Head sommelier at Patina for a decade, Chris Meeske opened Mission Wines — with his former boss Joachim Splichal as investor — in 2004. Meeske says people like to joke, telling him, "You were a sommelier before it was cool to be a sommelier." But after 15 years working the floor at night, he was ready to try something else.
Meeske's South Pasadena shop is laid out with sections for various wine regions and within those categories, something at every price point. His deep knowledge of wine, honed at Patina and at Charlie Trotter's in Chicago, informs his buying decisions. He's also great at matching food and wine. Tell him what you're making for dinner and he'll come up with the perfect wine.
Right now Meeske is deep into construction next-door in the former Book'em Mysteries space. (The bookshop closed when the owners retired, after 24 years.) That expansion will enable Meeske to almost double his retail selections and to build out his tasting bar for bigger tastings and events.
What would you consider the focus of the shop?
The shop was built like a restaurant wine list with wines from all over the world at a nice selection of price points. It's definitely a boutique shop, featuring small-production wines for the most part.
Which wine region is your real passion?
Right now it's the Rhone, the south of France, and Spain — particularly Rioja. I really like wines like Grenache with forward, exuberant fruit, spice and a beautiful texture. I also like the more classic wines of Rioja and Bordeaux, wines that are elegant and dry and have a nice versatility with food.
What's the bottle you'd like to grab off the shelf right now and take home for dinner?
The 2004 La Rioja Alta Gran Reserva 904. La Rioja Alta is a traditional producer that tends to use a little bit of American oak. The wines have a beautiful transparency to them. They're dry. They're elegant. And they still retain their vibrancy. Typically in Spain, producers mature the wines in their own cellars and release them when they're ready to drink. The 2004 is beautiful to drink now, but you can still cellar it if you want to.
What's the one bottle you're saving for a special occasion?
The luxury of having a shop is that I can drink anything at any time, so I don't really have a personal wine cellar. I do have my own little stash of wines that are maturing to drink later on. I have some older Raveneau Grand Cru Chablis that are a decade or a decade and a half old that for me would be beautiful to drink. Coche-Dury Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru Burgundy wouldn't be a bad call either.
In terms of price/quality, what would you recommend?
La Rioja Alta Viña Ardanza. That bottle for $35 is killer.
Do you have tastings?
The wine bar is open during normal business hours. On Saturdays we pour four wines, and three during the week, plus beers from Pasadena's Craftsman Brewing Co. on tap. The wine tasting is $15, or $10 with a purchase. Beers are $5. But that program will be expanding when we finish construction next door.
Any special events coming up?
The last Friday of the month we have a themed tasting for $25, but the wines are generally $50 to $100 a bottle. Past Friday tastings include Oregon Pinot Noirs, various appellations or vintages from Burgundy, and the wines of Brian Benson Cellars in Paso Robles.
What's the one wine region you'd like to explore next?
Paso Robles. I'm really hot on Paso right now. I remember at Patina, these guys would come in with wines from Paso and they were undrinkable — I wouldn't even take them seriously. And now, 15 years later, they're making just world-class wines out of there. I love the Rhone-style blends.
Obviously, the generosity of Paso Robles is evident in the wines because of the temperatures, but man, you're talking about really great, rich, flavorful wines coming out of there. Some of the small producers doing great work there include Ledge Vineyards, Turtle Rock Vineyards, Saxum Vineyards, of course, Booker Wines, and L'Aventure Winery. Brian Benson is a great up-and-coming winemaker, making terrific stuff.