Bistro Part II – Striving to redefine

  • old bistro photo
  • dining room
  • bistro wine bar
  • red newt bistro 2014
  • bistro dining room
  • bistro dining room
  • red newt bistro panorama
  • red newt bistro 2020

Pushing the envelope

After Chef Debra Whiting’s passing in 2011, the Bistro pushed forward to continue to raise the localvore bar even higher, with literally 99% of everything in the Restaurant coming from the Finger Lakes. The only exceptions? Coffee, cocoa, black pepper, vanilla, cane sugar. That’s it. Connections with local farmers became stronger, and the commitment to innovation and excellence was unmatched. The region had so evolved from the early days that it seemed that “everything” could come from our neighbors… and it nearly did.

Finding a place

Since then, the Bistro has 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. As the needs of visitors to the region have changed, so has our service evolved into something more sustainable and in line with the needs of our guests. 

By 2014, David Whiting had passed the reigns of winemaking to Kelby Russell and shifted his focus to the Bistro. Having worked behind the scenes with Debra for 20 years did not qualify David to operate a fancy localvore restaurant, but it absolutely gave him the inspiration to parse the most essential aspects of Debra’s culinary goals and carry them forward with the pragmatism that made Debra’s efforts so successful: Focus on community, quality, and simplicity.

Looking to the future

Change and unpredictability are the words for 2020! This year David stepped back into the kitchen to launch a new lunch menu driven by local, seasonal specials.  With a focus on hearty local lunch fare, Red Newt Bistro continued to source from local farms and made the example that localvore does not have to mean fancy and expensive. What it does mean is that eating local is delicious, fresh, simple, and builds communities of farmers and producers whose lives are driven by passion. Planned monthly dinners were inspired by the localvore menus of the first 13 years of the Red Newt Bistro. “Honestly, the entire year would to serve as a ‘test kitchen’ for finishing the cookbook that chef Debra Whiting had started before she passed in 2011.,” mused David. But there has been a change. “The kitchen will remain closed until it is safe to reopen, and I hope to launch a new approach to making this test kitchen and cookbook happen in time for publishing in 2021. I’ll keep you posted.”

Winning the Governor’s Cup

new york times article - "Finger Lakes Riesling is new york wine star" august 24th, 2001

Wow. That was cool!

I do remember pretty well… Just two years after we had opened up the doors to the Winery & Bistro we had entered a few wines in the New York Wine & Grape Foundation’s state wide competition. The top award, best of show, was the “Governor’s Cup”. Especially in that era, the Governors Cup award was without question the most recognized and respected award in the world… at least with customers and retailers in upstate NY.

Well, I got the phone call from Teresa (or maybe it was Susan), at the NYW&GF to say “…your 2000 Riesling has been awarded the Governor’s Cup…” and I said “Great!” and finished the call with some pleasant chit chat. Then a few hours later, the phone began to ring.

At the time, our production was pretty small and we had just started selling our wine to just handful of stores. And we had recently released the 2000 Riesling, with a total of around 500 cases left. Well, by the time the phone stopped ringing a week or two later we had our wine in several hundred accounts and the Riesling was gone!! Wow. That was cool!!

The Winery Part 1

Dave’s Story

“The story really begins in the early eighties.  I had graduated from SUNY Binghamton armed with a freshly minted BS in biology.  I had not intentions at the time of continuing in grad school, and hadn’t really been hit over the head with any ambitious plans, so I loaded up everything I owned in my VW camper and started driving.  It was late November, as I recall, so my plan was to drive south until it got warm, then turn right.

During about a 6 month jaunt on the west coast squatting with parents and family, and travelling/living in my VW camper, I developed  and  returned to the Finger Lakes to follow my dream… to be in the wine business. Being dead broke, I secured a job in a local vineyard (actually a good place to start a career in wine) as a vineyard laborer. Jobs included ‘suckering,’  fruit thinning, pruning, pulling brush, digging holes, and so on. It didn’t pay much, but I do look back fondly on that kinder, simpler era of my life.”

Following a passion for food and wine, David continued his oenological career as winemaker at three different wineries in the Finger Lakes. David is one of the top winemakers in the Finger Lakes Region. His career spans three of the most exciting and progressive decades of the Finger Lakes wine industry, including winemaking at McGregor, Chateau Lafayette Reneau, Swedish Hill Vineyards, and Standing Stone Vineyards.

When the opportunity arose in 1998, David started wine production with the 1998 vintage and the following summer Debra opened the Red Newt Bistro concurrent with the first wine releases in June of 1999. Red Newt Cellars represented the achievement of David and Debra’s longtime goal to combine their efforts and expertise in the exploration of regional wine and cuisine. Their focus was on not only producing exceptional wines and food, but also creating a synergy between them. The current production at Red Newt Cellars is approximately 20,000 cases with the white wine focus on aromatic varieties: Riesling, Gewürztraminer, and Pinot Gris. “Circle” Riesling, Red Newt’s most popular and widely distributed wine, shows off a classic Finger Lakes style, expressing bright aromas of tangerine and honeysuckle and an elegant palate of citrus and peach. The wine – and the price – are great, and represent one of the best value Rieslings in North America. Red varietals include Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Pinot Noir.



Opening Day at Red Newt!

Wow, what a party!! So how did this ever happen? 

Well, it was a whirlwind to get ready for opening on June 27th in 1999.  We had made the wine, gone through the arduous process of getting a license, scraped enough enough money to buy equipment and make renovations.  (All of this from what could pragmatically be considered thin air) and worked our asses off.

building materieals arrivedWe started renovations in the tasting room just a few months before opening.  What a great day it was when we had the entire room in place… just not assembled:

We had gutted the future tasting room, which had been a bare bones warehouse with little insulation, insulated walls and ceiling, cut in doors & windows, installed new ceiling & lighting, hardwood floors, built a new exterior deck and painted the entire building inside and out.  I did pretty much all of the painting to the tune of 200+ gallons of paint!jeff richards head shot

So, a short while before we opened, a fella stopped by and asked something like “I hear your going to open a winery.”  I think that I had met Jeff Richards at one of my former winemaker jobs.  He was a jolly, disarming photographer and was the quintessential Finger Lakes (these days we’d say “FLX”) wine lover.  He also penned a regular wine column in the Gannet Newspaper.  We were thrilled to have the attention.  And were flabbergasted when on the day before we opened we saw our Newt on the front page and a generous spread inside:

opening day news article

It turned out to be quite a day. Hundreds of peeps, new and old. Lots of food, wine, music and cheer. Take a look at our album. Many of the folks are still friends, and there are many who are still familiar faces. If you see yourself, or one of your friends (21 years younger) give a shout out!

The Bistro Part I – Deb’s Story

Debra Whiting was a visionary FLX chef …

  • debra with mixing bowl
  • debra looking up
  • debra smiling
  • debra with ravioli
  • debra whiting with plate of food

…and was a pioneering localvore chef before it was cool. During the 12 years that Debra led the culinary team at Red Newt Bistro, she was a leader in the development of farm to table relationships that blossomed with the development of the burgeoning wine industry of the Finger Lakes. The Bistro featured an eclectic and seasonal menu that changed every three weeks.

The Bistro has been celebrated in its emphasis on building relationships with local farms and producers and fostering the concept and practice of regional cuisine.Debra’s passion was not just the food as it appeared on the plate, but the food as it grew on local farms, supported local farmers and communities, and offered a wholesome and rewarding lifestyle to an entire region. Drawing on her relationship with husband and winemaker David Whiting, the evolution of a truly inspired regional cuisine was developing on her plate.

As chair on the executive board of the Finger Lakes Culinary Bounty – an organization committed to increasing the awareness of regional products and developing relationships between regional chefs and farmers – Debra had seen the regional restaurant farm scene transform from a handful of local, sustainable farms to a region with dozens of farms producing greens, produce, meats, and artisanal cheeses.

In addition to her efforts in the bistro kitchen, Debra was very active in promotional activities and teaching. She presented at 171 Cedar Arts Center in Corning, NY and at the NY Wine and Culinary Center in Canandaigua, NY – both as lectures/demos and as hands-on workshops. In New York City she presented Master Classes at Vintage New York in Soho, and co-hosted “a Finger Lakes Regional Dinner” at the James Beard House in New York City.

Red Newt was founded in 1998

1998 – Seems 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