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Family ties bring wine shop to East Hills

Owners of Brooklyn retail store Leon & Son open second location in wife’s hometown.

September 6, 2019
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Leon and Son
Cristina and Christopher Leon opened their new wine store in East Hills at the end of last month. Courtesy Samantha Denman

Family ties and a love for the food and beverage culture have brought Leon & Son to Grand Rapids. The family-owned wine shop, specializing in New and Old World wines from around the world, opened its doors Aug. 29 in southeast Grand Rapids.

Owner Christopher Leon has worked in the wine industry most of his adult life. The Leon & Son at 972 Cherry St. SE is the second location for the company, which originally was founded in Brooklyn, New York.

The Business Journal in June reported Leon and his wife Cristina submitted a request to the Grand Rapids Planning Commission to open a second wine shop and tasting room in the East Hills neighborhood.

Her family ties and a deep love for the area led to the Leons selecting Grand Rapids for a second store.

“I’m really proud of what we’ve done in Brooklyn, and over the past five years or so, I’ve been coming to Grand Rapids with Cristina, and I’ve been seeing this incredible energy between food and beverage here, and I saw this opportunity to do what we do in Brooklyn, but bring it here to Grand Rapids,” Christopher Leon said.

“I’ve always loved this place and loved being with family, but it’s been really nice seeing it through Chris’s eyes also,” Cristina Leon said. “To get to show it to him and see him uncovering things and seeing things differently, it’s been fun to experience that together.”

The two had been talking about opening a second store since last spring. When her husband suggested opening in Grand Rapids, it immediately clicked, she said. Being surrounded by family was an important factor in the move.

What distinguishes the family-owned businesses from most other wine stores is the focus on restaurant-style hospitality.

“The relationship is engaged, not transactional,” Christopher Leon said. “My background is in hospitality. I’ve never actually worked in retail before opening my first shop. We wanted to treat it like it was a restaurant.”

Taking care of customers is important, Christopher Leon said, because for someone who may be looking to buy a bottle as a gift but isn’t familiar with the wine world, it can be a scary place.

“If you’re looking at shelves and nobody’s there to walk you through or shine light on things, then it’s not a very fun experience, and we try to kind of take all that fear away,” he said.

Christopher Leon went through the advanced level of certification through the Wine and Spirits Education Trust. Cristina Leon also went through WSET training, while not at the advanced level, to gain some technical grounding in wine.

“It is a passion,” she said of her husband. “He sometimes falls asleep reading about wine. He loves it, but it’s also his job.”

Christopher Leon knows the story behind every bottle of wine in both the Brooklyn and Grand Rapids stores, Cristina Leon said.

Even as a certified sommelier, Leon admitted it can be a dizzying experience. There is no one set of rules, he said. For every winemaker in every little corner of the world, there is a completely different set of rules.

There are two important things to understand about wine in Christopher Leon’s mind: each wine comes from a certain place, and it’s made by a certain person. There are certain commercial brands of wine that don’t have a person behind it, he said, and it’s important to him that there’s a real person behind every bottle of wine in his shop.

“The stories can be people reimagining where they come from, the landscape of their region, to bringing a new varietal to the region, to doing something totally outside the box,” Christopher Leon said.

An example he gave was Italy, which he considers one of the most challenging parts of the wine world for both consumers and professionals.

Italy is the only wine-growing region in Western Europe where every region of the country grows grapes for viticulture, and every region grows unique varietals, making over 2,000 native varietals in the country, he said.

“That’s because people are so wildly proud of what they have,” Christopher Leon said. “It’s holistically, culturally part of what they drink, what they’re having with their food when they’re with their family. It’s typically from their own land.”

The Cherry Street store has a similar layout to the store in Brooklyn, Leon said. Wines are displayed wall to wall by country and by region with representations from most of Western Europe, the Southern Hemisphere and the U.S. The less expensive wines, $15 and under, are displayed in the center of the shop, and Christopher Leon said these types of wines often are the most difficult for consumers to find.

“This is actually the hardest part of the job because wines at these price points can be difficult to find from a real person and a real place, but it’s super important to me that wines at this price point represent the same things that wines at (higher) price points represent,” he said.

For being open for only a short while, Christopher Leon said he is excited by the shop’s reception, based on how many people have come in and what they have bought.

Leon & Son received help from local carpenter Allen Spencer in the build-out of the new space, as well as barstools from Grand Rapids Chair Company.

The store also is decorated with art from New York artist Garrett Morin.

Currently, Leon & Son is waiting for licensing approval to serve tasting pours, which is a regular part of the business in Brooklyn. The store will not serve wine by the glass or small plates for the foreseeable future.

The Leons have plans to build out the front of the store into a bar with window seating, as well as build out the back room into a lounge for customers to enjoy higher-end wines.

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