Brian Kuchta and Dr. Walter Osika became friends over wine, neither knowing it would turn into Bin 51 — a business partnership five years and growing.
Kuchta was working at the former wine store Crushed Grapes, and Osika, a local dentist, was a regular customer. “Wally bought a lot of wine there,” Kuchta said, and he learned Osika’s tastes. “I started feeding him wine he really liked,” Kuchta said. “It got so he watched for my car, so he’d come in when I was working.”
Osika worked as a dentist for 30 years, beginning with five years in the military. He served during the first Gulf War and suffered a detached retina in his service. He finished dental school in the metro-east and opened a practice in Edwardsville — ironically only five blocks from Bin 51’s new home on Main Street. He practiced dentistry there for 25 years before retiring.
About the time Crushed Grapes closed, Kuchta and Osika opened Bin 51 in a storefront on Troy Road, next door to an olive oil store and across a small parking lot from 1818 Chophouse. For five years, they operated with a very small bar that Kuchta said was almost on top of the retail portion of the store.
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“That was the problem with the old place,” Kuchta said.
In moving to their historic building at 118 N. Main St., Kuchta and Osika were able to build a larger bar and tables toward the front of the store, and the retail shelves toward the back. Rows and rows of various wines, a wall of bourbon and whiskey, and a cold case of chilled wine and craft beer surround displays on giant whiskey barrels with guidebooks on various kinds of spirits.
“I’m really learning a whole lot more than I had the chance to before,” Osika said. “I was never involved in the buying and tasting before, I was more in the sales.”
The selection is what drives Bin 51, Kuchta said. They strive to source “great, eclectic wines,” not the same bottles that one can find in a supermarket, he said.
“Anybody can find a $100 bottle of wine with high ratings,” he said. “What we care about is that $15 to $25 bottle of wine nobody has ever heard of before and tastes like a million bucks.”
Anybody can find a $100 bottle of wine with high ratings. What we care about is that $15 to $25 bottle of wine nobody has ever heard of before and tastes like a million bucks.
Brian Kuchta, Bin 51
They’re the “needles in a haystack,” Kuchta said, and tough to sell because people tend to shy away from buying wines or spirits they’ve never tasted.
But that’s why they’ve acquired a device that keeps wine fresh by injecting nitrogen in the bottle, banishing the oxygen that turns it sour. That allows them to keep a lineup of wines available by the glass up to two weeks, Osika said, so they can offer tastes of wines to help people find what they like.
Kuchta said they strive for “the most thought-out, researched, curated collection of spirits” in the area — especially the wall of bourbon. Kuchta goes on a buying trip to Kentucky once or twice a year, and gets a behind-the-scenes view.
They went into the Jim Beam warehouse, sampled directly out of the barrel, tilted the barrel themselves and that’s where their Jim Beam comes from, he said. “It’s about as hands-on as we can make it,” he said.
They may go to the bourbon, but often the winemakers come to them. “That’s really fun, they always have cool stories,” Osika said. “We can buy a lot of small-producer stuff that stores won’t stock because of the small volume.”
Kuchta and Osika spend a lot of time building relationships with the wine and spirits industry, but also with their customers — replicating the same experience Kuchta provided for Osika. “If you come here on a regular basis for wine, we will get to know your taste buds,” Kuchta said. “By walking in the store, I can pick out a bottle of wine for you.”
The new location isn’t new to Edwardsville. At least 100 years old, it was Sample Shoes in the 1910-1920 era, and then Fashion Bootery from the 1940s to the 1960s, Kuchta said. He’s found some old shoe ads from newspapers back in the Sample Shoes era, and hopes to get them preserved and framed for the walls.
Eventually it became a florist shop, which operated for the last few decades before closing recently. That’s when Kuchta and Osika opted to move less than a mile from their first storefront to the Main Street building they now own. The walls are exposed brick, extending through from the Main Street bar to the retail shop and the rear entrance, opening on a parking lot, resolving the parking issue that had plagued them at their Troy Road location. The walls are decorated with older wine maps of France, Italy and Portugal — at least the walls not holding rows and rows of wine bottles.
For Kuchta, being part of the Main Street stretch is “fantastic.” His family has been in Edwardsville since the 1940s. “To be part of downtown and the history of this town is really special to me,” he said.
All of downtown Edwardsville is evolving into a food and wine culture of higher-end cuisine, Kuchta said: from Sacred Grounds coffeehouse to Cleveland Heath, which is regularly rated one of the best restaurants in the St. Louis region.
But it’s a community, not competition, Kuchta said. “We’re all on the same page and we are all friends,” he said. In fact, they’re working with some of their restaurant neighbors to offer to-go snacks that they can buy and bring in to Bin 51, which does not offer food items.
And so far, there have been regular crowds at the bar each night, which suits Kuchta and Osika well. “We had five years to let (Bin 51) evolve and think about what we wanted,” Kuchta said. “This is exactly what we wanted.”