Debra Whiting: 'A Shining star'
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is a tribute by Thomas Pellechia.
Normally, the joy of an event at Red Newt Cellars Winery and Bistro began at the door with a greeting from Dave and Deb Whiting. Sometimes, especially if you entered through the bistro, Deb greeted you with her radiant aura, wide smile, and open arms. Deb was not at the winery and bistro event July 5, 2011—but her spirit was there a thousand fold.When the email from the Wine and Grape Foundation’s Jim Trezise arrived in my in box just before the July 4 weekend, I learned of a serious two-car accident that injured Dave Whiting and took Deb’s life.
Jim’s words, “Deb is gone,” hit hard. First came shock, then denial, anger, and mourning. Soon, however, came time for remembering, which is what the July 5 event was all about.Based on what looked like about 1,000 people attending the memorial, the memory of Deb Whiting will be durable and strong, which is as it should be.
My memories of Deb began about 20 years ago when Dave brought his future bride to the monthly winemaker dinners that we used to hold at the Pleasant Valley Inn in Hammondsport. Smart, attractive, energetic and outgoing, Deb certainly held her own at a table filled with mostly male egos—she also had an infectious smile.Looking at Dave and Deb seated together at table it was obvious that the two were in love. They seemed cut from a mold that made their union inevitable. At the time, she was a microbiologist working with bugs in immunology; he worked with microbiological bugs as a winemaker. Their intellects and interests were in harmony.
I don’t know how long it took Dave to fall in love with Deb, but for me it was love at first sight. At future winemaker dinners, I found myself willingly performing for her benefit, in an effort to make her laugh, which she so easily did.Deb developed a passion for cooking, which first manifested itself to admirers like me through baking—cheesecakes, to be specific. Hers was the best New York style cheesecake that I have ever found outside of New York City.Soon, Deb left immunology for baking; soon after that, she operated a catering business out of a small place in Burdett; soon after that, she and Dave (they had gotten married by then) talked about operating their own winery and restaurant.
Not long after the talk came a deal in the late 1990s that put the couple in the old Wickham family winery facility off Route 414.
The Whitings were off and running, with Deb seemingly setting the pace, if only because she exuded boundless active energy to Dave’s deliberative style. But Dave proved no slouch in the energy department. While building Red Newt Cellars Winery and Bistro, a process that takes monumental fortitude, Dave and Deb did crazy things like take evening ballroom dancing lessons after a hard day at Red Newt, and they raised a couple of kids, too!
If there was doubt about their future, it was put to rest by the middle of this century. Dave’s wines, as well as his collaboration with other winemakers in our region, established Red Newt as a serious player in the Finger Lakes wine industry. Deb’s success at the bistro was equally dynamic.In addition to her dynamism in the Red Newt Bistro kitchen, Deb began to stretch her growing culinary influence in many directions: she led the call for promoting and serving locally farmed meats, cheeses, fruits, and vegetables; she helped to establish a Finger Lakes culinary movement; she traveled the state teaching others to cook; and she made special efforts to highlight the healthful and commercial benefits of pairing Finger Lakes wine with meals made up largely of Finger Lakes foods.
Just as anyone who knew her, I shall miss Deb Whiting tremendously, and my heart goes out to Dave and the Whiting family, as well as to the Red Newt Cellars Winery and Bistro family.
When she started the bistro, I briefly became part of the family after I asked Deb if she would let me gain some extra experience for my wine and food writing by allowing me to work in her kitchen—for free.
I believe it was those two last words that got her to agree; after all, hers was a new business.I worked the kitchen during July, my birthday month. One night, after all the dinners had been served, Deb and I talked about yet another upcoming birthday of mine; then, I recounted a story that she had not heard before.
On my 50th birthday, my wife, Anne, threw a surprise birthday party. Quite a crowd filled three rooms in our home that night.
Knowing of my madness for Deb’s cheesecake, and also knowing that many from my family drove up from New York City for the party, Anne ordered a number of cheesecakes from Deb to serve as the birthday cake. Unfortunately, for me, by the time I had gotten around to getting my slice of cheesecake, our guests had gobbled up every last morsel.
On the next day that I was scheduled to work at the bistro, my birthday was only hours away. At the door of the kitchen to greet me, stood Deb with a dish in her hands, on which rested a slice of cheesecake with a lit candle stuck in its middle.
Today, that candle conjures a bright and energetic light in the firmament that exudes its warmth—it is the image of Deb Whiting.