By Evan Dawson, Finger Lakes Wine Correspondent
Photo Courtesy of Dave Whiting

CirclerieslingDave Whiting does not simply want Red Newt to survive. He wants it to thrive, and he admits that it's tougher now than ever.

"Ten, twenty years ago you could open a winery in the Finger Lakes, open the doors, and be viable as long as the wine was decent," Whiting said after bottling a wine that he thinks will make a serious impact in markets outside New York state. "Now, with more wineries opening and production rising, you have to find ways to differentiate yourself. I don't just want to increase production. I want to focus on what I believe we do best, and before anything else, that's riesling."

So here's Red Newt's blueprint:

  1. Crank up riesling production.
  2. Offer it at a price point to compete with high-volume producers such as Chateau Ste Michelle and Covey Run.
  3. Make it better than those high-volume producers.
  4. Ditch the marginal wines, otherwise known as chardonnay and sauvignon blanc for Red Newt.

If this works, it could become the model for other mid-size Finger Lakes wineries.

Red Newt's riesling production is jumping from 800 cases in 2007 to 2800 cases in 2008, and it should rise to well over 8000 cases within four years. Whiting has contracted plantings with several local growers, and there are now 20 new acres of Riesling in the ground, all of it earmarked for Red Newt.

The winery will still produce a Dry Riesling and the Reserve Riesling will sell for around $22, but most of the Riesling production will be devoted to the new, so-called "Circle Riesling" — the unofficial name is a kind of joke at the winery that comes from the circular label on the bottle. 

"We think this wine is a breakout wine that will compete extremely well with wines from other regions," Whiting said about his new wine that clocks in at 3.2% residual sugar. The idea came not long ago, he said, when he was in a local wine store.

"I walked into the Finger Lakes aisle and everything was about $14 or $15. The Finger Lakes tends to offer a lot more in a riesling when it comes to fruit intensity and structure, but the market is price-sensitive. It's time to enter into a pricepoint that is a little bit lower so we can be highly competitive."

Circle Riesling will retail for $11.99. "It's definitely a medium-sweet wine, and that's by design," Whiting explained. "It's similar in sweetness to what you'll find from the high-volume producers, but we think it's much crisper and carries more structure."

NExt is ditching the marginal wines. Whiting enjoys a good sauvignon blanc or chardonnay, but it's clearly not where his passion lies as a winemaker.

"Every winery doesn't have to make every variety of wine," he said. "Our sales of chardonnay are not huge. It's steady, but I think there are a good number of excellent Finger Lakes chardonnays out there that could pick up the slack for us. Same with sauvignon blanc. Those wines will not be a permanent part of our portfolio."
That means visitors won't see a Red Newt chardonnay or sauvignon blanc beginning with the 2009 vintage. "We think our long-term success rides on riesling, then other aromatic whites, and certainly in many years our reds. But it might change from year-to-year, based on the vintage. I just don't anticipate chardonnay or sauvignon blanc being a part of it."
Assistant winemaker Brandon Seager warned against getting spread too thin in the winery.
"There's a certain danger to being caught in the middle," he said. "We're now making about fifteen thousand cases a year. We're not a boutique but we're not a huge producer. We don't want to lose a sense of what we do best because we're trying to do too much. So we're shedding the parts that are not the core of what we do best at Red Newt."
In other words, in the world of wine, a Red Newt must remain a Red Newt — it can not be a chameleon.
The price tag on the Circle Riesling is made to compete with wine from around the world, but Whiting stressed it's not an indication of lesser quality.
"We're more focused than ever on quality," he said. "If we weren't we'd have no chance."
And when it comes to Red Newt's two single-vineyard Gewurztraminers, which have earned rave reviews, Whiting acknowledged the price tag can be jarring to some consumers — the Sawmill Creek retails for $36 and the Curry Creek sells for $42.
""There's a real opportuity to offer value at every pricepoint," he said. "This is not just talk. If you're doing it right you're giving the consumer excellent value in each wine. We think that's true for the Circle Riesling and for the Gewurztraminers. Those Gewurztraminers comapre very favorably in quality and price to many highly regarded Alsatian Gewurztraminers, so we're confident our customers will find value in them."
Red Newt is patient with the new plan but eager to get started. The Circle Riesling will be on shelves within days. And while the recent critical success helps, Whiting and his staff understand that it is ultimately the consumer, not the critic, who will decide whether their new philosophy is the right one.