Some years ago, while traveling through Italy, Rita Winkler noticed something other than wine being tasted by visitors to the country’s famed vineyards: olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
Sensing the potential for a niche market slam dunk on Long Island, Ms. Winkler, who spent 15 years as sales manager for a wine importer and distributor, opened Vines & Branches, a specialty olive oil and balsamic vinegar shop in Greenport.
The store, which recently celebrated its first anniversary, also has a location in Westhampton Beach and launched a third store in Southampton two weeks ago. The shop sells cooking oils from around the world and offers free tastings to customers.
Ms. Winkler, who lives in Southold with her husband and two teenage children, took a few minutes to chat with The Suffolk Times about her store’s best-selling product, what customers should look for when purchasing olive oil and a dark chocolate balsamic vinegar you’ll love drizzling over fresh berries.
Q: Vines & Branches now has three locations. Why do you think olive oil is so popular with customers?
A: Health, for sure. It runs the gamut, from heart health to skin health.
Q: What is your best-selling product?
A: The Organic Tuscan Herb Infused Olive Oil ($13.99 for 200 ml). The olives are crushed with Tuscan herbs and a touch of sun-dried tomato and garlic. The robust oils have become incredibly popular because people haven’t been aware that you can get anything like that.
Q: And your most unique product?
A: Our Dark Chocolate Balsamic ($13.99 for 200 ml). It’s made from Trebbiano grapes, which are primarily used in balsamic production. The grapes are infused with three different types of Italian cocoa and fermented over time. It’s so healthy and delicious. It works on ice cream and you can soak fresh fruit in it or pour it over yogurt or into a smoothie.
Q: What sort of foods do you recommend pairing with olive oil that someone wouldn’t normally think to do?
A: Use olive oils for baking, especially the fruit-flavored ones. You can take a lemon or blood orange olive oil and infuse it into cake mix instead of using canola oil.
Q: What should customers look for on labels when purchasing olive oil?
A: The freshness date is most important. It’s got to be the current crush, or harvest, of a particular year. [Ms. Winkler said she currently uses vintages from 2012.] A lot of the olive oils sold in stores are out of date.
Q: Vines & Branches offers free tastings. How should someone taste olive oil?
A: I very highly recommend sipping olive oil, from a tiny cup, instead of dipping with bread. It allows the oil to aerate and opens up its fl avor.
Q: Who is your typical client?
A: I can use one word: foodies. Anyone who likes to eat, likes to cook or likes to give nice gifts to people who are foodies.
Q: Do you have a favorite product at the store?
A: I can’t even choose. It’s just a matter of what I’m in the mood for. The balsamics are becoming my new best friends because they’re so healthy, delicious and diverse.