by Gene Marrano
After toiling for others in the beverage distribution business for 35 years, first in South Carolina and then in Salem for Blue Ridge Distributing, Bill Philips decided it was time to strike out on his own. As he said at an open house last weekend, which coincided with the closing of the Mojo Café next door, “it’s nice to open the doors, turn on the music you want to hear and welcome folks to your own place.”
“I just decided to do something for me,” said Philips, who also offers “Breadcraft” products (baked in downtown Roanoke) and specialty dips / sauces. “Mr. Bill” even jokes with customers and friends that he’s retired; “I listen to good music and I have great customers. All I do is have fun every day.”
Thus was born Mr. Bill’s Wine Cellar, which will celebrate its one year anniversary on September 10 with live music and an even larger free wine tasting event than the weekly tastings Mr. Bill’s stages on Fridays (4-7) and Saturdays (noon-5). Philips really knows wine by the way – he has taught a credited wine class at Virginia Tech and lectured at Roanoke College, Radford University and National Business College.
Philips said he hadn’t “counted in a while,” but knows the last time he checked that Mr. Bill’s featured more than 600 varieties of wine and several hundred beer choices. “We have the largest selection of Virginia wine in this part of the state,” noted Philips, who put that number at 150 or so. “There’s Virginia beer, cider and mead” as well.
Repeat customers return because “they like what we’re doing,” and Philips said new people stop in all the time. “We’re informal. Our goal is to have the best selection of wine and beer in the valley, and have the best prices – even [compared] to the grocery stores.”
Philips said he didn’t know much about wine when starting out in the business in 1975 – only that red and white wine are different but said, “I’ve had the chance to learn a little bit over the years.”
He is also “very bummed” that the Mojo Café next door in the same building closed down after Saturday’s joint open house, citing economic conditions as a reason, but he notes that the same location will reopen soon as yet another coffee house. “Hopefully things will move on and it will still be great.” Mojo Café offered a variety of hot and cold coffee drinks, and specialty sandwiches and salads, with an emphasis on healthy foods.
Mr. Bill’s holds an open house about once a month, but Philips promises that the September 10 open house will be extra special, with free grilled meats available as well. There have even been people offering massages at past open houses. “We may do something like that again,” said Philips, who proves that work can also be a lot of fun at the same time.
Mr. Bill’s is located at 2825B Brambleton Ave., Phone 400-7771. See www.mrbillswinecellar.com for more information; Bill Philips also has a “Roanoke Wine Blog” that can be accessed through the website.