Longtime fans of Santa Barbara County wineries fondly recall the days when the Wine Cask on Anacapa Street hosted an annual “Wine Futures Tasting” at which vintners gave tastes of to-be-released bottlings and offered them for sale at a discounted price. Offering a rare, behind-the-scenes peek at a sometimes secretive industry, the event was tremendously popular and sales were brisk, even though some of the wines wouldn’t show up to your doorstop until many months or even a year later.
Since the Wine Cask stopped doing it a few years ago, there have been a few attempts at recreating the event, perhaps most successfully by Bob Wesley of The Winehound in 2009 and 2010. But it’s a notorious hassle, often without much benefit to the hosts themselves, so the program has languished for the last couple years.
Enter young guns Brian McClintic and Eric Railsback, the pair of sommeliers who, after more than a year of planning, are finally opening Les Marchands Wine Bar & Merchant in Santa Barbara’s bustling Funk Zone neighborhood next week. With the blessing of Wine Cask proprietor Doug Margerum, for whom Railsback cut his wine-loving teeth as a waiter years ago, Les Marchands is taking up the reins with their debut wine futures tasting on August 10. The duo’s originally scheduled date of May 18 (as mentioned in this profile here) was pushed back due to ongoing construction at the site, but they do plan to host this as a spring event in the years to come.
To get a taste of what to expect, McClintic — a sommelier who was featured in this year’s hit wine documentary Somm — answered a few questions about what to expect on August 10.
Wine futures tastings have a long history in Santa Barbara, as you know. Are these shoes feeling pretty big to fill?
The shoes are massive. What Doug Margerum created at the Wine Cask was an institution and such a huge part of the community. We want to keep the spirit of the event intact and build it out for years to come.
Was it harder or easier to put together than you expected? What were some particular challenges?
The state of construction for our space made permitting a lot more difficult than it needed to be. This is our first year as well. We had to cold-call many of the wineries, which is always interesting. But most of the process has been really fun — travelling up north to wine country, seeing their productions first hand. That’s the good stuff.
Your futures catalogue is very detailed and written with a lot of character that I think people will enjoy. What do you hope to bring to the event with your descriptions and insight?
There was a time when wine for me was very intimidating. Once I finally got over that and decided to make a career out of it, I’ve tried not to lose that sensitivity to the wall many people have up with wine. I wanted the catalog to be informative but very personal. If you can connect to people behind these projects and learn their stories, the hope is that wine becomes more human and accessible.
There are some brands in here that I never heard of, like Habit and Sillix. How do you find these guys?
I met both Jeff Fischer from Habit and Blake Sillix through our friend Justin Willett. Blake has been Justin’s right-hand man at Tyler Winery, so we were excited to learn about his new grenache and syrah project. Jeff and I met at a Dodger game and hit it off immediately. I think Jeff hits it off with everyone; he’s just one of those guys. But there is a renaissance of young up-and-coming producers who have learned from the template of the pioneers of this valley, making wine in a very dynamic, “old school” style which is fun to see.
How the 2012 pinots seem to be coming along?
Twenty-twelve was a great vintage. It was a big crop and really high quality. I remember watching Justin’s pinot come into the winery. There was very little work that had to be done on the sorting table; the fruit was so clean. It was a warm, ripe vintage and should drink well early.
How many winemakers/bottles are being offered? Do you plan to have more next year?
We have roughly 50 labels, which is a really good start. As far as I’m concerned, the more the merrier. A lot of that will depend on space and logistics more than anything else. This is also an event that will be held in the spring from here on out — some time in April — which means those who we were unable to participate this go around won’t have to wait a full year to get in the mix.
Are there any noteworthy trends that you think attendees will pick up on with Santa Barbara wines?
We were blown away by how much great syrah is being made in the valley. That will definitely be highlighted at the tasting as it’s an amazing grape and on the rise again. I think we’re seeing a lot more producers experimenting with new varietals than ever before. When compared to the Old World we’re still very much in the Wild West when it comes to pinpointing what grows best where. What Eric and I find fascinating is just how diverse Santa Barbara County is. There are a host of different French, Italian, and Germanic varietals that are performing really well in certain spots — nebbiolo, riesling, grüner veltliner, chenin blanc, etc.
It’s a very exciting time for the valley.
NOTE: As a correction to the catalogue, Cebada Vineyards will be labeling their wines as coming from the Santa Ynez Valley this year.
Les Marchands Wine Bar & Merchants hosts its inaugural Santa Barbara County Wine Futures tasting on Saturday, August 10, 11 a.m.-5 p.m., at 131 Anacapa Street in Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone. Tickets are $70. See lesmarchandswine.com.