History of Red Newt Cellars
Red Newt Cellars is located on the east side of Seneca Lake in the hamlet of Hector in the Finger Lakes region of New York. Red Newt Cellars was founded in 1998 by David and Debra Whiting. Wine production was started with the 1998 vintage with a mere 1,200 cases of Chardonnay, Riesling, Vidal, Cayuga, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The first white wines were released at the grand opening of the winery and restaurant in July of 1999.
Debra and David have received recognition from local and regional press as well as from national publications such as Food and Wine, Nations Restaurant News, and Wine Spectator. Recently, Red Newt Cellars has been named among Wine & Spirits Magazine’s 2011 Top 100 wineries of the year. The Wine Spectator describes David and Debra as “untrammeled lovers of the Finger Lakes scene,” and it couldn’t be more true. David and Debra Whiting met in the late 1980s. At that time David was working as cellar master at a Finger Lakes winery while Debra was supervising microbiology labs at Cornell University. Following a passion for food and wine, David continued his oenological career as winemaker at three different wineries in the Finger Lakes. Debra’s path led her into a gourmet cheesecake business and then an upscale catering business. 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.
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. 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 Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon.
Debra Whiting was a visionary chef in the Finger Lakes wine growing region, and was a pioneering localvore chef before it was popular. The Bistro featured eclectic and seasonal menu changed about 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.
Her 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.
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. Debra Whiting Foundation has been formed to carry on Debra’s vision and commitment to wine, food, farms, families and community.
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.
Debra Whiting was a visionary chef in the Finger Lakes wine growing region. Her 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. With her life cut short on June 30th, 2011, the Debra Whiting Foundation has been formed to carry on Debra’s vision and commitment to wine, food, farms, families and community.
Evolution of Red Newt Cellars
Over the past three decades, there has been a revolutionary change in the Finger Lakes wine industry. Red Newt Cellars has been part of the most exciting era of there changes.
During the first 13 years of Red Newt, winemaker David Whiting and Chef Debra Whiting was a husband and wife, food and wine, team that rocked the Finger Lakes wine and food scene. They were part of the community that saw the region change from an emerging wine region to one that is firmly planted on the world stage. The food scene in the Finger Lakes changed as well: from just a few farmers and as few restaurants focused on local cuisine to a localvore wine and food mecca. Debra’s death in 2011 shook the entire region, and ushered in fundamental changes to Red Newt Cellars.
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.
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.
The menu today is local, simple and delicious. With a focus on hearty local lunch fare, Red Newt Bistro continues to source from local farms and makes 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.
In spring of 2023, Kelby purchases Lahoma Vineyard on the east side of Seneca Lake and has left Red Newt Cellars to pursue his next adventure with winemaker wife, Julia Hoyle.
Christina – Red Newt Lead Winemaker
Christina Zapel has joined Red Newt as our new Lead Winemaker. She comes to us with over 13 years of winemaking experience.
Growing up surrounded by food-loving Italians, Christina developed a passion for food, cooking, and the Italian way of enjoying meals surrounded by great company and great wine. This led her to New York University, where she graduated with a degree in Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health. Her path to winemaking took a few turns, but ultimately led her to Red Newt via The Hamptons and, for the past 12 years, Sonoma County, California. Her varied experience includes working for Wölffer Estate in The Hamptons, Flowers Vineyards and Winery in Healdsburg, CA, and most recently, as winemaker for Foley Sonoma in Geyserville, CA.
While eager to innovate and experiment with new techniques, Christina’s philosophy centers around minimal intervention in the cellar, with the goal of crafting wines that express a true sense of place. With a constant desire to take on new challenges, she is eager to dive into the Finger Lakes and make wine at Red Newt. When not at the winery, Christina enjoys spending time with her husband and daughter. She enjoys tending her extensive vegetable garden, hiking, going for canoe rides, and eating copious amounts of pasta.