Red Newt Cellars Winery and Bistro
It's art and science combined
Brett C. Vermilyea
David and Debra Whiting opened Red Newt in 1998. The bistro was named the 2010 Finger Lakes Restaurant of the Year by the New York Cork Report. Debra is the chef.
In 1986, David Whiting graduated from Binghamton University with a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences and no idea what to do next. So he packed everything he owned into his ’71 Volkswagen bus and headed west.
He found himself in California wine country, spending summer days touring wineries and summer nights parked on the banks of the Russian River, warmed by a campfire and the wine he bought that afternoon. “You do that for a week or two when you’re 22 years old and you say, ‘Whoa, this is really cool; I think this wine business might be something to pursue.’”
But looking around California he saw people with extensive wine training working tasting rooms and tours. So he loaded his VW again and headed back home to the Finger Lakes, where the local wine industry was just starting to find itself.
“I came back broke,” he says. “So broke, in fact, that I remember pulling into a gas station and picking up the floor mats, scrounging for change to buy gas.”
Sitting in the bistro at Red Newt Cellars on the eastern shore of Seneca Lake, which he started with his wife, Debra, Whiting laughs at the image. “That could actually buy you some gas then.”
He quickly found work with McGregor Vineyard, whose experimental style meshed well with the biology major’s zeal.
“As a winemaker, especially a winemaker who is really interested in learning a lot about wine and vineyards, it was perfect,” he says. “Instead of making one or two Rieslings, for example, I could make 10 Rieslings and look at different plantings on the farm, different processes, different styles. The sky was the limit.”
It was the late ’80s and Whiting was in the vanguard of the Finger Lakes wine revolution. He was part of a community of experimental winemakers just starting to use vinifera grapes (European grapes cultivated in many varieties) such as Riesling and Cabernet Franc. Because a lot wasn’t understood about how these grapes fared in the region, the winemakers met regularly to share information and tips. Through the ’90s, they transformed the local wine industry from third-rate into one of the best, with Whiting helping establish the quality of Chateau Lafayette Reneau, Swedish Hill and Standing Stone.
“He’s just an excellent winemaker,” says Jim Trezise, president of the New York Wine & Grape Foundation, who, when reached by phone, said he had just opened a bottle of Red Newt wine for dinner that night. “The consistent quality of the wines David produces is really important. It’s terrific that somebody has been able to positively affect the region by having worked at several different wineries.”
By the late ’90s, Whiting decided to make wine for himself. So he and his wife, who owned an upscale catering company, raided their savings, borrowed money from family and took out a bank loan to open the Red Newt Cellars Winery and Bistro in 1998. It was both scary and exhilarating.
“I suppose it’s like skydiving,” he says, breaking into a laugh. “You jump out there and you go, ‘OK, this is going to work.’”
Today Red Newt produces 15,000 cases a year, and Wine Spectator has scored its wines in the 90s, a prestigious honor for any winery.
“Dave has had an amplifying effect in terms of getting the word out that the Finger Lakes is no longer an up-and-coming region, but a region that has arrived,” Trezise says. “The Finger Lakes is now recognized as the premier eastern wine region, and for Riesling wines the premier wine region of the country.”
Looking back at the times he was broke, back to when he was a student at Binghamton learning about biology with no endgame in mind other than knowledge for its own sake, Whiting sees how he was led into winemaking, how he found the perfect balance.
“It’s the right combination of art and science for me,” he says. “Science is really cool. And as a winemaker, I get to look at multiple permutations of processes in the handling of grapes, and I get to set up trials looking at different vineyards and yeasts and processes. If I were a scientist, I would have to follow these through all the way to the end and document them and write them up. But as a winemaker I can take them part way and say, ‘Wow, I’ve really learned something here.’ And then forget all the paperwork.” He laughs again. “I get to do the fun part.”