In previous interviews, Blacksburg Wine Lab co-owner John Boyer has described his establishment as a “bar for grown-ups.” He and partner Katie Pritchard conceptualized the Wine Lab, which opened in September 2018, and Boyer regularly mingles with customers, leaving the day-to-day operations to a general manager.
The space certainly has a grown-up feel. A large wire chandelier with blue lights dominates the entrance, leading the way into the dining room, which has open ceilings with exposed ductwork and an array of other modern lighting features. Seating options include a row of tall tables with bench seating against the wall, a bar area, a dozen or so small tables in the main dining area, a nook with a love seat and chairs, and an outside patio with plants, umbrellas and fairy lights.
On a first visit, my partner and I took a bus over for a late Saturday lunch, and had the place almost to ourselves. The Wine Lab is self-seating (with the exception of reserved tables), and we made ourselves comfortable at one of the tall tables against the wall. A server promptly brought us menus and noted that New Zealand was the current wine region of focus. The drier regional whites were marked as sold out, so we opted for a carafe of La Vite sauvignon blanc ($24), which was crisp and a bit sweet, though not overly so.
To begin, we selected the small snack trio of Marcona almonds, pickles and olives ($6) and the cheese/charcuterie board ($29). The former arrived quickly and we nibbled while chatting and people-watching, noting that everyone in the bar was, in terms of age, a grown-up — the average was definitely upward of 40. As for the snacks, the pickles and olives were fine, but it was the almonds that were the standout. Known as “the queen of almonds,” the Marconas, roasted in olive oil and sea salt, could have been a whole meal.
The cheese/charcuterie board arrived soon after. This comes with a choice of six cheeses and/or meats, from which we selected 60-month aged gouda, dolce gorgonzola and bucheron cheeses along with duck rillettes (warm shredded duck with spices), Milano Italian salami and prosciutto. These were paired with some pickles and almonds (so we could have skipped the snack tray), a small pot of coarse mustard, pickled radishes, two jam-type spreads, as well as bread and crackers. All of the flavors and textures worked quite well together and it was fun trying all of the different combinations.
We returned at around 6:30 p.m. on a subsequent weekday to a packed house: a small gathering was taking place at one end of the restaurant, the patio was nearly full, and a few tables were reserved. We were nonetheless able to find a seat, and were attended to after a short wait. New Zealand was still the featured wine region, and we tried to order a white from that menu, but the last bottle had just been sold. Instead, we chose a Fernlands sauvignon blanc ($32) from the regular menu and sipped this while considering what to order.
Initially, I ordered the smoked salmon salad ($10) and my partner chose the grilled cheese ($11). However, after our server left to place the orders, he returned with the news that the kitchen was out of salmon salad. As I am terrible at deciding things on the fly, my companion offered to switch orders with me, and selected the goat cheese sandwich ($10) instead. Sandwiches all come with kettle chips, a salad or soup ($2 extra), and we both opted for the salad. This was an unexpected highlight of the meal. The greens were fresh and bright, but the dressing — a light vinaigrette, with a subtle lemonyness and delicate flakes of sea salt, that evenly coated every leaf — was the best part.
The grilled cheese was cooked to perfection, with a gooey blend of flavorful cheeses between sturdy slices of sourdough. The Wine Lab menu offers the option to add roasted tomato, pesto and/or ‘njuda (spicy, spreadable pork), but I forgot to request any of these and the server neglected to ask (he was quite busy). The goat cheese sandwich was much superior to the grilled cheese (which was, after all, still just a grilled cheese), featuring goat cheese, roasted red peppers and spicy arugula on rosemary ciabatta bread. The tanginess of the cheese, richness of the peppers and slight bite of the arugula all worked together in yummy harmony.
For dessert, we were going to order the “speck” (smoky cured pork) ice cream ($2) — I know, pork ice cream, but we were curious! — but the kitchen was out of that as well, so we were all done.
When our server returned with the check, he apologized for being out of a number of things and noted that he’d discounted the whole bill. The service was great despite the crowd, and we didn’t complain about anything as we both understand that these things happen. So this was a nice surprise.
As to whether Blacksburg Wine Lab is a bar for grown-ups, it depends on how “grown-up” is qualified. As the name suggests, there are a wide variety of wines and tastings are offered regularly. There are no TVs or loud music. The price point for the food and drink (they also have cider, beer and cocktails) is reasonable given the quality, but the price-to-portion ratio may dissuade younger patrons from frequent attendance. However, the Wine Lab also regularly hosts Young Professionals Nights, and the atmosphere, cocktails and food are fresh and modern.
If you enjoy those things (and if you’re at least 21), you can consider yourself grown-up enough to head to the Wine Lab.