The second randomly selected stop on the Champaign-Urbana wine bar tour was Buvons, located in downtown Urbana. My drinking companion and I dropped in during a recent Saturday afternoon wine tasting.
When the wine bar expansion opened in the summer of 2010, adding to the retail side of Corkscrew that had been open for 12 years, the owners named the wine bar portion Buvons, after the plural present-tense conjugation of the French verb boire, which means “to drink.” So “nous buvons,” as in, “we drink.” And a lot of “we’s” drink there every week.
Ambiance and Layout
As we arrived, we were greeted and shown past the retail area to the bar and wine tasting. When you first enter Corkscrew, hundreds of wines are on display immediately in front of you. The cheese case is located in the far back corner, and beer and liquor skirt the outside walls. Walk left, past the checkout counter and up the stairs or ramp to enter Buvons.
The spacious seating area holds 70 comfortably, with room to spare. Buvons’ decor is an eclectic mix of sleek and modern displaying stainless bar and tables and exposed heating ducts, with avant-garde twisted wire fixtures hanging above and classic Persian rugs underfoot. Toward the east side of the space, where the wine tastings are held, you’ll find a cozy nook with a couch and chairs.
An average of 25–30 people were present throughout the tasting, so the space felt comfortable but never crowded. Most mingled and tasted wines, while a few sipped wine, ate snacks, and attentively watched the football game on the big screen television. In the evenings, Buvons caters to the live music-loving crowd, so at 6:30, the tasting ended, a jazz quintet started setting up to play, and the lights dimmed by 7 when the music began. Thirty people or so stayed for the music, and more continued to stream in as the night progressed.
Menu and Tastings
Buvons sells wine by the glass, ranging from $5–10 a glass at the bar. The menu contained eight whites and seven reds at the time of our visit, but it rotates regularly so there’s always something new to try. Customers may also drink bottles purchased in the store for a $5 corkage fee.
Because of the small kitchen, during the winter, the food menu sports a limited number of choices: truffled popcorn, cheese plates, and Pizza M. If you’re not familiar with Pizza M, it is the same 14-inch thin crust pizza you can order and pick up at Mirabelle, but now you can sit and drink while it’s delivered to your table. The Buvons menu expands during warmer seasons to include fresh entree-sized salads.
Although I’ve had and enjoyed a Pizza M before, we opted for a cheese plate. For $12, we tried The Trinity, a trio of cheeses, which included a Sartori reserve, Chevre in Blue, and Fromager d'Affinois (double cream). I’ll be back again soon for another cheese plate, which was slightly less expensive, fresher, and more than double the quantity of cheese compared to the comparable plate I had on my recent expedition to Sun Singer.
While you might think Buvons serves only wine, they also purvey beers by the can or bottle ($2–4), and in fact, the Corkscrew Beer Club, to which anyone can belong, meets at Buvons on Sunday afternoon. People purchase or bring in homebrew bottles to share with other patrons.
Other events besides Saturday wine tastings and Sunday beer tastings include the occasional weekday tasting and wine dinners. The wine pairing dinners happen every month to six weeks, outside of the holiday season, and feature food from a local restaurant or chef, like Black Dog Smoke and Ale House or Prairie Fruits Farms. To keep up with these events, sign up for Corkscrew’s weekly mailing or watch Corkscrew’s or Buvon’s Facebook pages.
Owner Geoff Bland, also a physician, opened the Corkscrew store in Springfield 17 years ago, and expanded to Champaign in 1998. As mentioned earlier, he added Buvons in summer 2010. Bland hires managers he can trust to run the shops successfully so he can enjoy the wine aspect and let someone else handle day-to-day operations, but he still tastes wine with his crew every Thursday. And, in fact, this wine-centric attitude leads to the same attitude among the staff.
Every staff member is invited to taste wines daily in the store. This would explain why the bartender and servers were helpful and extremely knowledgeable about various wines and wine pairings. At a rare moment when a server didn’t know an answer, he asked another staff member, reflecting the same cooperative attitude in Buvons as customers tend to find on the retail side.
Bland’s son, Nick, acted as Corkscrew’s most recent manager for four years until earlier this year when he left for a job with a distributor in Chicago. Todd Fusco, now manager of the Urbana Corkscrew and Buvons, took over after Bland’s departure.
On the retail side, Corkscrew sells wine, beer, liquor, and cheeses. The sprawling selection of wines includes between 800–900 wines from various countries, with signs hanging above to indicate the region in which you’re standing. The selection of cheeses varies, because they rotate cheeses fairly quickly guaranteeing continued freshness, but they average a selection of about 30 local, domestic, and imported cheeses.
One feature of note about the store and wine bar is that the entire staff is particularly well-educated about wine. Because the whole staff is encouraged to taste wines regularly, you can expect them to direct you to a wine you might like or that will pair with a food you plan to serve. But not only can you chat up staff about the wine, you might find their backgrounds interesting as well. “We have the most overqualified staff on the planet earth,” said Fusco. Several have advanced degrees in areas as diverse as German history, architecture, and microbiology, and their non-academic interests are just as intriguing, with one lead singer of a band and a Phish fanatic on staff as well. Stop by Buvons for a drink, a plate of cheese, and perhaps a good story or two.
Corkscrew and Buvons are located at 203 N. Vine St., Urbana, IL 61802.
Free parking is available in the Corkscrew/Buvons parking lot. When parking gets scarce, which occasionally happens when the wine bar and store are simultaneously busy, street parking is available on East and West Water St., just south of Buvons.
Although Buvons’ new hours aren’t yet published consistently across the board (on Facebook and on the store door), Fusco assured me that any time Corkscrew is open, Buvons is available for drinking, too. And it happened that while I was there in the early afternoon taking a few daytime photos, a gentleman came in to drink beer and write a paper. (I hope it turned out well, as papers often do with a beer or two.) So the official Buvons hours mirror the Corkscrew hours, listed below. The extended times have not been in place long, so you might still enjoy a quiet afternoon work session there, at least until the word gets out.
Monday–Wednesday, 11:00 a.m.–8:00 p.m.; Thursday–Saturday, 11:00 a.m.–10:00 p.m.; and Sunday, 12:00 p.m.–5:00 p.m.
Read part I of Wine Bar Wars here.
Thirsty Around Town explores alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages found in different venues around the Champaign-Urbana area. If you have a favorite obscure drink, email me. I want to try it!