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Beyond Hero Worship of Grape Varieties: Brian McClintic on Revisioning Terroir

 

Brian McClintic was a Master Sommelier and a star of the feature-length documentary film trilogy SOMM, SOMM: Into the Bottle, and SOMM3. After 15 years in hospitality, spanning wine destinations such as the Little Nell in Aspen, Brian co-founded Les Marchands Wine Bar & Merchant in Santa Barbara, where he was named “The Wine Guy to Hire” by Departures magazine and among the “40 Under 40 Tastemakers” by Wine Enthusiast.

Bitten by the travel bug in recent years, McClintic left the floor and launched Viticole in 2016, an online wine subscription, focusing on organically farmed custom bottlings that he curates with his favourite winemakers from around the world.

“Truth? I’ve never been a fan of retail wine clubs. They frequently feel like an afterthought, a way to shore up excess inventory. I could never reconcile the notion that to the people giving a retailer their credit card to swipe at will, the retailer would often return that confidence with ‘hmm, what wine do I have enough of here on the shelf that I can fit into the club.’ I mean, a wine club member has basically entrusted you as their compass. Little do they know that the arrow often points south, to a very dusty, cobwebby, dark corner of a staff-only storage room.

I spent the summer of 2016 mulling over false premises, while dishing out sporadic wine offers on Instagram. Inevitably, I’d run into a friend at a bar who would say, ‘Why don’t you make Viticole a wine club?’, to which I’d reply with the script above. And after enough ire had been raised and venom spewed, curmudgeon fatigue set in and the glass began to look half full. I became intrigued with the proposition of creating a wine subscription model that I would be excited to join. By the end of summer, the previous 50-page business plan found its way to the scrapheap and a consumer advocacy crusade began.

Let’s set the records straight. This is an unapologetically selfish crusade of wines that I LOVE and an exploration of why I love the wines I love, as told through custom collaborations with a hand-chosen mercenary platoon of some of the world’s finest organic wine growers, which has taken the mantra to ‘can I love what I love even more?’. Can we push this thing forward? What is possible in terms of quality and with respect to environmental consciousness?

The Viticole Wine Subscription today is the harmony of my personal taste and ecological beliefs. The two are hopelessly linked. Let no stone be unturned. Let no glass be empty. And oh, the places we’ll go…”

Terroir is an exceptionally difficult concept to explain. But if you had to define it for someone unfamiliar with the term, what would you say?

I generally feel that the concept of how we interpret terroir is a less interesting question than how terroir interprets us. How the geographical landscape shapes culture and contributes to its identity. But if we are to play the game in reverse, and attempt to reveal through a fermented beverage the identity of a place, what it smells like and what it tastes like, I think the wine industry’s concept of what a place has to say has been decidedly incomplete. The problem is inherent to the architecture of a single grape model, (Pinot in Burgundy for instance) that builds empires around a single crop’s success. In my mind, this does very little to tell the full story of a place, no more than a snapshot of the Eiffel Tower would tell the complete story of Paris.

 

Most of you come from countries traditionally considered “New World,” i.e. where the wines are labeled by variety instead of region. How do you explain the concept of terroir to guests that are accustomed to identifying a wine by the typicity of a variety?

It is ironic that Burgundy cherishes Pinot Noir for red wine and Chardonnay for white wine, and many of its vineyards are named after flora and fauna that no longer exists. How many juniper trees are left in Genevrieres? How many clusters of oak trees in Clos de Chenes? How many cherries are left in Griotte Chambertin? How much forest is left in Les Forets? These vineyard names pay tribute to paradise lost. In its place are grape plantations that have bent nature into submission for its own devices and all but eradicated the native ecosystem that truly makes Burgundy, Burgundy.

I am not being hard on Burgundy alone, but rather because it is an emblem for a model that many other world regions have adopted, it provides an inception point for a much needed paradigm shift. Typicity, through the eyes of one variety, is a dangerous premise that incentivizes monoculture. It is problematic to lift up Cabernet Sauvignon as the golden calf, as the capitalist mindset will respond by expending great resources to force Cabernet and other cult grape heroes into places they probably shouldn’t go. The vast majority of New World producers I collaborate with are moving in a direction of wine as a perennial beverage: from field blends to multi-fruit co-ferments to herbal infusions to foraged projects etc. There’s a liberation in removing the hero worship of a grape variety and it leads to greater sensitivity in how one might approach raw land.

 

 Which district or region in your country has an unmistakable terroir for you and why?

If a sense of place is truly heightened by wine as more than grape then we have a long way to go to answer this question. Furthermore, why does an identity have to be fixed or so easily pigeonholed? Is it so that we sommeliers can go “Ah yes, this is Loire Valley” when they blind taste Chenin Blanc? If your first taste of New Orleans was one experience, and your second visit yielded a different experience, and yet a third visit, peeling away the veneer of the French Quarter and Bourbon Street, discovered an entirely new sense of place, would New Orleans lack any of its ‘unmistakable terroir’? In a wine context, there ought to be a lot of different paint brushes filling in the canvas of the Loire Valley, instead of a homogenized distillation, and this diversity of expression is the catalyst of its dynamism.

 

Climate change is forcing us all to reconsider traditional beliefs about a “sense of place.” What do you think the future looks like?

The only future I see for us is on the individual level to explore our ‘sense of place’ within the natural world. To slip on the skin we wore as a child and deepen our relationship to the web of life around us. This is what is missing with environmental activism. It’s not about carbon rocketing past 419 ppm or loss of biodiversity or species die off or sea level rise or whatever dystopian future we want to paint. These are all obvious problems we face, but to live as bean counters for science-based assessments of our ‘footprint’, spending 10 hours a day on zoom conferences trying to solve the world’s problems, is like bailing water out of a leaky vessel. The ship needs to come to port and be fixed. For humanity, the leak is caused by our broken relationship with the world beyond our own creation. But like any successful relationship, trust cannot be a one way street. Nature trusts us because it sees us as part of a larger organism. But that flow must be bi-directional. When we engage in nature-led activities, we inject energy toward that path. It is this change, at the cellular level, that informs the decisions and practices we are or are not willing to participate in.

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