Master Sommelier. Vallin winemaker. SOMM Film Star. Les Marchands Wine Bar owner. Brian McClintic shared some of his experiences from all aspects of his busy schedule.
What was it like having a camera in your face while studying for the master sommelier exam?
I think it impacted me positively. The Master Sommelier test is very social. The tasting is with a panel. Service is obviously social. The theory test is oral. You’re walking around with so much information in your head, a lot of people become socially awkward. The film forced me to come out of my shell, to lighten up and stay loose, and be the best version of myself. I was able to stay outside myself, to not get lost in myself.
how do you drink your way through a calendar packed with wine projects?
I cry myself to sleep every night?! Really, they just flow into each other. We were already making wine, and it all happened at once after the movie in a whirlwind. It’s ironic, wine is to celebrate, it’s social. It’s not like coffee, not a shot of espresso and go about your day. With wine we take our time. My day is not like that. Imagine if your job was eating just your favorite food. Now imagine if I asked you to start eating it twice a day. And you love steak. You wouldn’t be able to do that very long, not without throwing a salad in. I’m tasting wines constantly. Your palate can only take so much. But I love what I do. I remind myself at the end of the day that it’s just wine.
What wines were difference-makers for you?
As for ah-ha wines, there was never one, but there were several stages along the way. I was working at a steakhouse, and it was all about Napa Cab. From five to five-hundred-dollars. That’s where I learned to taste the difference. But then a guest would ask about our tiny French section, and I would think, “Bordeaux, is that a grape or a section? How do you pronounce these things?” So one night I splurged. I bought an eighty-five Pomerol, and took it to a friend who would know, and it was like, “Oh!” The smells and tastes were like nothing I knew. That was my new to old world intro. At a certain point you experience Burgundy, and at first you think, “It’s thin and soft, it smells light. Why is everyone going crazy for this?” I was working at the Little Nell in Aspen, and had my first Grand Cru Burgundy. That was when I got Burgundy. After that, going back to Napa Cab...they seemed unctuous, over the top. If it were just me, ninety-percent of what I drink would be whites.
what do people need to know about santa barbara wine?
Oh, I could talk forever. So there’s the new world of wine, it’s still in it’s infancy. In the old world, monks have been making wine over the course of centuries. Santa Barbara was only planted in seventy-one, so it’s very young. All of California, really, are like infants playing in a sandbox. Just highly gifted, intelligent infants. It’s the old world we learn from and give credit to, and we’ve come far very quickly. But do we know what grows best where? No, not until we know what is best viticulturally. Santa Barbara is a geographic anomaly. San Francisco area is great, cellar temperature year-round. Santa Barbara has the coolest, longest growing season in the valley. It allows us to plant grapes that ripen, but grow over a longer period of time. But it’s branded for tourism. You say “Napa” or “Sonoma” you immediately think wine. You say “Paso Robles”, you think wine. You say “Santa Barbara”, you think palm trees, sun, beaches, and bikinis, not wine. Everyone asks, “How can we change it?” I say, “Don’t! Stay out of the spotlight while we figure it out.” Maybe Gruner Veltliner is perfect for growing, but Pinot Noir is the most marketable. Now there are progressive growers who choose to plant what’s best, not what is most marketable. There are makers who want to work with Gruner Veltliner and others like it. And there are drinkers who want to try Gruner Veltliner, that are more open than ever. I like to say Santa Barbara has unlimited potential.
On winemaking and service
Vallin was not started to be a money-maker. It was to keep four guys connected together. But once we started, we decided, “OK, we’re going to do some serious wine.” Lots of somms make wine, put juice in a bottle, put a label on it, we’re not doing that. We said, “So Syrah is not the most marketable wine. Syrah is a world-class grape, let’s get behind it.” Northern Rhone is the heart of Syrah, and we made it our focal point. We were in Burgundy, drinking Jamet Cote Rotie. Let that sink in. Vallin was on the label, we liked how it looked on the label. We researched and found it was a street name, then went further and found it was actually a surname. Vallin means valley dwellers, from people that originally settled the Rhone valley. We said, “That’s cool and simple, let’s go with it.” It’s exciting to see three years later, we sold out of the ‘twelve, and are just waiting for the ‘thirteen in the barrel to be ready to bottle.
Service for a sommelier is different than any other service. The court teaches specific standards of service, so that if the Queen of England asks you to do a wine service, you could deliver that. It’s very technically precise. With staff, it’s different. You take the clientele, the concept, into account. Les Marchands is not buttoned-up like formal fine dining. We’re very warm and approachable, and technically proficient. Usually it is one of these, but not both. This is without being stuffy or pretentious. We size up each guest. We tailor service to each guest, it’s all about how we meet them where they are. Michael Jordan, the sommelier not the basketball player, is a master sommelier and my mentor. He said, “It’s not how much you know, it’s how much you care.” That’s something that has stuck with me, so simple but so powerful. We guess where guests are at, and think how can we meet them there. Invariably every night there is one guest you could have done something better. And being attuned to the needs of others is something applicable to every area of life.
expect to experiment at Les Marchands wine bar & merchant, santa barbara
Most people look at our by the glass list and say, “What language is this?” But then we pour them a tasting and they’re in. We’ve found that “yeah, I’ll try it” makes up about ninety-percent of our clientele. When we originally told our investors we wanted mostly lesser-known European varietals on the list, they said, “Are you crazy?!” But these are balanced out by the local wines. There are tremendous values from strange places. Not just to be strange, but good, high-level wines. But they're not marketed, so they’re way underpriced.
What Brian described here played out in my experience at Les Marchands. Several staffers combined to accommodate my group's requests with recommendations that were right on target, and there were many unfamiliar wines available for tasting, along with attractive pricing. Wines by the glass change frequently, allowing for an ongoing educational process for those fortunate enough to be regular patrons.
Les Marchands Wine Bar & Merchants