numerous growers as well as estate fruit to produce a rapidly expanding line of wines that has arguably done more to show off the Finger Lakes’ varying terroir than any other winery, and it shows again in the 2010 lineup we tasted through.

The 2010 Riesling Reserve is tight and taut, with lime, kiwi pulp and a strong slate finish that will need to unwind a little. The 2010 Riesling Sawmill Creek Vineyard is mouthfilling, with loads of jasmine, green plum and lime and a long, juicy finish while the 2010 Riesling Tango Oaks Vineyard (a new addition to the lineup in 2010) is juicy and ripe as well, but with more apple fruit and the most open-knit finish of the three.

The Tango Oaks, owned by the Wickham family, which ran their eponymous winery in the Red Newt facility before the Whitings bought it and changed it, was picked earlier according to Seager, and it sports 5 percent residual sugar but has ample acidity with a pH under 3.

“It’s really medium-sweet, analytically, but it does come off as closer to off-dry in perception,” he said. “The sweetness of Rieslings is clearly an issue for the region as we figure out what we’re doing. We’re making more dry Rieslings than before, but they’re not as dry as they were in the past. I think a bit of sweetness really helps the aging. The bone-dry ones just never seem to open up down the road,” he said.

As I looked up, there was Dave Whiting, looking a little banged up for sure, but managing a smile. It was an emotional meeting for sure, he managed to sit for a few minutes. When he asked my opinion on the three Riesling bottlings, I described their differences, rather than giving away my personal preference.

“That’s not an answer,” he said chuckling. “And of course I know you wouldn’t give me one.”

Whiting understandably has to cut it short, but it’s great to see him.

Seagar poured out two Gewürztraminer samples, starting first with the 2010 Gewürztraminer Sawmill Creek Vineyard bottling, which has lots of bold lychee, grapefruit oil and green fig notes and a big juicy finish.

“This might get a little fining since it has some rough phenolics around the edges,” said Seagar, as the finish does sport a little aggressive edge (and it checks in at a noticeable 14 percent alcohol). “But normally we don’t really touch the wines much before bottling.”

The 2010 Gewürztraminer Curry Creek Vineyard bottling is more focused, with tighter pink grapefruit, rosewater and spice notes and a lingering green almond edge on the finish, which has clearer definition than the muscular Sawmill Creek sample.

We also tasted the 2010 Cabernet Franc, which has light, unadorned cherry and pomegranate notes, as well as the 2010 Viridescens, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot which shows inviting plum and loganberry fruit and a lightly toasted vanilla edge. Both are solid wines of potentially very good quality, and there’s a strong commitment to reds at Red Newt—but in the end, the whites are setting the pace here for the winery, and for the region as a whole.

No trip through the Finger Lakes is complete without a stop at Red Newt Bistro for dinner. Deb Whiting was always on hand to greet patrons and she was a very hands-on chef in the kitchen. Her menu changed often as it relied heavily on local ingredients (the list of area farms she sourced from was always listed on the bottom of the menu).

Her latest, and last, menu just hit the floor this week and her characteristic stamp is all over it. Her signature dish was arguably her ravioli, which always combined sweet and savory elements. Currently, it’s garlic and ricotta with blueberry. The savory elements melt in your mouth first for a mouthwatering start, then the blueberries, always whole and perfectly ripe, pop, evoking a caviar experience and leaving you with a lingering sweet yet fresh and racy feel. She will be sorely missed for sure, but kudos to the Red Newt team for keeping their chins up as they move forward.

The food is equally matched by the wine list, which is longer than ever, with the best of the Finger Lakes, as Dave seemingly can’t say no to buying his neighbor’s wines. On Thursday night, wines are half-price, so modestly priced wines become laughingly easy to buy, such as a rounded, plump, lemon verbena-filled Sheldrake Point Semi-Dry 2006 which winds up being only $13 a bottle.

Deb Whiting was a locavore before there was such a term. Now Dave is defining the locapour experience as well.

By James Molesworth – Wine Spectator Senior Editor, New York


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