Everybody wants to be a sommelier these days, and yet Chris Meeske and George Cossette are two high-flying somms who left at the top of their game to open neighborhood wine shops. How's it going? Very well, they'll both tell you. And their background has proved to be a huge asset not only in knowing what wines to buy but also in reading customers and matching wines with the occasion or the menu.
Eight years ago, after a decade at Patina, Meeske gave up one of the country's top sommelier positions to open Mission Wines in South Pasadena (with former boss Joachim Splichal as an investor). "I didn't see myself pulling corks at 45," says Meeske, who was all of 34 at the time. "The life of a sommelier is really for someone young. The hours are brutal. It's very intense work. When I was able to have a normal life and have dinners at home, it was great."
At about the same time, Cossette, a longtime waiter and then wine director at Campanile, left to open Silverlake Wine.
The two shops opened within a few months and miles of each other in 2004. Both are niche retailers with a very personal selection of wines. And they've both become integral parts of their neighborhoods as well as destinations for wine lovers all over the city — despite the economic downturn.
It's no accident: Their tasting acumen and sense of service was honed working for years in top restaurants where wine was a focus. And those skills transfer seamlessly into the world at large where we can all take advantage of their passion for quirky bottles and obscure grapes.
Meeske used his experience as a sommelier to lay out the shop like a restaurant wine list. "For every category or style, there's something at every price point. The shop may feel like a boutique, but I have really great wines that are inexpensive. And that's the most difficult category to find. I may taste through 40 wines to find five."
Ask him now what he misses about being a sommelier? "Drinking grand crus on a nightly basis; I'm Mr. $15 and under now," he confesses, laughing. But that deep knowledge of the best wines and producers informs his every buying decision. He'll tell you he learned what value means — a wine that's spot-on for its price. And how to pair wines with food, extremely useful with his clientele who entertain a lot and want the right wine for the occasion.
He also learned to listen to the customer in order to determine what kind of wine they were looking for. "Retail is much more casual," he says. He can come right out and ask what someone wants to spend. "In a shop like Mission Wines, customers are confronted with so many names and labels that, in the end, they have to trust that you're going to give them something that's right for them. The wine has to over-deliver."
At Silverlake Wine, Cossette cites his experience as a waiter as invaluable. On the restaurant floor you have to have a sense of immediacy. You have to be in the moment. Instead of looking at diners' plates, you learn to read faces. In the store, Cossette can quickly offer several wines at different prices to go with any dish.
At Silverlake, he insists that everyone who comes into the shop be acknowledged whether or not they want help. That's the key restaurant thing, he says. He doesn't want anyone to feel uncomfortable.
What he and his staff are most passionate about — whether it's a 10-year-old California Syrah or a Slovenian Pinot Grigio — is what flies out the door. But if they don't believe in a wine, it may sit there. When they were opening, one wine-savvy salesman advised them the shop absolutely needed an oaky Chardonnay. "You may not like it, but it will pay the bills," he said. Cossette laughs: "The last bottle sat around for a couple of years before they finally poured it down the drain."
Cossette wishes he'd followed his instincts. At Campanile he'd learned that when you don't offer a typical Chardonnay by the glass, customers are likely to be more open to try something different. "Presented with a choice, most people are more adventurous than you might predict. And so I thought, OK, there could be room for a shop like ours."
Mission Wines, 1114 Mission St., South Pasadena (626) 403-9463, http://www.missionwines.com.
Silverlake Wine, 2395 Glendale Blvd., Los Angeles (323) 662-9024, http://www.silverlakewine.com.
[For the record, 1:48 p.m. Oct. 5: The article says that Chris Meeske opened Mission Wines eight years ago. He bought Mission Wines from a previous owner.]
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