Packing House Wines presents dining and wines in a comfortable setting.
by John Bottala
photography by Stephanie Ball
Wine is flowing, music is going, and people are coming to experience Packing House Wines in Claremont Village West. Owner Sal Medina, University of La Verne alumnus, is a former social studies educator in the Monrovia School District but has found his new calling in wine. While teaching and coaching volleyball (“I really loved teaching kids”), he took a side job at an area wine shop to educate himself on the business. “I started working in the tasting room, and from there I grew my wine palette and interest in wines.” What he learned turned into his new career. “Around 2003-’04, I knew I wanted to open a wine shop,” he says.
He and fiancé Ev Sauceda met during that time. She was working for a catering company and understood the restaurant industry well. Ev earned her B.A. in hospitality from the University of San Francisco and her MBA from the University of La Verne in 2005. Sal graduated with his La Verne B.A. in political science in 1998 and pursued his La Verne master’s degree in education in 2000. While at La Verne, he worked at the local Albertsons as the liquor manager. Plus, he worked two years with a business consulting company. The mixture of their degree interests was tinder toward lighting their passion toward opening a wine shop. Together they opened Packing House Wines in downtown Claremont four years ago. A loyal stream of customers continues to come to enjoy the atmosphere.
Passion for grapes
Packing House Wines not only excels with a wonderful wine collection; it offers unique food paired with the proper wine. The servers are educated about wine and steer customers toward satisfying choices. Sal and his chef, who goes by his first name Mike, change the menu every season. Some menu items are seasonal. Most are locally grown, making for unique flavors and creative presentations. Recently, Argentinean menu items complimented Spanish wines. “I really loved the fawn and the Spanish chorizo dish was great,” says Lauren McAlister, a master’s student from Azusa Pacific University. “I really love all their food on the menu, especially their Crispy Fried Brussels Sprouts, Poke Tostada and French Fries.”
It is the wine, though that is up front. Sal’s passion for learning took him around the world to different wine regions, which gave him advanced education on wine. He brought the best back to the shop. Case by case, he steadily grew the inventory and shares his wine knowledge. When customers come in, they learn about what they are drinking. The fun of drinking wines is that there is a new flavor and taste in every bottle. Jonathan Reed, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of La Verne, enjoys sharing the dining experience with his wife Annette. “My wife and I love the atmosphere here and enjoy the loyal customers who come in. Sal has done a magnificent job going out of his way to find great wines that no know one has ever really heard about. And I would really recommend trying the garlic fries and sliders; they are wonderful,” says Jonathan.
“Packing House Wines is a premier resource for wine drinkers and collectors on the regional and national level,” says Sal. He employees a staff where all are at least level one sommeliers, a professional designation for those educated in all aspects of wine, wine making and pairing foods with wine.
Packing house wines offers an eclectic and diverse wine selection ranging from $8 a bottle to $500. Indeed, there is something for everyone. Coupled with the wine is the ambiance. The restaurant vibe projects a homely oak wine cellar feel with comfy couches. A wide age group of patrons sets the relaxed, yet animated tone. “It was a lovely relaxing atmosphere to have a glass of wine, and I would definitely go back,” says La Verne undergraduate Alexandra Leach. “Everyone was really friendly.” Every second Saturday, the restaurant features a live acoustic set that sets the mode while one drinks a good cabernet, or “Sal’s pick of the month.”
Sal often waits on patrons who are preparing a homemade dinner, and he is always happy to answer the important wine pairing question. “I want to make a great meal extraordinary,” he says. For those dining in his shop, “I want to help that person create memories from that wonderful meal. You don’t eat here; you dine.” That is why he does not take reservations. Drinking wine is a dining experience, and he doesn’t want that person to lose that vibe of enjoying the bottle. Wine is a type of beverage where customers can just get lost with all the flavors. “Wine is very personal,” Sal says, adding that patrons will taste and love or perhaps not care for different samples of wine. Some may love Malbecs instead of the cabernets. The choice is personal; one has to connect with the wine.
And Sal still has that passion for teaching. Yet now, the subject is wine. Customers will earn a certificate of understanding when they dine here. “You want to find that balance between the wine and food. It is sort of a give and take; the food will take a flavor while the wine has to fill it.” The wine offers a whole different type of lifestyle and culture than other alcoholic drinks. He notes that grapes are grown throughout the world, and with each bottle of wine people drink, they will encounter different tastes in their mouths.
When you take a sip of wine, one can imagine herself at that winery or where that wine was made. Wine will take customers to wherever they want to go. “Wine should take you to paradise,“ says Sal. n
Packing House Wines, 540 W. First St., Claremont. www.packinghousewines.com
Giving back to the community
Sal and Ev are actively involved in the local community, donating many volunteer hours at local events. In addition, for the Claremont Colleges, Sal regularly presents lectures for the “Life after CMC” program, which he calls “Wine 101.” During this lecture, Sal educates graduating students on the basics of wine drinking plus provides an understanding of the culture of wine. His lecture is part of life skills after college program. “Wine and golf are the two most important business skills,” Sal says. “Golf is a great business game that will connect people with clients on a different level, as will wine. Claremont has been doing an exceptional job making students prepared for a job,” Sal says. “I am always really impressed when I go lecture there and see the students well dressed and engaged in the lecture.”