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

Continuing up Route 414 to Hector Wine Company and Standing Stone before tasting the 2010 reds and whites at Red Newt
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Jul 13, 2011 2:42pm ET

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

From there it was off to Red Newt Cellars, which took a major blow last 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.”

Whiting has taken the most aggressive approach to vineyard designated 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.

You can now follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at http://twitter.com/jmolesworth1.

Bill Andreotti
Aurora, IL USA —  July 13, 2011 6:26pm ET
James, great blog as usual. My girlfriend and I had dinner at Red Newt last Thursday. The Ravioli was indeed awesome - one of my favorite appetizers of all time. Also had the pork tenderloin entree, which was great. I liked the casual, but friendly and attentive service. The bistro manager (perhaps a Whiting family member?) stopped by everyone's table not only to check on things but to inquire as to what wines people were drinking. I would absolutely dine there again if I'm in the area again. I thought the prices for the quality of food were a bargain.
David A Zajac
Akron, OH —  July 14, 2011 9:01am ET
Glad to hear things are moving forward with Dave and Red Newt, I can't imagine how difficult it must be, but if anyone has the ability with their tremendous staff they would be it. I can't wait to get back there in October...however, it will definately be bitter-sweet.
Anthony Brade
Toronto —  July 15, 2011 10:56am ET
James, why not head over the bridge into Niagara and sample some of what Ontario has to offer? Lots of good riesling, chardonnay, cab franc and pinot up here as well as some good restaurants.

Plenty of notables worth checking out incl Clos Jordanne, Hidden Bench and A Foreign Affair (their 100% appassimento cab franc from 2007 is an outstanding wine).

I imagine that your many Ontario-based subscribers would like to see more reviews of our local wines.

Best,
Anthony

James Molesworth
Senior Editor, Wine Spectator —  July 15, 2011 12:36pm ET
Anthony: Thanks for the heads up, but I don't cover Canada. That's actually my colleague Beuce Sanderson...
Anthony Brade
Toronto —  July 18, 2011 6:58pm ET
Yes I know :) ... just envious to see the Finger Lakes get a second entertaining and informative road trip while Niagara hasn't had the same level of attention from WS .. plus musing that the two regions would logically work as a single portfolio ... Maybe you can put in a good word for us with BS.
Michael Mammanna
Amherst,N.Y. 14226 —  July 21, 2011 8:39am ET
James, It's wonderful to see such a noticeable upswing in the quality of the wines being produced in the Finger Lakes. I have been traveling through this beautiful part of the state on and off for the better part of 15 years and it feels as though the true potential of this exciting region is finally becoming apparent especially with the introduction of so many single vineyard designations. With the vines gaining age and the weather patterns changing to warmer trends, it will be interesting to see what future vintages may bring.
Matt Ferrell
Delaware, OH —  July 31, 2011 8:08pm ET
As always James, thanks for the report. My wife and I toured the area last week. I haven't been to the region since 2007, and other than the discernable increase in quality, I noticed a trend toward single vineyard dry bottlings (with the top producers). Do you see dry riesling as the way to go in the finger lakes?
James Molesworth
Senior Editor, Wine Spectator —  August 1, 2011 7:39am ET
Matt: Glad you enjoyed your visit there and have seen the progression over recent years.

For certain, Riesling is the lead variety, though there are other aromatic whites such as Gewürztraminer that show promise and there have been some good reds.

Regarding Riesling in particular though, you may be interested in this previous column: http://www.winespectator.com/magazine/show/id/41714
Chris Pierce
N. Olmsted, OH —  August 5, 2011 5:53pm ET
Just returned today after a 3 day trip with my wife.
We managed to visit quite a few of the wineries mentioned in this years reports. We were quite pleased
with many of the wines from Keuka Lakes, Ravines, HJ Weimer, Shalestone, Damiani, and Bloomer Creek (they were closed, but the owner let us try a few reds which we liked). Please keep up the reports for this area. Many of the winemakers were keen on the 2010 reds that they had in the barrel.

Thanks for getting the word out on many of the great producers in this area.

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