At wine and spirits retailer Wine Legend’s in-store bar in West Orange, New Jersey, one to two ounce pours of scarce spirits are available in spades. The store serves five different ages of the famously elusive Pappy Van Winkle, for example, ranging from the 10-year-old ($17 a 1-ounce pour; $30 a 2-ounce pour) to the 23-year-old ($80; $140). The Macallan M, one of the Scotch distillery’s highest-end offerings, is also on the menu, priced at $400 a 1-ounce pour and $750 for 2 ounces. These unique offerings illuminate the five-unit chain’s overarching mission: To bring appreciation of top-tier wines and spirits to a much wider audience.
“When you want to try a really high-end, upscale wine or spirit, it’s very expensive,” says Wine Legend brand owner and president Mahesh Lekkala. “And you can’t normally get those by the glass—you have to buy the bottle. We bring the prices at our bar down by at least 50 percent. At any other place you have to spend $200 to $250 to get a shot of Louis XIII de Rémy Martin Cognac. We have it here for less than $100.”
Aside from providing a more accessible price point for rare offerings, Lekkala stresses the educational aspect of such tastings. “When you actually try a product, then you know what went into it,” he explains. “You create an understanding of why it’s expensive. Our current model is to provide that opportunity.”
Wine Legend didn’t debut as a tasting-oriented, education-bent chain. Once an aspiring computer engineer, Lekkala was an unlikely candidate for a leading career in wine and spirits retail. His wife’s parents helmed a beer and liquor store in New Jersey, ultimately propelling him into the beverage alcohol retail business. Eventually, Lekkala left his engineering job and conceived of his own endeavor, culminating in the 2002 debut of two Wine Legend stores in Livingston and Cherry Hill, New Jersey.
Since then, three more locations have followed: A Woodbury, New Jersey, unit opened in 2013, and the West Orange storefront—the first with an in-store bar—premiered in 2015. This past July, the retailer branched out of New Jersey for the first time, opening Wine Legend—The Bar & The Store in Brooklyn, New York’s Fort Greene neighborhood.
The debut of the Fort Greene location brought with it a slew of new beginnings for the retailer, chief among them the debut of a sleek new logo. All Wine Legend stores are now in the process of transitioning out of the old, red logo, and the website is being updated for the new black and gray design as well. A Wine Legend app focused on streamlining orders and deliveries has also launched, though Lekkala says he isn’t marketing the technology quite yet—he doesn’t want to create brand confusion while the old logo is being phased out.
Unlike the in-store bar at the West Orange Wine Legend, the new Fort Greene bar features draft beer ($6), wine on tap ($6 to $70) and craft cocktails ($10 to $13). The cocktails are simple, and the bar openly details all drink recipes along with the required ingredients, so that consumers may then purchase them in the attached store.
While wine and high-end Scotch, Cognac, and whiskies play an important role at all five Wine Legend stores, the overall selection and total number of spirits and wine SKUs differs from location to location. In Livingston, for example, Wine Legend offers a large number of Italian and kosher wines to serve the sizable Italian and Jewish populations in the area. In general, the retailer stocks anywhere from 1,500 to 3,000 wines and spirits, with wine accounting for 63 percent of total sales, spirits making up 25 percent, and a limited beer selection comprising the remaining 12 percent.
Expansion always looms large on Wine Legend’s horizon. Lekkala has extensively researched the markets in North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas, noting their growth and potential, though he is not ready for such widespread expansion quite yet. For now, he’s focusing on New York. “If what we’re doing succeeds, we want to have a bunch of wine bars in New York,” he says. “Not many people are doing what we are—bringing enjoyment and education at the same time. It’s a unique experience for people.”