The strong link between food and wine in the Finger Lakes has been growing steadily over the years, and became especially apparent during the tragic passing of one of the region’s culinary ambassadors. Debra Whiting, executive chef and co-owner of Red Newt Cellars Winery and Bistro, died in a car accident June 30 that also injured her husband, Red Newt winemaker and co-owner David Whiting. The immediate outpouring of grief and shock resonated throughout the region. Deb and David were mainstays in the wine and culinary scene, and were among the earliest purveyors in the boutique movement that redefined the Finger Lakes wine region in the past 15 years.
As condolences, thoughts and prayers were conveyed to Dave and the entire Red Newt family, it became apparent to many that Deb represented a very real, authentic origin of the food-wine union that has come to define the Finger Lakes and many other wine regions. “Deb Whiting embodied the fusion of food and wine in the Finger Lakes because for her, it was never about an angle or a shtick, or following a trend,” says Evan Dawson, editor of the New York Cork Report and author of Summer in a Glass. “She did it because it felt natural to her, and she led the way long before the locavore movement was cool [“locavore” defined as one who eats foods grown locally whenever possible]. Sometimes you’ll hear marketing reps talk about highlighting this or that, suggesting that the local food movement or the food-and-wine movement is a nice trend on which to capitalize. Deb’s instincts were about what was natural and what was right, not what was immediately profitable.”
Such sentiments are echoed by Tina Hazlitt, part owner of the Finger Lakes Food Co. with Deb and Dave Whiting. Tina approached Deb several years ago about manufacturing verjuice (sold by Finger Lakes Food as VERJOOZ), a fruit juice first developed in the Middle Ages that is used to add acidic dimensions of flavor in the making of culinary sauces and dishes. Tina, also part owner of Sawmill Creek Vineyards, wanted Dave to make the verjuice from grapes, and Deb immediately saw the opportunity to expand her use of local ingredients. “Deb had a tremendous willingness to experiment and discover something new,” said Tina. “She put dishes with VERJOOZ on the menu, and even made a mousse with it. Deb didn’t just cook; she was always trying to educate people about she was doing.”
Dave Whiting will continue to make wine at Red Newt, and the bistro has re-opened with a new executive chef. Memories of Deb, however, will continue to inspire those in the industry who are trying to grasp what captures the imagination of a public that is increasingly demanding authentic flavors and experiences. “The chefs and winemakers of this region can learn from her legacy that says we can support this local connection first and foremost because it’s the right thing to do,” reflects Evan Dawson. “And if we’re authentic about it, there’s a good chance a customer base will follow.”
by Jason Feulner