Interview: Brian McClintic (Master Sommelier + Les Marchands)Sommeliers Eric Railsback and Brian McClintic teamed on Les Marchands in Santa Barbara.
Brian McClintic, a Master Sommelier and key player in the documentary SOMM, co-founded Santa Barbara’s Les Marchands Wine Bar & Merchants with fellow wine pro Eric Railsback. We met at SOMM’s Pebble Beach Food & Wine premiere and spoke by phone on June 20, where he shared insights into his connection with wine.
At what point did you know that you would end up working with wine for a living?
It was what I saw when I went to Court [of Master Sommeliers]. That was the big decision. I’m a Master Sommelier, and that was honestly my first introduction to wine. I was in a bubble in Orange County. I was in the service industry, and I was writing screenplays and doing a bunch of other things. It just came to the point where I’m 32 and I’m still a waiter. I made a decision that if I’m going to go for this, I need some help. The Court was there. I waited on a Master Sommelier, Michael Jordan, who said, “If you ever get into wine, give me a call.” I gave him a phone call out of the blue and he basically invited me to his sommelier training ground at Napa Rose. From there, I just got hooked.
It sounds like he’s one of them, but what other wine professionals do you look to for inspiration, guidance or advice?
There are so many, and it just continues for me. Eric Railsback, my business partner, is one. He has such a deep and profound knowledge of Burgundy and French wine. I learn from him every day. That’s really cool. One of my first mentors was a woman by the name of Margaux Pierog. She was the head of our first tasting group, and was the Wine Director of Chat Noir and one other place in Orange County. She was definitely a huge influence on me.
Why was it important for you to become a Master Sommelier?
First of all, that was my introduction to the sommelier world. I have a natural competitive drive to do things that are fairly low percentage. I wanted to be a baseball player. I wanted to do the screenplay thing. I like a challenge. Not a lot of people can do this. That is appealing to me. Then the whole process was actually a lot of fun. Learning to rely on your palate. I’m the kind of guy who can walk into a room and not even think about stuff. That came down to food and drink as well. If it’s on my plate, I’m going to eat it, and if it’s in my glass, I’m going to drink it. Help hone my palate and to help shape preferences for food and wine, it was a lot of fun. I started to walk by flower shops, I started to walk in farmers markets, and now you’re smelling and tasting everything and going through that process.
What were you hoping to get out of participating in the movie SOMM?
Honestly, this whole thing started with a friendship between me and the director [Jason Wise]. For me, it was seeing the talent in Jason, and wanting him to make a great film. It so happened that through conversation and him watching what I was going through, he became attracted to the process of becoming a Master Sommelier. That’s where the movie was born, him watching me go through this training process very early on. Everything became, “How can I help Jason get this going?” Being a liaison with the Court, helping them understand how we got this movie off the ground. This movie was definitely bigger for me than any personal participation. We’re talking about a really good friend of mine who I believe in as a talent and want to see him do something great.
Did filming for SOMM make it harder for you to accomplish your goal of becoming a master sommelier?
Yeah, absolutely. When you live in a fairly intense environment and you’re under a lot of pressure, the last thing you want is a camera in your face and a camera crew sleeping on your floor. Our house became like a frat house. We had people coming in and going out and it definitely intensified things. It was a lot harder. That’s my own personal take. For Ian [Cauble] and a lot of other people, the camera was like a friend to them. They started to rely on it. For me, it was different. I wanted to separate myself as much as I could from it.
You were already making wine before opening Les Marchands?
Yeah. Eric and I had started talking about this and putting money into the center and working out the business plan for the wine label long before the business plan got started for the wine bar. In those early trips to wine country, getting that going, I think that’s where the inspiration for the wine bar and wine shop came from. We talked to a lot of winemakers and a lot of industry people. “We don’t have a retail shop to buy European wines, domestic wines, there’s no wine bar scene here.” It was a lot of collectors and industry people who put the spotlight on this area and said, Santa Barbara is an area of opportunity.
Why did you partner with Eric Railsback, and how do you complement each other?