Monthly Archives: November 2011

Monopole: Pasadena’s new wine store

Pasadena’s “El Molino/Colorado Blvd.” Theater District has, for years, been one of our favorite southern California destinations, featuring such venues as the Pasadena Playhouse, Laemmle’s Playhouse 7 movie theater and a great bookstore.  However, with the Pasadena Playhouse in Chapter 11 bankruptcy and that we can now see great films locally at downtown Lancaster’s Laemmele Boulevard  Theater, could we find ourselves with no reason to go back?  Of course not.

The Pasadena Playhouse has re-structured its debt and is presenting their first full season in two years, restaurants like El Portal and Elements are still striving, Vroman’s Bookstore is continuously presenting authors and lectures and the new Monopole Wine at 21 South El Molino Avenue brings a whole new dynamic to the district.   We have walked by Monopole numerous times simplistically wondering how a retail wine shop could compete with wholesale and on-line establishments.  They seem to be doing well, but surely co-owners Peter Nelson and Hiro Tamaki have determined a strategy to set them apart.  It was time to discover just what that was and if it could make us steady customers.

Monopole (mon-uh-pohl), a French word meaning monopoly or, in wine terminology, sole vineyard ownership, was created to feature premium European wines and to educate through tastings and other fun events, an inviting business plan for someone who loves Pasadena and is ready to expand his knowledge beyond California and Pacific Northwest varietals.  Away from vast California vintages, it’s difficult to research value between the countless fine, century old wines from France, Spain, Italy and Germany.  Within a short time in the store, Peter directed me to good value and some unique norms of overseas wines.  Complimenting him on his selection of late 20th and early 21st Century vintages, Peter explained that they were all 2011 releases, cellared for nearly a decade before exposure to a consuming public.  California wineries may suggest further cellaring, but the release or “payday” usually happens within 24-36 months after grape harvest.

Another distinction of European wines comes from the label on the bottle.  While the prominent feature of a California label describes the varietal (usually a single grape), then the winery, region, vintage and, on occasion, a single vineyard, labels from France and surrounding countries tell a different story.

The most important and recognizable feature is the identification of the appellation or growing area.  In most cases, the grapes and percentages used are regulated by the Appellation d’Origine Controlee’ (AOC) and need not be identified. The next significant feature is the name of the individual winemaker or family that produces the wine, followed by the vineyard designation and finally, the bottler that may or may not be the same as the producer.  In rare cases, the varietals may be listed but typically identification of the appellation reveals that information.  Now, we have begun to understand European wines.

On this occasion, we taste a flight of wines from the Languedoc region, often disregarded as a stepchild to the mighty Southern Rhone wines from the Chateaunef-du-Pape, Vacqueyras and Gigondas appellations.  In April, we found that the city of Avignon, located due north of Provence, due south of the Rhone Valley and northwest of Languedoc-Roussillon, was ideal base for exploring southern France’s wine regions.  Although they all use basically the same varietals to produce their wines, Languedoc uses its “step-child” status to offer better value than the other, more famous appellations.  Today, we would learn more about the region and what Peter and Hiro consider good values.

First in a flight of good quality, moderately priced wines is the Chateau de la Liquiere Les Armandiers Faugeres Languedoc 2009 ($17), a blend of carignane, syrah, grenache and mourvedre that expresses texture and flavor found in blends with price points in the $25-35 range.  The nice bouquet foreshadowed soft, integrated flavors, accessible for most palates seeking a young blend requiring little to no analysis.  Unique to many wines from this region, red currant essence adds a subtle new dimension to the more traditional berry flavors of “straw” and “rasp”.  However, the key here is that none are overbearing, sending a subliminal message that it wants to be your friend.

Our second wine, a Domaine La Tour Penedesses “Montagne Noir” 2008 ($21) from the mountains in Faugeres in the Languedoc-Roussillon region offered a sweet, candied nose and nice bold flavors, although a bit tannic.  If you like fruit-forward wines at a moderate price, this would be a one to try.

Mourvedre is an old, very famous grape known for playing a major support role to grenache and syrah in crafting those great southern Rhone blends.  Here, with the Domaine Tempier Bandol Rouge 2008 ($39), arguably the best wine from Provence, Mourvedre is featured with support from Grenache, cinsault and carignan.  The result is rich, concentrated flavors of juicy dark plums and ripening currants with some oaky, smokey on the finish.  This wine presents a unique flavor profile, different, one to remember more clearly while sharing my new bottle that lies in wait.

A very nice surprise and learned moment came with an offer to try a 2009 Domaine Cheysson Chiroubles Beaujolais ($20), recently awarded 91 pts from Robert Parker, produced exclusively from gamay grapes in the Chiroubles appellation of the Beaujolais region of France.  Apparently, 2009 was a great year for Beaujolais and this particular wine can be simply categorized as soft and ripe.  More specifically defined, the complexity of ripened tart fruit, combined with soft raspberry finishing with significant smokey, woodsy hints would be appropriate.  At $20, this package is what we call a value.

Our tasting was part of the “Mad Music Thursdays” event that occurs each Thursday on El Molino between Green St. and Colorado Blvd. and within participating businesses like Monopole.  It generally features gourmet food trucks and special music presented by local businesses like Zona Rosa coffee and Elements restaurant. This evening a cellist accompanied and joined our tasting.  The event is now on hiatus until summer 2012, but special wine tastings, wine dinners and other “educational” events will continue at the wine shop.  Those wishing to be informed of future events can register at

The paths that led partners Peter Nelson and Hiro Tamaki to Monopole are diverse, bonded through passion and some fate.  Nelson came to southern California from the Pacific Northwest to complete law school, while Tamaki came to California from Japan to pursue graduate studies, first in San Francisco, finishing with an MBA from USC.  Throughout their early years, they independently developed and pursued a passion for wine, both passing the Certified SommelierExam of the Court of Master Sommeliers and achieving the Advanced Level of the Wine & Spirits Education Trust, where they met.  Very highbrow credentials for a couple of casual guys, chasing second careers, that know what they are talking about and truly enjoy sharing their wisdom

Hiro Tamaki and Peter Nelson

As it turns out, Monopole is a tremendous resource to increase one’s knowledge of wines from Bordeaux, Tuscany, Rioja, Rhone Valley and other great region of Europe.  One may find themselves in a captivating discussion and leave with that special new “find” from the old country.

One such discovery occurred when our friends were searching for a good Spanish wine to pair with tapas at Three Drunken Goats in Montrose.  Peter led them a 1998 Bodegas Riojanas Vina Albina Gran Reserva Rioja ($40) from the famous region between Barcelona and Bilbao, recently boasting a 92 pt rating from Stephen Tanzer.  Surprised to find such an early vintage available, we learned it was a new release, aged over a decade.  It has all the complexity of an aged wine; beautifully layered flavors, great balance and texture.  Predominantly tempranillo, the wine delivers assorted hints of flavors from cherry to rhubarb and cedar; a perfect food wine.

1998 Bodegas Riojanas Vina Albina Gran Reserva Rioja

My passion for California pinot noir is no secret.  Hopefully, Peter and Hiro can help me understand it roots through the fine wines of Burgundy, a comparison of interest for sometime.  As I was about to leave, a young man came in with admittedly no knowledge of wine and asked for a recommendation, presumably for a potentially special dinner.  After some discussion of a probable menu, he was led to the relatively small California section and I overheard Peter asking him if he had seem the movie, “Sideways.”  He most likely hooked him up with a nice pinot noir from the Santa Rita Hills that could change his life forever.

In its simplest form, wine is still about passion; the kind of passion that created Monopole.  Wholesale outlets and wine warehouses have their place. Fortunately, shops like this still exist for those of us who remember the value of personalized service from a neighborhood store.  In this case, “professional service” includes impressive expertise, all within a district that continuously fuels the senses.

Wine Gossip

Vintage 2009 Pinot Noir

Autumn is a great time of year for many reasons; just one is that top Pinot Noir producers finally begin shipping their fall releases that have been purchased earlier in the year.  Many wineries will not ship to the Antelope Valley until November, assuring that our summer heat will not impact the wine.   Anticipations are high since Wine Spectator magazine’s James Laube declared the 2009 vintage pinot noir, especially Sonoma County, as arguably the decade’s best.   California pinot noir has made tremendous strides since early vintners set out to produce those astounding Burgundian wines in local soil.  Among the five major regions in the state to produce pinot noir (Mendocino, Sonoma, Carneros, Monterey Santa Barbara), the average vintage rating is nearly 96 points, 99 points for Sonoma which includes Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast, Sonoma Mountain, Sonoma Valley and Green Valley appellations.  As a comparison, the previousl two vintages received ratings of 88.4 and 90.8 points.  Since 2003, Sonoma pinot noir vintages have averaged over 90 points.  The 2009 vintage has moved them from the “outstanding” into the  “classic” category.

Admittedly spoiling myself with fine pinot noir, I soon will be receiving 2009 vintages from Kosta Browne, William Selyem and Auteur from Sonoma and Seasmoke and Rusack from Santa Barbara County.  Among my meager allocation and budget will be a fruity, medium-bodied Williams Selyem Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast 2009 (91/$46) and a rich full-bodied Kosta Browne  Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast 2009 (95/$52), both highly touted and, more importantly, truly pleasurable to enjoy with friends.    By the way, the 10/15 issue of Wine Spectator has a good story on Ed Selyem and Burt Williams, early pioneers of California pinot noir.

Credit for the near-perfect 2009 vintage goes to moderate weather throughout the state and modest yields, something Brian Loring pays much attention to.  The Loring Wine Company produces outstanding Pinot Noir from 10 different vineyards located throughout the state.  His top rated vintage 2009 pinot noir, the Loring Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast Durell Vineyard 2009 (94/$45), the Loring Pinot Noir Paso Robles Russell Family Vineyard 2009 (94/$45) and the Loring Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands Rosella’s Vineyard 2009 (94/$45) are evidence of statewide moderate weather and a credit to the winemaking aptitude of Brian Loring.

Garys’ Vineyard, located in Monterey County’s Santa Lucia Highlands region, again, claims a major presence in the 2009 vintage.  The story is old now.  Two childhood friends named Gary emerge from college to transfer agricultural land into one of most respected vineyards in the state.  The following chart list ratings of outstanding vintage 2009 pinot noir from major producers using grapes from Garys’ Vineyard:

Siduri                                    94            $53

Loring                                  93            $45

Roar Pinot Noir Garys' Vineyard 2009

AP Vin                                 93            $48

Kosta Browne                    93            $72

Roar                                     92            $50

Vision Cellars                    89            $48

Miner                                    86            $60

Logic tells us the grapes are exceptional and the winemaking varies.  However, if you find “Garys’ Vineyard” on any wine label, trust that you have found a quality wine.

Although a brief perusal of our local Bevmo store revealed many vintage 2009 Pinot Noir, the Nautilus Marlborough Pinot Noir 2009 ($25/90pts.) from New Zealand and the Erath Pinot Noir 2009 ($20/88 pts.} are two that I would recommend as very good, moderately priced wines with good fruit and texture.  In addition, I must give special mention to the Torii Mor “Deux Verres” Pinot Noir 2007 ($40/92 pts.) from a well-respected Oregon winemaker.  This may be a “find” since I checked the winery website and they have none listed under available library wines.

Vintage 2011

The trend of great California vintages in odd-numbered years may be coming to an end with much concern worldwide over the 2011 vintage.  In California, it was too much rain, in parts of Europe; there was excessive heat through the spring.  In other regions, periods of steady rain and extended heat played havoc with the vines.

As we all know, California experienced early rainfall and plenty of it through the spring.  In many regions mildew and even botrytis, a fungus that affects the vines, threatened low-yield and difficulty ahead in maintaining quality in a tough year.

The Napa Valley, who experienced a near perfect vintage 2007, had unusually cool temperatures that delayed harvest.  Central Coast and Paso Robles region were hit with a late frost that resulted in voluntary and involuntary fruit loss.  Many Mendocino County vineyards, impacted a few years back with fire damage, had to deal with above average rainfall and low temperatures.

By no means should we “throw in the towel” on vintage 2011.  First, October could offer some extra sunshine and winemakers are accustomed to unpredictable weather and adapting to make the best with what they have.  One prediction seems probable; that there will be less wine to go around when vintage 2011 is released in a few years.  Until that time, enthusiasts should be conscious of good value wines from vintages 2007 and 2009.

Vineyards on Catalina Island?

If one had access to acreage on the islands and was inclined to plant wine grapes, what varietals would match the terrior?   Having not been to Santa Catalina, almost totally unfamiliar with its climate, I can speculate to the existence of many microclimates that can support such diverse grapes as pinot noir and zinfandel.

Rusack, a small Santa Ynez Valley boutique winery, has produced well-reviewed pinot noir, syrah and sauvignon blanc for the past decade in the Solvang foothills.  Rusack is announcing their first release from the Santa Catalina Island Vineyards, the 2009 Zinfandel from the old El Rancho Escondido property.  So, why after many years in the wine business would Geoffrey Claflin Rusack and Alison Wrigley Rusack decide on the Catalina Islands?  The answer begins with Alison’s middle name.

Her great-grandfather, William Wrigley Jr. purchased the Santa Catalina Development Co. in 1919 and the family stills controls the land, including the old ranch site along the southwestern coast.   That’s where the Rusack’s have planted 4.5 acres, mostly in pinot noir and cool-climate chardonnay with a small plot dedicated to a zinfandel clone, unique to their name.

Santa Catalina Vineyards

Geoffrey Rusack discovered some vines, apparently from an old winery on Santa Cruz Island, part of the Channel Islands chain, received permission to remove them and had them analyzed by UC Davis as a zinfandel clone.  Some of the vines were relocated and planted on a small half-acre plot on the Santa Catalina Island Vineyards.  The Rusack Santa Catalina Island Vineyards Zinfandel 2009 will soon be the first release from the new label.  As a member of Rusack’s “Anacapa Club”, I will have an opportunity to acquire some fairly soon and am anxious to try it.

Whatever trends occur in the wine industry are most likely generated in California, responsible for 92% of US production.  Through good and bad vintages, our wine production will continue to grow at an extraordinary pace.  A 2008 study, “Recent Trends in the California Wine Grape Industry” by professors at UC, Davis, states that wine is responsible for 8.7% of agricultural revenue, a percentage that will continue to grow.  The North and Central Coast regions produce 36% of the state’s wine and regions like Paso Robles, as we have seen, have grown from 20 wineries in 1990 to over 170 today.

Nature’s element, new expanded regions and near fanatic attention to terrior reminds us that holistic wine production is an art as well as a science.  It is a part of our culture and will increasingly be a part of our identity.