Here’s the scene: You are biting into a burger called The Local, made with goat cheese and miso mayo and lettuce and tomato and herbs, and you’ve just pillaged a bottle of 1988 Dunn Cabernet from the secret wine fridge, and you’re wondering if this high-end comfort food oasis is only for serious food lovers. And then a well-placed dick joke cuts through any concern about pretension.
This is the FLX Wienery, a little food-and-wine joint on Route 14 that has been open for a year. It’s already become a regional treasure, a must-visit for wine tourists on Seneca Lake. You should look up the menu just to contemplate the options, but save room for a Nutella shake. Or perhaps a salted caramel pretzel. To finish a high-calorie meal with something like that is borderline evil, and it’s perfect.
The Wienery is the creation of Master Sommelier Christopher Bates and his wife Isabel. As they describe it, they spent years in fine dining, including work at Relais & Chateaux/Grande Chef properties, and several Forbes Five-Stars including the Hotel Fauchere and The Inn at Dos Brisas. They are wickedly smart about wine, including a thoughtful approach to which varieties thrive in which locations. It’s remarkable enough that they chose to relocate to the Finger Lakes; they’ve also created Element Winery, where Bates is betting heavily on syrah.
And yes, there are wiener jokes on t-shirts at the Wienery. Bates can’t resist. He answered NYCR’s questions while getting ready for yet another ambitious project launch: the new FLX Table will open in Geneva later this summer.
Evan Dawson: Tell me a bit about FLX Table.
Christopher Bates: FLX. Table is a small restaurant concept based around the idea of a dinner party. And with only 12 seats and that one communal table, the idea is to set the mood of being invited into someone’s home. The menu will be fixed, with weekdays being three courses and weekends being five. And we’re hoping that the food will bridge the gap between relaxed and casual and innovative and exciting.
ED: Remind me again: whose ridiculous idea was the Wienery? How exactly did this happen?
CB: To be honest, it really just fit once we saw the space and the location. We’ve been looking for a spot in the Finger Lakes for some time, and this came up, and fit the budget. The location and the space just seemed like it wanted to be a great locals hang out. Good food. Good drink. Good times and in unpretentious place for farmers and businessmen and tourists like to hang out and relax.
ED: Every time I’m in here, I hear someone raving about “locally sourced food” and the like. What does “local” food mean to you?
CB: I mean, you can’t get every single ingredient locally. These days, I really try to avoid the talk of local or “farm-to-table” or anything like that. For me these things should all just be a part of our lives, not a marketing gimmick or something for hipsters to talk about. these are the same concepts that were considered poor people food not long ago. And, as things go, I’m sure they will be once again soon. For me, it’s just about what’s right. not about being dogmatic. Where a good food fast kind of restaurant, and we try to focus on consistency.
ED: So where does your food come from?
CB: All over. Right now, our herbs come from my backyard in a planter boxes. In the winter from Mexico. Our beef and pork or locally raised. Depending on season our potatoes and tomatoes and other vegetables are from the Finger Lakes or California etc.
ED: I’m hopelessly hooked on the The Local. How did you create the various recipes?
CB: Really, most of the combinations just came about one afternoon while we’re developing the concept as I simply ran through in my head all the ways I like burgers.
ED: If you are only eating one thing on your menu, what is it?
CB: Ktown on chicken burger and lake salt fries. And Cheese curds. And chili w goat cheese, cilantro and corn.
ED: I must say, it is such a pleasure to browse your wines. You have a regular list and a separate fridge filled with secret-handshake wines. How do you decide what to offer?
CB: The wine list is one of the hardest programs I’ve ever run. The goal is to keep it small tight and concise. Running a big program is easy. It only takes the words, I’ll buy it. What we try to do is. is identify the icons of wines from around the world, and then find the best producer that fits into our budget friendly target. So really, the wine list represents for me what would be in my cellar if I was told I could only have one Chinon and one northern Rhone and one New World red, et cetera. The secret wine fridge on the other hand is all based on consignment, and is a hodgepodge of fun exciting eclectic and weird wines with no real theme other than being amazing values.
ED: Any complaints that you don’t exclusively offer Finger Lakes wines?
CB: Of course there are. But, I’d say if someone’s not complaining about you, you’re not trying hard enough. Certainly, I could see how people might be disappointed. But frankly, our restaurant is designed towards locals, and for those of us that live here, sometimes it’s nice to try something else. Furthermore, because we allow free corkage on Finger Lakes beer and wine, I wanted to drive more direct retail sales to all of the tasting rooms in the area.
ED: I’m going to be standing in Cornas vineyards in just a few days. I know that makes you jealous. The wine half of your brain makes Element Wines, and I know you love syrah. What are you finding with that variety in the Finger Lakes?
CB: I love syrah in the finger Lakes. And so will everyone soon. As you stand in Cote Rotie, ask yourself if it’s really all that much hotter than the Finger Lakes this week. The biggest challenge here we have, is not making great syrah, or ripening it properly, but rather whether it can withstand the winter. But the same challenges exist for gewurztraminer and merlot.