By Emily J. Weitz
When Rita Winkler traveled through Spain, Italy and France, she appreciated how much respect and attention was given to olive oils and balsamic vinegars. Like fine wines, they were grown with care and sampled with anticipation.
“When I saw how seriously all of this was taken, and how important it is, I was inspired,” she says. “I got an educated tour of different areas and conferred with vineyard owners and shops in the region.”
That’s when she started to realize the connection between the North Fork of Long Island and these other wine-producing regions. With vineyards, farms and quaint little villages, this foodies’ paradise seemed like the perfect place to open a shop dedicated to olive oil and vinegar.
“We are an area with great restaurants, a farming community and vineyards, like Europe,” says Winkler. “We have this farm-to-table concept, along with the tasting rooms at the vineyards.”
Vines and Branches opened in Greenport this year, and the huge sustis, or airtight stainless steel containers, each hold a different kind of olive oil or balsamic vinegar that you can sample on little spoons.
“It’s almost imperative to have the opportunity to taste,” says Winkler of the importance of a tasting room. “Everyone’s palette is different. I have a table dedicated to a dozen different olive oils, no infusions, just the best olive oils in the world right now. Each is different and unique, and it’s great to walk around with a client and see how they respond. Some want peppery, some want robust. Some like fruitier, some drier.”
Along with the simple, unadulterated olive oils and vinegars, Winkler also carries quality infusions that incorporate herbs and fruits.
“In our blood orange infused olive oil,” she says, “you get the zest, the skin, the pits. Everything that nature brought to that fruit is in the element of what it is.”
The balsamic vinegars come in a variety of infusions as well, including mango, peach, dark chocolate, and Black Mission Fig.
“The dark chocolate is like drinking a really good quality port,” says Winkler. “It’s aged 12 to 18 years. The Black Mission Fig, drizzled over a salad with some bleu cheese, is just heavenly.”
Along with the refined flavors that come with these carefully harvested olive oils and vinegars, there are also great health benefits, many of which are lost in the more mass produced brands.
“The word polyphenol is to olive oil what omega is to fish,” says Winkler. “It’s the antioxidant in the oil. Our olive oil is the highest in polyphenol levels you can find in the world today. When you’re purchasing store bought olive oil, it’s commercially produced with no level of polyphenols.”
Add to that the fact that many olive oils are packaged in big tin containers with no limit to how long they can sit on the shelf, and Winkler argues that some supermarket olive oils are rancid at the time of purchase.
Winkler, who completed a special training to learn about the intricacies of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, says that the polyphenols abundant in her olive oils help to inhibit breast and colon cancer, combat ulcer-related conditions, and help with arthritis.
“There are lots of qualities in vinegar,” she adds, “like helping to prevent age-related diseases like cancer, heart disease, and bone loss. It also helps to lower blood sugar.”
Both olive oil and vinegar, she says, are good for weight loss because they help to boost the metabolism, and olive oil contains monounsaturated fat, which is a good fat you need in your system to help with hair and skin health.
In addition to the more than 40 varieties of olive oils and balsamic vinegars, Vines and Branches carries lots of specialty products, all sourced with attention and care. They feature jams from Provence, olive oil-based skin care from Napa Valley and Europe, and sea salt including the local Amagansett Sea Salt Company. She makes bags of popcorn using an organic butter-infused olive oil.
“We sell dozens and dozens of bags of that a week,” Winkler says. “We put the organic butter olive oil and the black truffle sea salt and sell the popcorn for $2 a bag.”
Winkler partners with wineries as much as she can, and has offered tastings across the North Fork. She is at Westhampton Farmer’s Market this summer and plans to come to Sag Harbor next summer. Until then, her shop is a destination.
“Coming to Vines and Branches is an experience,” says Winkler. “There’s a whole other feeling about it. We call it a palette party.”