Jul. 2—TUPELO — Brandi Phillips vowed never to open a wine store in a retail strip center, but here she is with the Wine Barn in Big Oaks Crossing.
"It's a really good, convenient location," she said.
Her store is in fine company, with the world's largest retailer, Walmart, right next door. In fact, on the other side of the north wall of the Wine Barn is the Walmart bakery. Sam's anchors the end of the retail center.
The Wine Barn isn't new, however.
Phillips started the business in 2013 after being laid off from her pharmaceutical sales job.
"Our whole sales force got laid off," she said. "After being in the business for 10 years, I was done. I didn't want to do it anymore."
Originally from Iuka, she and her husband were in Corinth often, as it was where her mother's family was rooted.
Then on one trek through the city, she noticed a corner lot with an old yellow barn on it. She had always wanted to open a wine store, as she was a wine connoisseur herself, and the place seemed an ideal location.
"We got it for a really good price, tore down the old barn, built a new barn and started the business in 2013," Phillips said.
Her plans to open a wine-only store didn't last long, as customers came in looking for liquor as well. So Phillips began stocking liquor, albeit reluctantly.
"I got into this because I love wine, and I only wanted to sell wine," she said. "I didn't have pints for a year in Corinth, but I finally got some. But if anybody comes into the store, wine is really my specialty.
"I'll ask if they like sweet, dry, white, red, etc. I love giving recommendations. I've tried almost everyone of the bottles we have, and I'll tell what I think. I'm honest, and I'll tell you if you need to find something else."
Next to the Wine Barn in Corinth was the Flying Pig craft beer market that Phillips opened. While it was a marginal success, she opted to close it after about three years.
She sold the property with the two buildings on it in February of last year.
Phillips then took a year off before deciding to reopen the Wine Barn in a new location.
"My husband has a real job," she said with a laugh. "He supports the family, so I was able to take the time off."
During that time off, Phillips started thinking about bringing back the Wine Barn, but this time in Tupelo. The new owners of her old Corinth property told her if she ever wanted to reopen the business elsewhere they would return the signs, shelving, etc. of the store.
"I've got all my original shelving. I stained every piece of wood in the old building, the decorations and the hand-drawn wine labels," she said. "It's all here in Tupelo."
The space in Tupelo needed quite a bit of work, and it was almost like rebuilding the old Wine Barn. A couple of months of hard work to renovate the space paid off, and she opened the Wine Barn in March.
"Any liquor store will tell you it's challenging right now with ABC and all the changes that are going on," she said.
One major issue is the difficulty in getting some product from the state ABC warehouse.
"It's especially tough on stuff that everybody wants, like specialty bourbons," she said. "When they hit the state, the casinos and big stores are the first ones to get it, and that's just the way it is ... bourbon is just huge right now."
Bourbon sales have grown to around $2 billion in the U.S., accounting for nearly 9% of total spirits volume.
Eric Gregory, president of the Kentucky Distillers Association, said the combination of several factors have fueled "unparalleled growth" in the bourbon industry.
First was the introduction of small-batch and single-barrel bourbons in the late 1980s and early 1990s. That started a trend of a premium bourbons that helped boost bourbon's reputation as a high-quality spirit.
Then the global market for bourbon grew after the signing of NAFTA and the EU agreement that helped level the playing field with Scotch whisky and other global whiskeys, Gregory said.
As with any case of high demand and low supply, trying to get what everybody wants is difficult. Finding Blanton's, Willett and Eagle Rare on store shelves is an uncommon find. And don't even ask for Pappy Van Winkle, which depending on the vintage, can cost tens of thousands of dollars.
"Oh, we've had people ask, but they quit asking," Phillips said. "
But the Wine Barn has plenty of liquor and wine, and Phillips often has what a customer seeks. It's a competitive market in which Phillips finds herself, but she's confident the Wine Barn will make its mark.
"Once we get good and established and more people come to us, I think our location is key," she said. "In Corinth we had Memphis to Pickwick people, and it was the last stop for many before going into Tennessee. It was convenient. Here we're next to Walmart, and we have a lot of people — lots of out-of-towners — come in looking for something. So convenience and customer service is what will set us apart."
For now, Phillips is trying to find out exactly what her customers in Tupelo like. In Corinth, she was able to keep the most popular products in supply. In Tupelo, she hasn't reached that point yet.
"We kind of had it down in Corinth, but because the draw here is from so many areas, it's been more of a challenge to figure out what people want," she said. "We'd like to get everything, but we don't have the space."
One new feature: Customers can get a taste of a wine before buying the bottle.
"I can open a bottle of wine and let everybody have a taste, and that's really nice to be able to do that," she said.
The Wine Barn is open Monday-Saturday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.