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Meet the experts From wine to skin care to salamanders, these Western New Yorkers are go-to people in their fields, but aren't widely known -- at least until now

We all have secret areas of knowledge -- things that we know a lot about.

Maybe it's knowledge we're proud of, and that we flaunt. (Watch people order in a French restaurant if you want to see this in action.) Or maybe it's sort-of-secret expertise because we're not entirely sure we're supposed to know that much about the entire oeuvre of New Kids on the Block recordings or the complete catalog of Chuck Taylor All-Star styles.

But some people take it one step further.

Some Western New Yorkers are so extremely knowledgeable, so packed with expertise, in one particular subject area, that they become -- well, mildly famous.

They aren't known by a ton of people. But within their own circles, they are sought-after, their talent in demand.

We've hunted high and low across the region to find some of those people -- the "hidden experts" of our hometown. It's not a full list, of course, since experts lurk around every corner. But here are the back stories about some people we found, and how you, too, can find them.

1.) William Mahoney

Job title: Wine manager, Premier Wine & Spirits, 7980 Transit Road, Amherst

Area of expertise: Wine, in all its varieties and price points

What he knows: Why wine tastes the way it does, how it's made, and how it should be enjoyed -- without anxiety, as he puts it, but with a sense of adventure. Even better, Mahoney knows how to match your tastes and wallet to a bottle you are bound to love. "The biggest problem people have with wine is the intimidation factor," he said. "Wine sort of has this elite stigma to it. But that is not my angle at all -- I try to make wine approachable and fun."

How he learned: By diligent self-study, after he was hired at Premier in 1995 and began to be around wine and people who were proficient in it. A friend of Mahoney's, who is trained as a sommelier, helped mentor him. In addition, Mahoney has traveled to Italy, France, Germany, and twice to South America, to learn about the wines of those countries. His dream, currently in fledgling form, is to open a Buffalo Wine Institute, to conduct tastings and education sessions to help people learn about wine in non-intimidating ways.

Insiders' tip: You don't learn about wine by fantasizing, but by doing. Demystify the process and jump in. "Tasting wine is much like exercise," said Mahoney. "You're not going to get a ripped six-pack by reading about it in a book. You have to get down on the floor and DO IT. Wine is like that."

2.) Deborah Rose

Job title: Feng Shui practitioner

Area of expertise: Feng Shui, the ancient Chinese art of arrangement designed to boost the healthful energy in your home or office

What she knows: How to use Feng Shui techniques (say it "Fung-Schway") to get rid of negative energies in your space, and increase the flow of positive energy. Feng Shui can be practiced in your home, on your outdoor property, in your office -- even in a college dorm, said Rose, who has done just that. By clearing clutter, arranging household decor in certain ways, and even placing a crystal or two strategically about, Rose said, people can boost positive energies and outcomes. "The purpose of Feng Shui is to use nature and to flow with everything," she said. "The actual meaning of the words is 'wind, water.' It's a combination of placement, and how you adapt it with a spiritual nature."

How she learned: A practitioner of the Western form of the art for 25 years, Rose learned from some of the top Feng Shui thinkers, here and nationally. She has taught classes in community education classes for some 20 years, and also teaches at local colleges. She is currently teaching in the Williamsville district; contact the schools for more information, or see Rose's Web site, www.deborahrose.info/index.html.

Insiders' tip: When in doubt, try hanging a mirror. "Mirrors are the aspirin of Feng Shui," Rose said. "They fix everything. They enhance the energy and raise it up. And any dripping faucets in the house? That's your money dripping in. And if it drips in, what happens to it? It goes right down the drain. So get those drains covered up."

3.) Arthur C. Hook Jr.

Job title: Shoe sizer and pedortist, Hook's Shoes, 2076 Eggert Road, Amherst, and 3911 Seneca St., West Seneca

Area of expertise: Custom shoe-fitting and sizing

What he knows: How to make your next pair of shoes -- and maybe the ones you're wearing right now -- fit better and feel good. A certified pedortist, Hook is so much in demand that customers wait in line to have their feet fitted by him. He spends as much time as he needs on each client: that may be 10 minutes, or it may be an hour. "We're like a pharmacy for feet," he says. "We wait on one person at a time, and we pay attention to you."

How he learned: Growing up in Buffalo, Hook watched as his father, Arthur C. Hook Sr., built Hook's Shoes into a well-known Buffalo store for custom-fit shoes. After he graduated from college in 1971, Hook joined his dad and younger brother, Fred, in the family business. Over the years, the Hooks have moved their store into a modern era by offering new styles that still offer custom comfort (the shoes don't look like "nun shoes" anymore, Hook jokes). Today, Hook's operates two branches, plus a plant for making shoes in the Pierce Arrow building.

Insiders' tip: Don't just look at your feet to detect problems -- feel what's happening to them. "What hurts?" asked Hook. "You'd be surprised at how many people come in wearing the wrong size. Even today. They've been wearing a 10-D all their lives, so they go get that and figure they just have to wear it in a little. Well, that might not be the best thing for you."

4.) Miranda K. Workman

Job title: Animal behavior specialist; owner of Purrfect Paws Animal Behavior Center, 2925 Sheridan Drive, Town of Tonawanda

Area of expertise: Understanding dogs and cats -- and how to make their relationships with their human companions the best they can be. She can tell you why your dog is doing that weird thing (displaying separation anxiety, for instance) and help you fix it. She can also train cats. Yes, you read that right.

What she knows: Workman has unique qualifications in Western New York: not only is she a certified pet dog trainer, but she is president of the national Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (www.ccpdt.org) and a national advocate for pet behavior therapy, feline training, and animal rehabilitation. In April, she will be speaking before a national conference of the Humane Society in Las Vegas. Her dream is to open more branches of her business, and become a national voice for training and rehabilitating animals.

How she learned: Workman graduated from Ohio State University with degrees in Spanish and art history; afterward, she worked in a corporate-type job, and quickly grew frustrated with it. Motivated by two dogs she owned -- Boxers named Rahvin and Aviendha, both of whom since passed away -- she decided to follow her heart into a career that would allow her to work with dogs and cats. She started as a volunteer at the SPCA, where she still works as an on-staff pet behavior expert; in 2006, she founded Purrfect Paws in the Town of Tonawanda. Her dog day care draws up to 30 dogs each day, and the playgroups for animals at her center are in high demand.

Insiders' tip: Everybody knows that new pets need training in order to be good companions. But even older dogs benefit from training sessions, said Workman. "We had a 13-year-old Labrador that learned to sit again. She had forgotten how. You would say 'sit' and she would do all kinds of other things besides sit. So she learned how to do it again."

5.) Leslie Lucca

Job title: Skin care specialist, Sephora, Walden Galleria Mall

Area of expertise: Skin care and beauty

What she knows: How to make your skin clean, clear and glowingly healthy. Because she grew up with sensitive skin, Lucca developed a passion for understanding skin-care products and cosmetics. She's her own best advertisement: at 35, Lucca's skin is that of a 20-year-old, and she is so dedicated to her job that she spends her off hours studying and testing products in order to hone her expertise. "This is where my heart is," she said. "People stop in and say thank you. That's my favorite part of the job -- getting that feedback from the client."

How she learned: An Amherst native, she's worked in the beauty industry since 1997. But, she said, her skills grew exponentially after she joined the staff at Buffalo's Sephora store, which opened in the Walden Galleria in 2007. Since then, Lucca has been trained by the Sephora company at the highest levels, meeting with company executives at their San Francisco headquarters and learning from cosmetics gurus at special training sessions that earned her a "skin-care Ph.D" from Sephora -- a designation just a small sliver of the company's employees receive. "It's a constantly changing industry," said Lucca, who works with both scheduled customers and walk-ins at the Galleria store, "so there's always something to learn."

Insiders' tip: Pick and choose carefully -- and, ideally, with a skin-care specialist's help -- from among lots of lines to find the products that will make your skin the best it can be. Don't use just the products of a single maker, but don't rule out entire lines either. "If you have sensitive skin," said Lucca, "it doesn't mean you can't use an entire brand. So you had an allergic reaction to that one lipstick -- it doesn't mean you can't use that whole brand."

6.) Noelle L. Rayman

Job title: Biologist

Area of expertise: Native wildlife; birds; New York State salamanders, especially the "hellbender" salamander that is native to the Allegheny Watershed

What she knows: All about the birds and wildlife that are native to New York State and the Great Lakes. In working on her master's degree in biology at Buffalo State College, Rayman is also carving out a unique specialty area: "hellbender" salamanders, a giant salamander species (some get to be more than 2 feet long!) which has seen a troubling decline in population over the last 20 years in the creeks and waterways of New York. With professor Amy McMillan, Rayman is doing path-breaking research into hellbender genetics, with an eye toward keeping the species healthy and thriving into the future.

How she learned: Growing up, Rayman was always drawn to nature. "It started out with my mother and grandmother, having bird feeders hanging up in their yard," she said. She now works as a biological science technician for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, on a student program while she finishes her degree. After she finishes this summer, Rayman would like to continue to study the fish, fowl, and mammals of upstate New York. "There are lots of unique places in New York," she said. "I really can't imagine doing anything else."

Insiders' tip: Don't catch salamanders -- or other types of wildlife -- and try to keep them in a home environment, Rayman cautions. They just aren't equipped to survive like that, and it harms the species' overall health. "Right now," she said, "we're just looking to see where hellbenders are. Little is known about them in New York State. And then, based on historical records, why the decline is happening. Most of that is due to habitat changes."

-mail: cvogel@buffnews.com

Know a fabulous "hidden expert" in Western New York that people should know about? Go online to the PopStand blog on the buffalonews.com to share your recommendations and tips with others.

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