By Jane Bartnett
“Friendships have grown here,” said Melanie Dodge as she poured a glass of fine wine in her welcoming and beautifully appointed Siesta Key Wine Bar. “We have a good base of friends and we’re doing good things for the community in this special place.”
Doing good things has become the heart of this intimate spot. Drawing a loyal following of local residents as well as many wine-loving visitors, the establishment in Davidson Plaza offers fine wine, beers, good conversation and people who share a common interest in helping local organizations in need.
“We’ve created a special place here on the Key where people can come together and make a serious difference in the lives of local charitable groups at the same time,” Dodge said.
It all began in January 2020 when Dodge and her fiancé Tom Ilg, bought the business.
It fit their backgrounds and common ground — she previously had stints in real estate and the restaurant, while he is a veteran real-estate professional.
They also share a passion for food, wine, beer, travel, and the water.
It was an exciting time for the couple, which had previously lived and worked in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, before making the move to Siesta Key.
When the pandemic set in a few months after they took over, it was time to innovate.
“We started doing Friday night wine tastings with our wine reps, via Zoom,” Dodge said. “We could only sell wine to go, so we sold bottles of wine and made wine baskets for sale.”
After the months went by, it became clear that the existing loyal customers would remain with the new owners through the worst of times. As a way to bring in new business while supporting a local charity in the couple’s new community, Dodge decided to start a series of small charitable events.
An avid dog lover, she learned about the Vintage Paws Sanctuary, a non-profit south Sarasota County charity for old dogs in need of a home.
“In April, 2020, we held a guest bartending evening for Vintage Paws and raised between $4,000 to $5,000 that went to help these wonderful animals,” Dodge said.
More local charitable evenings followed. Wine and community became the couple’s mission, a way of giving back to their new home.
“I find it so rewarding,” said Dodge as she sat before a wall of wines that she and Ilg have curated from around the world. “It’s not a matter of getting dressed up and being in the paper, it’s about making an impact so that everyone can be a part of it.
“It’s great to offer a place for people to come together and meet others who share their interest.”
The wine bar flourished and the couple added new wines from Napa, Spain, Chile, and a Florida tropical offering from Murielle Winery to their collection.
“I taste a lot of wine,” Dodge joked.
Small private events were added to the wine bar’s calendar, along with additional evenings for local causes.
This spring, Dodge’s friend and longtime Siesta Key resident Hope McCampbell-Wenk suggested that the two team up to host an evening to benefit the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. A friend of McCampbell-Wenk’s was battling the disease and she wanted to help.
The event raised $13,000.
“Hope will be there for me and vice-versa,” said Dodge.
Said McCampbell-Wenk, in response, “We really enjoy working together and making an impact.”
Added Dodge, “Our island community is very strong.”
In April, during a charity evening to support Alzheimer’s research, regular customer Adam Ott agreed to shave off the beard that he had been growing for the past five years in exchange for a $1,000 donation.
“My beard was down to my waist,” said Ott with a laugh. “I’m growing it back again for the next charity.”
More charitable evenings lie ahead for the Siesta Key Wine Bar. In March, Dodge is planning a special evening to raise funds in support of multiple sclerosis research. Her sister suffers from the disease.
“This will be personal,” she said.
The game plans vary on how to host an outing.
“Some nights we hold a raffle, some nights it’s a wine tasting,” said McCampbell-Wenk.
Added Dodge, “It’s not always a big event.”
She noted that last month a small raffle raised $724 to support the Payton Wright Foundation, a local non-profit that offers financial support to families of children that are being treated for cancer of the brain and spinal cord.
Big or small, her events have made a difference for many — and that includes her.
“Siesta Key is home and we’re here to stay,” Dodge said.