BELFAST — Vinolio owner Susan Woods said you could easily spend up to an hour just roaming around her store, nibbling on this and tasting a little of that. It's Belfast's latest addition on Main Street and it's got all the elements of a perfect Cheap Date. It's fun. It's adventurous. It's a creative way to share a unique sensory experience and it's free to taste as many flavors of olive oils, vinegars, sea salts and whatever other local yummies Woods has decided to offer as samples for the day.
Vinolio opened for business June 21 and recently hosted its grand opening this past week with a wine tasting and appetizers made with Vinolio's products, such as a gazpacho made with garlic infused olive oil, goat cheese balls rolled in walnuts and drizzled with a fig balsamic vinegar and garbanzo beans cooked with Chinese Five Spice drizzled with cayenne extra virgin olive oil.
Here's where you make that "Oh my God, yum!" face, like you're almost mad you weren't there to taste this.
Woods and her husband, Joe, own the gorgeous light-filled space surrounded on all four walls with exposed brick and have held onto it for 10 years, always with the plan to open their own store downtown. They were poised to go through with their plans five years ago but the economy and the timing wasn't right. This summer, everything seemed to come together to make their dream a reality.
Each section of the store has been carefully planned to feature something fabulous. In the center of the room a table holds loaves of fresh, crusty baguettes from Offshore Bakery, which is used for the tastings. Small specialty food items, largely from local purveyors, are available for purchase throughout the store and include things like natural sea salts (also out for tastings), pastas, brownies and cakes, popcorn, local confitures and even an entire cooler of Eat More Cheese items, courtesy of their neighbor across the street.
On the left side of the store, the row of gleaming stainless steel containers, called fusti, dispense the traditional, flavored and white balsamic vinegars and ultra premium extra virgin olive oils ranging from mild to robust.
"People who know olive oils usually tend to gravitate to the robust side, whereas people just learning usually start with the mild flavors," said Woods. As part of her store tour, Woods picks up a laminated sheet patrons can refer to in order to see what constitutes an extra virgin olive oil based on standards adopted by the USDA and International Olive Oil Council. Basically this sheet is shorthand for: This is the good stuff. Trust. Down the line is a small collection of fusti containing fused extra virgin olive oils, where fruit is crushed with the olives to yield flavors such as blood orange, lemon and cayenne chili. Infused oils are infusions after the crushed cycle.
"I'd say the Tuscan Herb and the Garlic have been the favorite infused oils," she said. Another row on the left wall features traditional dark balsamic vinegars, all from Modena, Italy, the majority of which have been aged at least 12 years.The Fig and Dark Chocolate vinegars are her best sellers.
Part of the culinary adventure is opening yourself to new ways to heighten a food's natural flavor. "The other day I made a chocolate brownie with vanilla ice cream and fresh raspberries and drizzled it with the raspberry balsamic vinegar," she said. "We have recipes out to give people ideas but if they go to our website, they'll find even more."
To explore the white balsamic vinegars, all you have to do is cross the room. "The cranberry pear has been our big seller. People are crazy about these white balsamic vinegars," she said. "Especially with salads." A small table by the counter offers even more variety: a sesame, a white truffle and an almond oil.
Woods' store hasn't been open that long, but she has been working almost seven days a week every week and word of mouth has largely brought people through the door. Future plans include monthly wine tastings and eventually beer tastings, after they add more to their craft beer section. "We have about 75 labels now, when we get to 100, then we'll be able to do beer tastings," she said.
Wine and craft beer tastings too? Okay they're going to have to make room somewhere in their store for my tent, because once I go back in, I'm not coming out.
The craft beer section features a healthy selection of Maine-made brews as well as other local favorites like Dogfish Ale. "When my husband and I moved in Seattle in the 90s, our exposure to beer was Heineken, Rolling Rock, that kind of thing," said Woods, who, like her husband, grew up in Belfast. "There the craft brew scene was everywhere and we never knew how really good beer could taste. So when we moved back to Maine, we brought that passion for craft beers with us."
The right-hand corner of the store is dedicated to red and white wines, champagnes and sparkling wines, offering about 175 labels.
There is so much to see and explore in this store and when you're done tasting, there are three sizes of Vinolio olive oil and vinegar bottles that staff can fill, starting at $10 for the small bottle (and yep, that pretty much fits the Cheap Date budget profile).
For more on Belfast's foodie scene, check out our story: 24 Hours In Belfast For The Locavore
Kay Stephens can be reached at email@example.com.