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.

With the winemaking under Kelby’s direction, connections with our growers, and focus on the individual expressions of distinct vineyard sites became our priority. Today Kelby oversees the production of a stable of single vineyard designated Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris as well as limited quantities of Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. In 2013 Kelby and Red Newt launched the “Kelby James Russell” winemaker signature series of wines. The first release was the KJR Cabernet Franc Rosé – a single vineyard selection from “Nutt Road Vineyards” on the west side of Seneca Lake. Red Newt’s reputation and distribution continues to grow with wines now available in most north-eastern states, select states in the midwest. Farther afield, find Red Newt in California, Belgium and the UK.

Kelby James Russell – Red Newt Winemaker

Kelby Russell was born and raised immediately north of New York’s Finger Lakes Wine Region. After High School, Kelby attended Harvard University and received his Bachelors degree in Government with a minor in Economics. Having learned enough about both of these disciplines to realize he wanted no part in either, Kelby returned to his native Finger Lakes to pursue a wine industry career in the Finger Lakes.

As luck would have it, Kelby landed on the doorstep of Fox Run Vineyards and legendary winemaker Peter Bell the first day of harvest 2009. Despite expecting a formal interview and arriving in his Sunday best, Kelby quickly found himself covered in grape skins and realized he never wanted to leave. Kelby would continue to work for the next three years at Fox Run Vineyards learning invaluable lessons about winemaking, vineyard management, and life from Peter Bell, vineyard manager John Kaiser, and owner Scott Osborn.

While working at Fox Run, Kelby began taking annual ‘vacations’ to work additional harvests in the Southern Hemisphere. Kelby cut his teeth as a supervisor while learning the intricacies and non-intricacies of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc at Whitehaven Winery in Marlborough. The following year he worked at Pipers Brook Vineyards/Kreglinger Estates, a long standing Tasmanian producer of single vineyard Pinot Noirs and traditional method sparkling wines. Kelby finally reached the Australian mainland the next year as Nightshift Red Winemaker at Yalumba Winery’s premium production site in the Barossa Valley; giving him experience with remarkable quality and old-vine red grapes from across Australia that he will never forget.

Kelby returned from Australia to take a permanent position at Red Newt Cellars and Bistro on Seneca Lake in Hector, New York. He now serves as Winemaker at Red Newt Cellars and treasures the opportunity to work at a ‘Riesling House;’ striving to make Finger Lake rieslings a part of dinner tables from the everyday to diverse single vineyard bottlings. Red Newt’s continued work with fantastic growers of Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, and Bordeaux varietals ensures that the cellar is always busy and always fun.

At both Red Newt and Fox Run, Kelby has been thrilled to work on the Tierce Riesling project between those two wineries and Anthony Road Winery. Along with this exciting collaboration Kelby has contributed to the wines of the new vineyard project Boundary Breaks, particularly the “Reserve 198” bottling that highlights the low alcohol style of riesling he will forever chase.

Kelby is a member of the Eastman Rochester Chorus, where he sings Tenor and continues his lifelong passion for music. This previously meant jazz saxophone improv during High School, major leadership roles within the Harvard Glee Club during college, and has always meant listening to any and all genres of music he can find – often to the confusion and consternation of those around him. His other hobbies include eating, running to balance out the eating, and golf.

In a refrain common to teenagers everywhere, Kelby never expected to return home again after heading towards the big city lights of Boston. He now lives in Geneva, New York and is a proud member of the Finger Lakes community.