Sampling the Future at Les Marchands

By Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 4/17/14)

Santa Barbara’s newest wine event of record is being hosted by a popular newcomer that, in a few short months, has already become a mainstay.

Les Marchands Wine Bar & Merchant is transforming its Funk Zone parking lot into the ultimate wine tasting room this Saturday, April 19th, as it hosts the Santa Barbara County Wine Futures Tasting.  The event will be a boon for wine consumers, who’ll be able to taste dozens of wines well before retail release, and to buy them in advance at a 20% discount.  The marquee winemakers – more than 40 of Santa Barbara’s most buzzed-about producers – will benefit by securing cash flow early and expanding their clientele.  (Tickets are $70 in advance and $80 at the door; buy them here.)

“It’s fun because people don’t usually get the opportunity to taste barrel samples and young wines like this,” says winemaker Dave Potter, 35.  “It’s fun for me to talk to them about where the wine is at this particular stage, and where it’s going.”

Mr. Potter will be pouring from his two labels, Municipal Winemakers and the collaborative project, Goodland Wines.  Samples of a Los Olivos-grown Grenache and a just-bottled cabernet sauvignon from Grassini Vineyards in Happy Canyon will show attendees that the extra warmth of the 2012 and 2013 grape vintages in Santa Barbara made for “luscious wines that are alive, have nice fruit and are pretty expressive right out of the gate,” he says.

Brian McClintic, a Master Sommelier who co-owns Les Marchands, agrees.  “The cabernets [in 2012 and 2013] got ripe and they have good flavors,” he says, “and fruit overall was far more delineated.”  Mr. McClintock and his business partner, Eric Railsback, spent months visiting winemakers individually to taste and select the wines featured in Saturday’s tasting.  Among the other labels to be featured are Jaffurs, Kunin, Tatomer, Storm and Star Lane.

Of special note: the 2010 Cent’Anni, a limited edition reserve sangiovese made by Doug Margerum and sourced from Jamie and Julie Kellner’s Los Olivos ranch that much of the Santa Barbara wine drinking community has been awaiting for years.  It will be poured for the public for the very first time.

And Mr. McClintic is especially excited about showcasing the latest in Santa Barbara County syrah, a wine he says “is not underrated, just underestimated.”

(For the complete catalog of wines to be poured, click here.)

The Les Marchands wine bar
This weekend’s event is, really, just the latest feather in the caps of Les Marchands’ two esteemed owners.  They hosted their first futures tasting in August, when their wine bar and wine retail shop opened its doors.  It’s been an unexpected thrill ride ever since.

“We totally underestimated how busy we’d be,” admits Mr. McClintic, 38.  “Our business is already 300% above what we’d planned and, on a busy night, we’ll need to put four or five guys pouring behind the bar.”

The success of Les Marchands has been rooted on several factors, not the least of which is its location.  In short order, after all, Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone has exploded into the region’s hottest culinary destinations, marked by a bevy of eclectic tasting rooms – from wine to beer to spirits – and a growing number, even still, of places to enjoy a good meal.  The beach and State Street, both just a couple of blocks away, continue to feed the area with foot traffic.

And Mr. McClintic’s own celebrity has been a benefit, too.  The urbane sommelier was one of the stars of SOMM, the 2012 documentary that followed four wine experts as they prepared for the arduous Master Sommelier exam, well known as having one of the lowest pass rates in the world.  Mr. McClintic passed and, even today, “three of four people a day come up to me and mention the film,” he says.

But the Les Marchands formula for success really stems from the way that its owners treat it as the hub for various wine-fueled enterprises.

The Les Marchands wine shop
The wine bar experience, for one, revolves around a regularly changing list of wines by the glass.  The featured wines are an assorted cross-section of brands from around the world; recently, the reds lineup featured a merlot from France, a barbera from Italy and a pinot noir from Oregon side by side.  A regular favorite is the Vallin label, a Rhone-focused project out of the Santa Ynez Valley by Mr. McClintic, Mr. Railsback and winemaker phenom Justin Willett.

The food – a small but seasonally-driven and share-friendly selection of cheeses, cured meats, salads, sandwiches and fresh entrees – is crafted onsite daily.  “On Mondays, when The Lark next door is closed, this place is packed, and that’s a really good thing to see,” says Mr. McClintic.

At the adjacent wine store, the selection is unique.  The original lineup, when Les Marchands opened, was a 50-50 mix of local and international bottles.  “But then our regulars called it,” says Mr. McClintic, “especially that 25-to-44 demographic, mostly locals, who told us they wanted to buy Old World wines.”  Today, the shop is heavier-handed on special European labels – increasingly popular whites like gruner-veltliner from Austria and Riesling from Germany, for example. 

Les Marchands also features six wine clubs – regular shipments of varying price points aimed to satisfy a variety of wine tastes.  The Daily Drinkers Club features two bottles in a monthly $49 shipment, for example, while the Stelvio Monument Club delivers a 12-bottle case for $599, four times a year.  Membership signups can be done in-store or online.

Cozy nook, barside, at Les Marchands
Les Marchands also offers at-home wine classes, wine list creation for restaurants and private cellar management, acquisition, liquidation and appraisals.

And then there are the now-annual futures tastings.

“It’s what Eric and I wanted to do when we opened,” says Mr. McClintic.  “We wanted to sell everything we love to drink and to be ambassadors to the wine world.”


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