A Glass Act
Oenophiles – both vintage and new – can satisfy their thirst for a great glass at Pasadena’s new store and tasting room, Monopole Wine.
By Bradley Tuck 02/01/2011
The little block of buildings adjacent to the Pasadena Playhouse on South El Molino Avenue is a gem of Spanish Colonial Revival commercial architecture, in a city not exactly short on such treasures. Named the Lockwood Building after the physician who commissioned its construction in 1927, the structure originally housed Dr. Lockwood’s offices; the other units were rented out to prominent interior decorators and dealers in fine china and art. It’s amusing to speculate what chatter went on in the doctor’s office, or what the daily gossip was among the customers poring over fine tea services. The 18th Amendment to the Constitution prohibiting “the manufacture, sale or transportation of intoxicating liquors” had been passed several years earlier. The genteel folks holding bone china up to the light to examine its translucency probably had little inkling of the enormous crash in the stock market looming on the horizon. Some of them would no doubt be turning to the good doctor for Prohibition-era prescriptions for “medicinal” alcohol in the years ahead.
Thankfully, we no longer have to run afoul of the law in order to enjoy a drink. And here to help us in the search for what Ernest Hemingway called “one of the most natural things of the world that has been brought to the greatest perfection” is Monopole Wine. Part wine shop, part wine bar, part tasting room, Monopole opened in November as a paean to the simple joy that is a great glass of wine. Twenty-five-foot-high ceilings give the space a church-like ambience, and Pasadena architect Chris Peck enhanced the aesthetic with four cylindrical chandeliers salvaged from a mid-century church in Laguna Beach. Tall, dark wooden shelves, reminiscent of those found in a distinguished vintage bookstore, are arranged to create alcoves along the length of the room at one end, almost like an altar, stands the tasting bar. Bobbing among the shelves or pouring a tasting behind the bar are owners Peter Nelson and Hiro Tamaki. Their goal at Monopole was to “create a serious wine store, with hand-picked selections from great small producers, but also a fun place to learn, explore and enjoy wine by the glass,” Nelson says.
With that in mind they encourage tasting before buying and will happily spend time talking customers through prospective purchases, enlightening them as to a wine’s character, provenance and food compatibility. Both Nelson and Tamaki are Wine & Spirit Education Trust advanced certificate holders and certified wine educators. Nelson is also a certified sommelier. If you find the thought of all of this knowledge a little daunting, you might like to enroll in one of their regular classes. Perched overlooking the store on a charming mezzanine is a room the pair use for events and classes. It has low ceilings that create the feel of a cellar, despite its lofty location, and a small fireplace that will soon be flickering and functional, say the owners. Classes cost from $40 to $60 per person, depending on the wines, and the space can accommodate up to 20 people around a U-shaped group of tables set with linens.
The classes start in the bar with a glass of bubbly, then move upstairs for a 20- to 30-minute lecture on the wine and its region while tasting the first drink. “Then we go through all of the other wines in detail, tasting, comparing, explaining what to look for, what people are smelling or tasting,” Nelson says. “It gets very interactive and fun. I take questions and solicit comments, questions, discussion from others.” Good cheeses are brought in for pairings, and it’s all very unintimidating. The focus is on allowing people to form their own opinions on what they do or don’t like, rather than forcing their hand. That said, Tamaki and Nelson clearly have their favorites, and the wine menu at Monopole is Eurocentric, but there’s also a good selection of “New World” wines, focusing on “character, balance and artisanal producers,” as Nelson puts it, along with a very healthy Champagne section.