When Campus Wines & Spirits opened the doors to their Jackson Avenue West location on October 1, 2021, business partners Luke McKey and Joe Bittick had already been longtime friends.
Both gentlemen are returning residents of Oxford. Bittick had left to join the military and lived in the northern Virginia-Washington, D.C. area prior to moving back to his home state to attend school, and make a switch to the Mississippi Air National Guard. McKey graduated from Ole Miss, then settled in several places, including Memphis, TN and Houston, TX. But most crucial to the start of Campus Wines was his seven year stint in Seattle, prior to his return to the Mid-South.
McKey said that when he first returned to Oxford, he felt like he’d left part of his “wine community” in Seattle. “It’s harder to get wines here in Mississippi,” he said. “First, because you’re not allowed to do wine clubs, and secondly, there’s sort of ‘have and have nots’ locally for the wine community.” He said, at times it feels like there are the “people with walk-in wine cellars” – and then, “everyone else.”
Thanks to having many friends in the Seattle wine community, McKey said, “he was constantly exposed to different wines. And that’s part of what we want to do with the store, and through tastings….to expand the palate of people who just haven’t had that much variety of wine.”
Bittick has worked in fine dining restaurants for over a decade, both locally and in Virginia where he gained his certification. He said that when he and McKey began discussing business ideas, a liquor store venture “just made sense.” But with an emphasis on high-end wine, he added, “because we both love wine…it just kind of grew from there.”
The much acclaimed Grit Restaurant in Taylor, Miss., and their sister catering company A&N Catering of Oxford, will continue to employ Bittick through the new year, until his shoes are filled. At the end of January, and on through February, he intends to become fully committed to moving wine projects forward at Campus Wines.
Bittick mainly credits his background in fine dining for his current move, about which he’s highly enthusiastic. “Making drinks and pouring good wine, and trying to cultivate people there. It just made more sense to do it from behind the counter, instead of behind the bar,” he said.
Among his priorities are doing a ribbon cutting at the store, then promoting some of the tastings they’re planning. This would include ‘Wine Wednesdays,’ with half-off wines offered: “You’d come in and try different wines – like a range of wines in a particular varietal. Three different pinots or something like that, or two syrahs – or two zinfandels.” Bittick said he would like to “broaden the palates of people,” who might typically just come in and buy their usual selections. “Try to expose them to something they wouldn’t normally buy. Then, helping to build a better wine community here. There’s a lot of people that like wine, but there aren’t so many options. There are not a lot of community spaces for it.”
As he begins taking on his role as Campus Wines sommelier, Bittick expects to be recommending rosé wines since Valentine’s Day will be approaching. He suggests it, of course, “because it’s pink,” he said jokingly, “but also because it goes with most appetizers, which makes for a good start to an evening out on the town – or the prelude to a nice home-cooked meal.
He also said that, if he’s “‘sitting in the middle of the road” in winespeak terms, he’ll be likely to suggest a pinot noir, because of how “versatile and wide-reaching” it is. Particularly an Oregon pinot from Willamette Valley, said Bittick, because of its lush, earthy and dark fruit flavors. “It’s not gonna dominate your palate, like a California cabernet” might.
Bittick said, with regard to the massive supply shortage of late and how he expects it could affect wine inventory, that despite reports of some French, Spanish and Italian wines being scarce (perhaps stuck on ships and unable to make it to Mississippi warehouses), there is more concern for liquor inventory.
As liquor stores around Oxford have had noticeably larger gaps on their shelves than usual, some for many months now, there’s yet another hurdle these days for retailers to overcome. “Glass has been a unique problem for people who use unique bottles,” McKey said. Some fine wines with fancy bottles have had to compromise their glass designs to meet demand (with the bleak alternative of leaving them for longer than necessary in their barrels), although upscale tequila and whiskey bottles – usually more elaborate – have suffered more scarcity. Glenlivit 12 Year Old and Patrón, are among the countless popular spirits that have been backed up and hard to get.
“We are trying to be, number one…the nicest store in town, with a clean environment that is pleasing to shop in. And we’ve already received numerous compliments on that exact front,” said McKey, of his shop, that not only thrives in cleanliness, but hospitality and friendliness. “And then secondly, we’re going to have the largest wine selection in town, if we don’t already have it. We’re at over 500 wines currently, which is one of the largest selections in all of north Mississippi, and we have intentions of growing to about 750 wines in the near future.”
They’ll not only be wine tastings, but a goal of involving everything in the entire store in a tasting at some time or another. “Whether it’s bourbon, or a rum, or a scotch. We’re hoping people can come to the store not only for what they’re looking for, but what they’re not looking for…and to be able to taste it before they buy it,” said McKey.
Campus Wines & Spirits’ physical address is 1501 Jackson Ave W., Suite 105, Oxford, MS (formerly Jos. A. Bank men’s clothing store), and hours are Monday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. (662) 550-9494.