Red Newt was founded in 1998

1998 – Seem like a lifetime ago.

Time.  It’s a funny thing.

Just last year, it sometimes seems, I was working as a hired gun winemaker dreaming of starting something that my wife and I could call our own.  We, or really she (Debra Whiting), had been building an upscale catering company as a segue out of a research career at Cornell.   That’s when we had this bright idea…

We had lived in Hector since 1989 just a couple of miles up the hill from the former Wickham Vineyards Winery.  The Wickham family first came to Hector around 1811 and have been fruit growers in the area ever since.  Around 1980 they decided to make their foray in to the wine business and did so with great gusto, building and equipping a winery that is today the main building at Red Newt Cellars.  It was truly a different world in the wine business back then. And with the challenges of dealing with the stigma of New York State wines, not to mention double digit interest rates, they were out of business within a few year,s and the building was languishing.  We had been searching for a spot and a concept for our gig, but never gave the old Wickham winery a thought.  Until one day… DING… it made perfect sense.  We took a trip down
to visit the owner and a vacant building.
old bistro photowarehouse turned tasting roombuilding exteriorold grap pressDesigned and built in 1980, it was a gem of 1970’s styling.  Long mono-slope roof with a spacious deck, rough cut stained interior paneling.  My favorite 70’s touch may have been the lights… round glass globes hanging at the peak of the dining room as well as under the balcony.  Note how the ones above are 50% larger then the ones below.  Kinda like the Disney Castle, but in reverse.  That’s where the Wickham’s had their tasting room.  The north end is were the wine production happened in the cellar.  And upstairs was the warehouse with concrete floors and no windows.  This is where our tasting room would come to live.  By the time we moved in, most of the tanks had been sold off, but some of the equipment was still on the crush pad.  This 60 ton refrigeration unit was part of the original setup, as was this state of the art (in 1980) Willmes bladder press.  I didn’t use the grape press.  It was in pretty rough shape and was sold by our landlords by harvest time.  We had a lean set of cellar equipment consisting of four 500 gallon tanks bought used from the Hazlitt’s.  Gerry Hazlitt had a local fabrication shop build them when he started Hazlitt 1852.  There were two 620 gallon tanks that we also bought (back) used which were two of the original tanks from the Wickham start up.  A half dozen barrels, one small pump (which we still use today) and some hoses.  That was it!  Grapes were pressed at Chateau Lafayette Reneau.  (I had been winemaker at CLR a few years before.)  I made some pretty nice wines that year… I drank what I believe to be the last bottle of 1998 Merlot in existence a couple of months ago at dinner with friends, and it was just plain great.  It reminds me that great wines are truly a product of fruit, passion and ingenuity!


Red Newt – Coming of Age in the FLX

So what does this mean?

Well, it was 21 years ago that I, along with my late wife and partner Debra Whiting, founded Red Newt… actually our first crush was the fall of 1998, but we opened the doors to the winery and bistro on June 27th, 1999.

A lot has happened since then.

In 2012, Kelby Russell joined the winemaking team.  By 2014 he had taken over primary responsibilities and set to assembling his current winemaking team of assistant winemaker Meagz Goodwin and cellarmaster James Anderson.   The wines of Red Newt remain true to our original goals of finding and expressing a sense of place.  And our original commitment to Riesling has become more intense.  On top of this, there are layers of insight and innovation from Kelby and his team that set Red Newt on the global Riesling stage.

For the first 13 years Debra was a pioneering leader of the farm to table food movement in the FLX.  After her  passing in 2011, the Bistro was in for an earth-moving change.  We continued at warp speed chasing the 100% localvore grail, elevating the dining experience and leading the region.  In 2014, being largely independent from the winemaking operation, I stepped into the kitchen to refocus and regroup. The bistro changed its face from a full service localvore restaurant serving lunch and dinner to an informal lunch spot… still utilizing meats and produce from our local farms, but serving delicious, informal food without fanfare. For the next five years the Bistro was in a holding pattern.  Albeit serving delicious lunchtime fare, but lacking longer term vision and goals.

This year, with the Bistro 21 years old, I have decided to step back into the kitchen and set the new course.  Debra Whiting’s last dinner service was in 2011. A few months before that she had finalized an agreement for publishing her cookbook. Debra’s passion was in the Bistro kitchen and she put a ton of work into it and her cookbook, which would chronicle over a decade of cooking at Red Newt. I’ll be taking the helm of the restaurant again and rolling out fresh new menus that reflect our passion for food. More importantly, 2021 will mark 10 years since Debra’s passing, and it is time to finish the project she started.

You’ll continue to see some recent favorites, but in addition you’ll be seeing new daily specials pulled from the Red Newt archives. Some of these delectably delicious dishes  will be exactly as you remember, some will be prepared as Debra “would have done.” If you dined in the Bistro in the old days and remember a favorite dish, please let me know. I hope you will come in often to visit, join us at our monthly Winemaker Dinners, and enjoy some new tastes and perhaps some fond memories from over a decade ago.


David Whiting – Red Newt founding winemaker