It’s a concept that is surprisingly rare on the East Coast. While brewpubs have been popping up like dandelions all over the North Shore offering community gathering spots and craft beer, wine drinkers have mostly been left out in the cold.
At least that’s what Ryan O’Connor-Crowe found when he and his husband, Tim, started exploring the idea of opening a tasting room and winery in the area, turning their love of home wine making into a business. “We’re so unique,” says Ryan, who manages the day-to-day operations at the Wine Lab, their new spot in the revitalized West Mill building in Machine Shop Village in North Andover. “We’re not just a regular wine bar.”
Indeed, wrapping your mind around exactly what the Wine Lab is takes a bit of time, as evidenced by all the curious folks wandering in at lunchtime recently just to check out the space. The Wine Lab is first and foremost a winery—something that will become more apparent as the pair completes their build-out over the winter to bring their wine-making operation to North Andover. Until then, the Wine Lab’s rotating roster of wines are made elsewhere, under supervision of the O’Connor-Crowes.
The soaring bar space, full of exposed beams and brick and sunlight, is a tasting room. But it’s also a casual restaurant, open at 11:30 a.m. every day but Monday, offering an array of light bites from salads and sandwich es to artistic charcuterie boards with house-made accompaniments like Lab wine-infused cheese spread and whole grain mustard. Live music several nights a week, a seating area with cozy leather chairs, and a large outdoor deck all encourage people to hang out.
The only alcohol on the menu is crafted by the Wine Lab—due to complex licensing laws, they can only sell what they make—so beer drinkers will have to expand their horizons. But just because it’s a wine bar, that doesn’t make it stuffy. “We’re not wine snobs,” Ryan says. “We are all about playing with your wine.”
It starts with the names of their wines, which all have a story to tell. For example, She Drank It All, a California cabernet sauvignon, gets its name from a gathering of friends and family who were sampling different blends. That one was so popular it got polished off quickly. “Childhood Crush”—a sweet, grapey quaff made from Concord grapes grown in Pennsylvania—is like a grown-up version of grape soda.
But the playfulness doesn’t end with the names. At the Wine Lab, customers are encouraged to blend their own wine. Tasting flights come in a rack of test tubes, with a glass for mixing. “It sounds sacrilegious to tell people to blend wine that has already been blended,” Ryan says. “But we like that each person can create something for their own taste.”
The ability to craft your own style of wine will expand exponentially this winter, when the Wine Lab starts offering wine-making classes, enabling students to blend grape juice and ferment, age, and bottle their custom blend. Ryan says the experiential nature of the Wine Lab’s offerings is very much in tune with the times. “There is so much DIY right now,” he says. “People love to get their hands on what they are eating and drinking.”
In the meantime, customers can enjoy the Wine Lab’s current roster of eight wines, including two made from a mix of Portuguese grapes known as a “field blend”—so named because it is a mixture of indigenous grapes all grown together in the same vineyard. But don’t get too attached; like many other craft products, specific wines may be in limited supply.
“It is possible that no wine may end up being a ‘staple,’ as we can only produce so much of each varietal,” Ryan says, adding that fall will see chardonnay, pinot grigio, and peach, strawberry, and blackberry wines added to the list. “We embrace change, and we love that it brings people back for something new.”
18 High St., North Andover, 978-684-2264, www.thewinelabNA.com