Roll Out The Barrels

Vic Mankerian, owner of Mission Wine & Spirits, a California retail operation with two stores, one in Pasadena and one in Glendale, recently went on a whirlwind, five-day tour.

First stop: Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky. There, Mankerian tasted five different barrels of Blanton’€™s Single Barrel Bourbon and five different barrels of Eagle Rare, also a single-barrel bourbon. He chose one barrel of each to purchase.

Then, it was off to the Jack Daniels Distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee, where Mankerian tasted and chose two barrels of the brand’€™s Single Barrel Tennessee Whiskey to purchase.

From there, Mankerian jetted to Mexico, to visit the Herradura Distillery, where he was shown (and tasted) the first three barrels of Herradura Double-Barrel Tequila ever produced. Of those three, he chose one to purchase for Mission.

The bourbons, whiskey and tequila from these five barrels are now ensconced in over 1,000 bottles, all of them in the Mission stores. In the Pasadena store, they are on display on and around the empty barrels they aged in.

Bottled at their distilleries, as spirits usually are, these particular bottles have, in addition to their regular labeling, special emblems proclaiming that they were bottled especially for Mission Wine & Spirits. They are, however, priced at their regular retail prices. There is no upcharge for Mission customers.

When it comes to single-barrel products like these, the taste profiles of different barrels vary, explained Jeff Pruitt, account specialist at Young’€™s Market Company, the wholesaler who accompanied Mankerian on his trip. ‘€œSo, rather than just buy a couple of cases of product, which may come from different barrels,’€ Pruitt said, ‘€œVic chose ones that fit the tastes of his customers and bought the whole barrel.’€ In other words, the only place in the world to buy these particular spirits, from these particular barrels, is Mission Wine & Spirits.

‘€œWe’€™re always looking for unique things for our customers,’€ explained John Nigoghosian, Mission’€™s general manager. ‘€œThese are interesting for the customer, something they don’€™t see every day.’€

Mission is advertising the presence of these special bottlings through its regular emails to customers but find there’€™s also a lot of word-of-mouth going on. ‘€œA lot of our customers ‘€˜follow’€™ the distilleries themselves,’€ said Nigoghosian.

Mission has done this kind of thing before, but never five barrels at one time. In fact, once the products are sold out and the in-store displays come down, the empty barrels, each of which is also marked with a plaque declaring that its contents were specially bottled for Mission Wine & Spirits, will be added to the four past barrels, which are on display outside the Pasadena store.

Well-Known Landmarks

The two Mission Wine & Spirits stores are well-known landmarks to the area’€™s aficionados of spirits, wine, beer and cigars. Mission’€™s Pasadena store has been in the same general area for over 50 years. (After expanding its original location six times in order to keep up with its growth, Mission moved the store to bigger digs just across the parking lot in 2007.)

The current Pasadena store is 6,200 square feet in size, with four check-out lanes, a 27-door cooler and a marble-topped wine-tasting bar.

In November of 2008, Mission opened a second, smaller location in Glendale. The new store is about 3,000 square feet, with three check-out lanes and an 18-door cooler.

Between the two stores, Mission employs 15 people.

Mission has been owned by the Mankerian family since 1979. Vic Mankerian has worked in the family business since the age of 16 and has run the entire operation since 1990, the year his father died.

And Mankerian has grown the business over the years. The original store and its sister location now both carry approximately 2,500 different wines, 500 different beers and a whopping 3,000 different distilled spirits. ‘€œWe try to carry every available liquor,’€ said Nigoghosian. ‘€œOur stores are like walking into a supermarket.’€ The stores’€™ vodka selection ‘€“ of roughly 400 brands ‘€“ takes up an entire aisle in each store.

The Mission stores sell mostly spirits. Nigoghosian estimates that 60% of their sales are in spirits, 30% in wine and the remaining 10% is everything else, mostly beer and cigars.

Each store also devotes an aisle just to branded spirits gift sets. ‘€œWe try to keep them in stock throughout the year, even though they are only available during the holidays,’€ said Nigoghosian. Mission customers particularly like sets containing their favorite brands, such as Gray Goose vodka and Casa Noble tequila, and seem to particularly like sets offering mini-bottles of a different product to try along with a full-sized bottle of one of their favorites.

A Range of Wine Promotions

While it focuses on spirits, Mission does not stint on its wine business. In both stores, the upper-end of Mission’€™s wine selection is displayed in a glass-fronted, walk-in, climate-controlled wine cellar. The cellar at the Pasadena store can hold up to 10,000 bottles. Wines priced more for every day ($20 and under) are displayed directly outside the entrance to the cellar in both stores.

And at the center of the Pasadena store is its wine-tasting bar. Each week, on Thursday and Friday evenings from 5 pm to 8 pm and on Saturdays starting in the afternoon, from 2 pm to 8 pm, the store features a wine flight, usually of five wines. Often, the wines are served with finger foods, such as cheeses. The prices per person for the flights start at $5. Over Memorial Day weekend, the flight consisted of Oxford Landing Sauvignon Blanc, from Australia, King Estate Pino Gris and Forefront Pinot Noir, both from Oregon, Cantele Salice Salentino from Italy, Ogier ‘€œLes Closiers’€ Chateauneuf-du-Pape from France and Buehler Cabernet Sauvignon and Terraces Zinfandel from Napa and cost $10.

The Pasadena store also uses the wine bar for classes. A two-hour ‘€œTour of Italy’€ class held in June featured Pieropan Soave Classico, Veneto 2007, Jermann Pinot Grigio, Friuli, 2007, Cantele Salice Salentino Risvera, Apulia 2006, Villa Matilde Aglianico, Campania 2006, Ornellaia ‘€œLe Volte’€ Tuscan Blend, Toscana 2007 and Seifile Piedmontese Blend, Langhe, Piemonte 2003. The class was limited to 18 and was priced at $30 per person.

For some of its tastings, Mission has the winemaker in attendance. Recent visitors included Chris Madrigal of Madrigal Vineyards and Jan Krupp of Krupp Brothers.

Mission also sometimes participates in off-site wine events. Recently, it held a wine tasting in conjunction with two local restaurants, to raise money for the Armenian Bone Marrow Donor Registry. The tasting featured California wines and was priced at $50 per person.

Though Mission cannot, by law, hold spirit tastings, it does sometimes hold beer ones. One of its latest was with Bootlegger’€™s Brewery and was priced at $5 per person.

While the Pasadena’€™s wine bar has been a great success, Mission was unable to have a wine bar in its new Glendale store. ‘€œUnfortunately, there was an issue with parking when we tried to get a license for it from the city,’€ explained Nigoghosian. By law, this means that the Glendale store cannot host any wine tastings.

However, both stores do feature walk-in humidors for their cigar selections. ‘€œIt’€™s funny. Early in its history, Mission was known for its large selection of cigarettes and its business slowly evolved toward liquor,’€ said Nigoghosian.

Mission has had its current premium cigar department for many years. ‘€œWe were in the business before that big cigar craze, six or seven years ago,’€ said Nigoghosian. ‘€œAnd now, when there are no other stores around us that carry the cigars we do, it remains a good business for us.’€

As is often the case with successful retail operations, Mission Wine & Spirits has a crack staff of knowledgeable and dedicated people. ‘€œThere’€™s no question our staff can’€™t answer and we try to keep it that way,’€ said Nigoghosian. ‘€œWe want our customers to be comfortable taking our recommendations.’€

A Family Business

Mission also remains a family business, with all the benefits that come from that. Nigoghosian, the operation’€™s general manager, for instance, is Vic Mankerian’€™s second cousin and started at the original store 12 years ago as a stock clerk.

Mission’€™s head wine buyer, Al Maymarian, has been with the operation for over ten years and has worked in the beverage business for over 40. His quote on Mission’€™s website (missionwineandspirits.com) is, ‘€œMy favorite part of this business is turning the customers on to a great wine at a great price!’€

Maymarian heads up a team of wine specialists with extensive knowledge. Robert Tapia, for instance, came to Mission in 2009 with a degree from the California School of Culinary Arts Le Cordon Bleu program and experience working at San Antonio Winery as well as at another retail operation, Red Carpet Wine & Spirits in Glendale. Speaking of his position at Mission on the operation’€™s website, Tapia declared, ‘€œI love it all ‘€¦ buying, tasting, teaching, tasting, this business is my passion.’€

Jason Oh majored in beverage marketing with a specialty in wine at the Collins College of Hospitality Management at California State Polytechnic University in Pomona, CA (more commonly known as Cal Poly Pomona) and is a Certified Sommelier with the Court of Master Sommeliers.

‘€œWe find our people through the liquor community,’€ said Nigoghosian.

The staff at Mission is so knowledgeable that the operation can offer its customers ‘€œconcierge services.’€ A Mission wine specialist will even visit customers’€™ homes to evaluate the space they have in their wine cellars. They will then work with the customer over time to choose wines based on their tastes and preferences for their collection.

The Web Sites

Mission is currently working on updating its websites. It has two: missionliquors.com and missionwineandspirits.com. The older of these, missionliquors.com, contains the operation’€™s online shopping website. The second focuses on the operation’€™s planned events and classes as well as its weekly tastings. It also features a ‘€œWine of the Week,’€ usually one of the wines from that week’€™s flight, as well as a ‘€œSpirit of the Week,’€ recently Conjure Cognac, and ‘€œBeer of the Week,’€ which recently highlighted special pricing on Miller Genuine Draft, Genuine Draft 64, the brand’€™s low-calorie version, and Miller Lite and on Coors and Coors Lite.

Mission also maintains an extensive email list of its regular customers called the Mission Cork Club. These customers are sent weekly emails about the stores’€™ tastings, events, new products and specials. Mission sends news of ‘€œnew, limited items to them first, such as the release of a new wine or a new vintage,’€ said Nigoghosian. ‘€œThey also get the first opportunity to sign up for events.’€

Special bottlings, weekly tastings, classes, events and concierge services: Mission Wine & Spirits remains on a roll.

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