Ask 10 people at random if they like wine.
Don’t be surprised to find that some are not wine drinkers. That’s because wine can be intimidating to people, says Melissa Prospero, whose family owns Prospero Winery in Pleasantville.
“Twenty-one year-olds are more inclined to drink beer, fruity drinks, Red Bull, Smirnoff Ice. … To get a young drinker into wine it takes a while.”
But, says Prospero, wines are really not that hard to understand.
“It’s the marketing and the media,” she says. “They create this image around wines that is snooty and that you have to know so much about it.”
This is slowly changing, though. As wines become less daunting, it’s easier to approach new market, and “sweet wines are great introductory wines to a novice,” she says.
Enter Sweet Melissa, a new red wine with a fun and friendly brand.
“Sweet Melissa is made from Brachetto grapes, which come from the Piedmont area in Italy,” says family friend and former restaurateur Billy Losapio, who is WAG’s new editorial adviser. “It produces a highly aromatic, lightly effervescent pink wine with distinctive notes of strawberries, raspberries and a perfumed bouquet reminiscent of rose petals. Served chilled, it is perfect for all occasions. I love it.”
Prospero says, “We started importing (Brachetto), and when we imported it we needed to bottle it. Since I’m the youngest in the family and everybody always gave me a hard time, I said, ‘We’re going to name it Sweet Melissa, and I’m finally going to get my claim to fame.’ Originally, we had a whole story on the back label, that it’s named after the owner’s youngest daughter, and people really fed off that and they loved it.”
Made in Pleasantville and first bottled there, the brand soon grew too large to manufacture locally, so the Prosperos moved the operation to a co-op winery in Italy. Though the product is the same, the bottles are now slightly different because they’re imported.
Despite its local origins, Sweet Melissa’s hottest markets are Chicago and Atlanta, likely picking up more quickly “in southern and western states because they have more of a sweet market.” Soon, Sweet Melissa will be releasing a Moscato, which will be sold in about 13 states and available for purchase in the Westchester/Fairfield area.
Much deliberation went into the design for Sweet Melissa, with the idea for its look coming from Prospero’s brother, Danny. “I work with a marketing team to come up with the artwork,” she says. Prospero pulls out a bottle, describing the accessible packaging with its twist-off, environmentally friendly cap.
She also uses social media to market Sweet Melissa. “Every girl named Melissa can relate to the wine. They like it. They buy the product for events and tastings. I’m reaching out to every Melissa out there. We can have a Sweet Melissa march on Washington.”
Prospero smiles at the thought: “Kids that grow up in the industry come up with these crazy ideas like Sweet Melissa and create these wine brands.”
Both Prospero’s parents were born in the same town in Italy, L’Aquila, in the Abruzzo region, and immigrated to the United States around the same time. When Melissa’s father, Antonio, graduated from Westchester Community College in the 1970s, he and her mother, Silvana, opened a fruit stand in Pleasantville, from which they started selling California wine grapes. This evolved into the sale of home wine-making equipment, including bottles, tanks and palletizers. By the time Melissa was born, her father had started importing the machines that sterilize, fill and cap the bottles for wine, beer and spirits. Due to the economy, Prospero Winery has recently had to scale back, thereby eliminating retail as well as its tasting room and has become more of a wine company – creating, importing and distributing brands and custom bottles for other wineries.
Melissa Prospero “grew up in the middle of the business,” and after attending college in Florida, transferred to a university in Italy, specifically because it required hands-on internships, including a six-month experience at a winery in Tuscany. Prospero came back to the United States and made herself at home marketing wines.
“All I can say is that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, but in this case, the grape doesn’t fall far from the vine,” Losapio says. “Melissa comes from two passionate parents. … She is a lovely young lady with a passion as well.”
Melissa adds, “When you’re in a family business, it’s 365 days a year.” There are no typical days at the office for Prospero. She rushes from a speaking engagement to a conference call with a distributor and then onto other business.
“I would say working with my dad and traveling with my family has taught me so much,” she says. For the business, she has been to more than 25 states, as well as Canada, Austria, Slovenia, Italy, Spain and Switzerland.
Prospero’s Italian heritage has played a vital part, too. “In Italy, it’s just standard that there’s always a carafe of wine on the table. It was easier for a farmer to have a carafe of wine than a carafe of clean water.” It is standard on the Prospero table as well.
As for living in Italy, Prospero says, “Probably when I retire. It just feels like home there.”
Despite being an expert, “everybody knows that I don’t talk about wines in a complex way. I tend to describe my wines in basic terms. … Everybody wants me to try some and see what I think about it. I love to cook and I love to entertain. I use a lot of my friends as guinea pigs to try new wines.”
Perhaps the most valuable insight Prospero shares with others is her unique suggestions of how to drink it. “I tell people, have red wine with popcorn. You might like it. It might change your life. Have ice wine with ice cream.
“People think my pairings are crazy, but they’re actually very cool. Next time you’re sitting on the couch looking for something to eat or drink, try a full-bodied Pinot Noir with peanut butter and jelly. If I have Dove Chocolate peanut butter little heart squares and Pinot Noir, I will down the bottle in 20 minutes.”
So does Prospero have a personal favorite? That “depends on the time of the year and what I’m cooking because I can fall in love with any wine. I feel like you can pair a wine with any chocolate, any food, any ice cream, any mood you’re in. If it makes you happy to drink red wine with sushi, by all means, drink red wine with sushi,” she says with a laugh. “Why not?”