Melissa Winkler had originally planned on a career in art education. She had earned a degree in art studio, with a concentration in ceramics, from the State University of New York at Potsdam in 2009, and had hoped to apply her passion for the craft to the classroom.
But a post-graduation vacation to Europe ignited a second passion in Winkler—travel—and she began taking every opportunity she had to visit new places. One of those places was Paris, where she took an introductory class to wine at Le Cordon Bleu.
The class aspired a new goal—that of becoming a certified sommelier, so Winkler began reading about and tasting wines at every chance she had.
“When I decided this was what I wanted to do, I tried as much as possible to become a sponge and soak up all the information and experiences that I could,” she said. “I took classes at the Niagara Falls Culinary Institute, I attended wine educational classes with industry professionals, I traveled on my own to Champagne, Burgundy, Bordeaux, Tuscany, Piedmont, Napa.”
She also began investigating her options to turn her passions into a meaningful vocation. Working at a retail store helped her realize that she liked the business, and her love of education convinced her that she would enjoy teaching wine classes. She decided becoming a sommelier would be the next step, so in 2014, Winkler sat for her Wine Spirit and Educational Trust certification in London and for her intro and certified sommelier classes and exams in Toronto.
Now a certified sommelier, Winkler turned her attention to opening a retail store of her own. A chance meeting with developer Sam Savarino led to a partnership to open a wine cellar and retail shop at 500 Seneca St., just blocks away from where Winkler's family had operated F.X. Winkler and Sons from 1852 to 1969, Buffalo’s oldest grocery store.
“To be able to open my own store, and put the Winkler name back on Seneca Street, well I don’t think it can get much better than that!” she said. “We even have customers come in that remember shopping at the old store when they were kids.”
Winkler worked with several individuals who assisted her with construction, obtaining bank loans, and marketing, and had the support of her family and friends helping her stock the inventory and prepare for the grand opening of Winkler and Samuels Wine Purveyors, which took place in August 2017.
Although this is the realization of a dream, Winkler acknowledges that there are several challenges to running her own business. Finding the time to get everything done is always difficult – “It’s very rare that a day drags by. Usually, it’s the opposite, and when it’s over you’re left trying to recollect yourself,” she said—and the rewarding moments are “fewer and farther in between than you think they’re going to be.” But she sees this as a positive, because it allows her to “appreciate the glamorous moments when they come.”
Winkler also feels privileged to be able to visit the different places that wines are grown and “meeting the passionate people that create these amazing expressions of their grapes, land, regions, and culture.” She focuses on wines produced by smaller vineyards and family-run wineries from around the world, selecting those that are “terroir-driven,” that reflect the geography, topography, soil, and climate of their region. More than half of her wines can be purchased for under $20, but she also stocks wines for “the most discerning of palates.” She also offers wine education classes, a wine club, and private wine storage in the store’s cellar.
Finding wines that are unique to her store and that will appeal to her customers is one of her favorite parts of the job, and recommending a bottle that a customer buys a second time is especially satisfying.
“It’s not just about selling someone a bottle of wine, it’s about creating that experience and sharing it,” she said. “A great bottle of wine doesn’t just taste good, it makes you stop what you’re doing and really think about what you’re eating … how (does) the wine enhance the food and how (does) the food enhance the wine on your palate? That validation from our customers lets us know we’re moving in the right direction, and it’s really pretty cool that people are trusting us to deliver that kind of experience to them.”