By Evan Dawson, Managing Editor
Photo by Morgan Dawson Photography
You could forgive Judy Wiltberger for feeling skeptical about what she just heard. It was summer, 1989, and maybe the warm air and stunning views had imbued the region with an unrealistic sense of optimism. After all, Judy had doubts about her own grand visions for a winery called Keuka Spring. But the couple sitting across from her at dinner seemed perhaps one step further out of step with reality. They had just declared their hope to launch not only a winery, but a restaurant attached to it.
"I'm going to start a restaurant," the ebullient Deb Whiting had declared. "There's such great opportunity here."
And that, at least, was true. The culinary scene in the Finger Lakes was stuck on fast food and faster food.
But there was a reason that wineries weren't built in tandem with restaurants: They couldn't make money, couldn't attract enough business. And it would be even more difficult to create a successful business in the vision laid out by Deb Whiting: high-end food, mostly local, with all local wines.
But Judy and her husband Len just smiled. If this couple wanted to take a shot, why not root them on? They seemed to have the energy. They would probably fail, but what's life without taking risks and seeing how far even the most unlikely dream can go?
Deb Whiting shared more in common with her hero Alice Waters than she was willing to let on. Waters pioneered a local food movement in California; Whiting practically invented the local food movement in the Finger Lakes. She was proudly working with local agriculture long before it became a national trend, long before "local" became an effective marketing term.
But give Deb credit for two things: First, she didn't think the local food movement was a fad, but instead a permanent shift in values. Second, she didn't give a damn if she were wrong about that, because she was going to keep right on serving local food.
"This isn't a trend," she said on a summer's day in 2008. "People understand that local food is often better food, and it's better for them, and it's clearly better for the local economy. There's too much going for the local food movement to see it fade away. It's here, and it's only going to get stronger."
Deb's culinary exploits have turned local growers and purveyors into quasi-celebrities. Finger Lakes foodies are quite familiar with Autumn's Harvest Farm, a smaller-scale version of Joel Salatin's farm that gained national prominence in Michael Pollan's book The Omnivore's Dilemma. And how many trips to the Newt were punctuated by some magical creation featuring Lively Run chevre?
The seasonally based raviolis at the Newt are a marvel. One hasn't dined until one has enjoyed Deb Whiting's rhubarb-chevre ravioli, or her mid-summer blueberry ravioli, or any number of other versions accented cleverly and subtly with lavender or currant sauce or fig.
But unlike the celebrity chefs that have popped on reality television or in bookstores, Deb Whiting never stopped being accessible. Friends would muse about trying new recipes at home and Deb would insist they try a certain technique, following up with phone calls or emails to find out if it worked. Her customers knew her well enough to call her name across a crowded restaurant. One June afternoon I witnessed a table bolt to attention at the sight of Deb, rapturously applauding. First standing O I'd ever seen in a restaurant.
I can still hear the applause bouncing off the walls of the dining room.
The Independence Day weekend is supposed to be one of the most joyful times of the year in the Finger Lakes. The weather is warm, the lakes are alive, the wine is flowing. But for 48 surreal hours, every time someone laughed they felt almost, well, guilty.
Is it okay to laugh?
There's no guidebook for dealing with this stuff, of course. So laughter is okay. So is sadness. And confusion.
At Ravines Wine Cellars, a woman brought up Deb Whiting's name Sunday afternoon and promptly melted into convulsions. The entire staff bowed their heads. This scene was playing out at dozens of tasting rooms, dozens of times.
Mostly, though, I have moved past confusion and sadness. Now I'm just pissed.
See, it's silly to talk about who deserves what in life. How are we to judge? What is the standard for who is more deserving of tragedy, or less?
But with that out of the way, I can tell you that Dave Whiting doesn't deserve this.
I am angry, at no one and nothing, on his behalf. I am angry for the region. Nothing I can do, right? Have to try to move on, right? I don't care. I'm furious.
Two weeks ago, Dave Whiting joined us for dinner in New York City. Deb was back home, and we were dining at the new Boulud Sud. Dave was so taken with the meal that he snapped off a handful of photos and immediately texted them to his wife. She couldn't be there to share it, so he wanted her to experience it as much as she could.
That's love. That's geeky, holding hands, flowers-for-no-reason love. How many couples still offer those little gestures after more than two decades together? How many couples are so excited to be married that they can't stand to miss one night out together?
Hell, how many couples can work together every damn day and come out stronger?
So I don't care if it doesn't make sense. I'm angry with the universe because I know there's nothing to make this right.
The Finger Lakes has broken through to some impressive new heights when it comes to wine and food, but the region is on a knife's edge. Simply put, there's a lot of reason to believe the region can't succeed in the wake of this loss.
Here, though, is where legacy comes in. No one could argue that Deb Whiting had enough time with us, but she had enough time to build something special and lasting. She is gone, but her ethos is thriving. It is embedded in the Newt. That won't change. It has infected the culinary scene from lake to lake to lake. There are more fine dining options than ever before, many of them highlighting local food. Don't be so naive to think Deb's fingerprints aren't all over those establishments.
The stretch of road that hugs the southeast side of Seneca Lake is a monument to Deb Whiting. You're going out to eat, and how do you choose? There's the Newt, yes, but there's Stonecat Cafe. There's Suzanne, and Dano's. We're just getting started. It's a foodie's dream.
But there is a real risk now for the region. Deb Whiting was the thread that was often unseen, silently weaving culinary efforts together. She worked tirelessly for the Finger Lakes Culinary Bounty. Her goal was to share the stage, not own it. She knew that a team filled with all-stars is stronger than a team focused on one player.
It will not be easy to carry her efforts forward, but it will be necessary. This weekend, Judy Wiltberger smiled at the memory of Deb's eager pronouncements all those years ago. Deb has done her part to succeed where it was more than a little unlikely, and so many of us have benefited. She deserves to have her memory carried forward with even more significant successes for the region.
And there's that word again: deserves.
Dave Whiting deserves love and patience and support, and he'll get it. Ryan and Brenton and the rest of the Red Newt family deserve to know what Deb Whiting has meant to the Finger Lakes. There's comfort in knowing that they're already seeing it, and feeling it.
This week they will feel it directly when the region converges on the Newt to offer a formal goodbye.
Michael Warren Thomas, local broadcaster and leader in the local food movement, put forward an idea this weekend. What if, he suggested, we all showed our support by buying a couple of bottles of Red Newt wine? And what if our friends did, too? And what if some of us bought not just two bottles, but enough to use as hostess gifts and summer sippers and wintertime warmers?
His email spread quickly. It seems obvious — so many of us already buy Red Newt wine, right? But Michael's point is that there is some urgency. He figures people can show support by supporting the business, buying the wine, visiting the tasting room, and dining at Red Newt Bistro. All summer long.
It is admittedly a difficult place to go these days. It will not be the same, ever. We can't expect it to be.
But we can feel good about this remarkable life, her relentless pursuit of quality, her refusal to even consider the notion that simply being good could be good enough. Our lives are fuller for having spent time with Deb Whiting, and grief doesn't have to have the last word.