A Chat with Brandon Seager, Part Two

 For Part One of this interview, click here.

Colitvare restaurant

Brandon Seager of Coltivare and TC3

Interview by Erin Scherer

Opened in December, Coltivare (pronounced col-tee-var-ay) is a laboratory restaurant launched alongside Tompkins Cortland Community College’s brand-new Culinary Arts and Sustainable Farming and Food Systems programs. The Culinary Arts program is the first program in New York State to specialize in a farm-to-table approach. Located in downtown Ithaca, Coltivare utilizes produce from TC3’s farm as well as other local food producers such as The Piggery and Lively Run Dairy.

The already established Hotel and Restaurant Management and Wine Marketing programs also play a major role in Coltivare. The latter is chaired by Brandon Seager, formerly the winemaker at Red Newt. Seager has utilized his long-standing connections in the local wine industry to create Coltivare’s by-the-glass offerings. With this mission, Seager hopes to convince consumers and local restauranteurs that Finger Lakes wines have value. “If you go to the Napa Valley, nobody ever questions why all the by-the-glass selections are from California, but here, they do,” Seager says.

What sort of challenges have you faced in designing your by-the-glass program? What has the response been among guests?

Frankly, it’s been mixed. We’ve had people that say, “Why don’t you have Zinfandel on your list?” and the answer is clear: our mission is Farm-to-Table. You can’t make Zinfandel here. The grapes won’t grow, and if you try to grow them, the wine will come out awful. If you want a really good Zinfandel, then you should buy a bottle of California Zinfandel. That’s where they do that best.

We do other things better here than they can do there. Our counterpart to the Zinfandel would be their Riesling. California Rieslings are terrible, and they shouldn’t make them. So you focus on what you can do best—that’s the message I try to give to our staff. That’s an uphill battle, something that involves training and education, and that’s our entire mission. What grows in our soil pairs best with what also grows in our soil.

Why is it important to you to feature local producers on your menu?

You have to take a step back, look and think, “What does our region really have to offer?” This is not New York City. This is not Los Angeles. What is it that makes it really great to live here? The answer is, we’re surrounded by farms, we’re surrounded by vineyards, surrounded by people who are actually growing things out of our earth, our property and our region. We’re living in an area that can do just about anything, with some exceptions. We should really take pride in it and feature that. Unfortunately, we can’t substitute agriculture with industry. So we try to support our local industries as best as we can because they have a really good understanding of what they can do well. Europeans have understood this for a hundred years.

In places like Brazil and California, where they have unlimited real estate and good weather, should we be buying all our food from them? Supply and demand and economics always wins, but we can do that here in a sustainable way that supports our local economy. Ultimately, that supports taking care of each other in a communal approach. That’s what we try to do here.

Erin Scherer wrote about FLCC’s Viticulture and Wine Center in Edible Finger Lakes’s May/June 2014 Wine Issue. She lives in Geneva and you can follow her on Twitter at @erinscherer.

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