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Breaking Down The Wine Industry And Following Your Own Path With Brian McClintic
~ Brian McClintic
Very few people make the grade of Master Sommelier, and even fewer decide to give the prestigious title up. Enter Brian McClintic -- the California native who’s striving for a more ecological and diverse approach to wine.
In 2012, McClintic was the star of a feature length documentary film called ‘Somm’ that followed his journey to become a Master Sommelier. Two sequels, a wine bar and retail shop later, in 2016, McClintic founded online wine club Viticole. Combining his ‘personal taste and ecological beliefs’, the club offers subscribers custom bottling of organically-farmed wine. But most recently in 2020, McClintic made perhaps the most controversial move in his career when he resigned from the Court of Master Sommeliers America (CMSA), a decision that was triggered by the Black Lives Matter movement.
In this interview, DLISH speaks to McClintic about how he first got into wine, how he became a Master Sommelier, and why he decided to walk away from it.
Sara Bavar: What first made you want to become a sommelier?
Brian McClintic: In 2008, the economy was struggling and I had a family to support at the time. My restaurant had dried up and people weren't eating out as much, so I started looking for another outlet that could actually make sense for me in terms of a career path - wine was a natural progression.
SB: What did that process look like for you?
BM: It was definitely different. I was someone who played baseball and drank whisky. I didn't have a wine background - my mom drank martinis and my dad drank scotch. I knew how a couple of cabernets from my times working in restaurants but no holistic knowledge of wine. I remember walking into sommelier training and listening to someone study a map of Bulgarian wine regions, and then doing a blind tasting, recognizing all six wines - it was a really jarring experience. I told the Master Sommelier who was there, 'I don't think this is for me. These people are obviously really smart and can smell really well - I can't.' He basically told me to embrace the experience and take notes which is what I did for two months.
SB: What was your training like and how long did it take?
BM: It was very informal. We basically sat in small groups and took notes for two months, learning the language of smell. We would blind taste, study together, quiz each other on flashcards, and learn wine. I took my intro in the first level in summer of 2008 and passed the second exam in fall of that year and in April 2009 I passed the advanced level. Essentially, I went from knowing nothing to passing the advanced level and waiting to take the Master Sommelier exam in about nine months. I ended up going through the whole process in two and a half years, which hadn't been done before.
I realize now that the speed in which everything was done, was a kind of disservice to everyone because I wasn't ready to pass in so many ways. Instead of really honing my skills in the trade, I just focused on the accreditation and how it could economically support my family.
I was asked to sit for the Master Sommelier exam two weeks before the test date due to a cancelation - so basically I had two weeks to study. I passed service and theory in August 2010 but didn't pass tasting so I had to go back in February 2011 and passed it - what people saw in the film 'Somm'.
SB: Did you ever fall in love with wine?
BM: It's a fetishy world. It can often be very reductionist, very myopic - I confess I was swept up in that. When you're going through that exam, you're often sitting around a table talking about wine incessantly, when the real function of wine should be people around a table getting to know each other.
Through the multiple existential crises that I've had with wine, I think it brought me to a higher place as a human being, because wine is such an amazing portal to other ideas, both symbolically and practically. It is an agricultural product and agriculture is such an important issue. Symbolically, wine is such a powerful teaching tool in a way that food is not, strangely. You think about food and most of your relationship with food doesn't involve a farm. Whether you go to a restaurant or you go to a grocery store and cook at home, you are never stepping foot on a farm. Whereas, you go to a winery or you go to a tasting room, and there's often vines crawling up to the tasting room door. The opportunity to tell an agricultural story, or to make an agricultural movement blow up is far more powerful in wine than any other sector of agriculture.
SB: How did Viticole come to be?
BM: After becoming a Master Sommelier I dabbled in some businesses that didn't end well, both professionally and personally, but they were very formative for what I would do next - a business of developing me instead of me developing it, a project completely from the heart. The priority of personal development became the vehicle for all my business decisions.
Viticole addresses so much of who I am and what is important to me - travel, visiting wineries, custom bottling, living in France. It is a personal growth vehicle, instead of a cash cow that I'm trying to grow and sell or retire on.
SB: When did you step back and look critically at the wine industry?
BM: I think from the very beginning because I was trying to use the industry for my own personal gain, without ever feeling connected to it. Whatever happened with wine was partly down to some sort of skill, but the major part of it was true luck. Every door opened for me, I met the right people who I needed to meet - wine was working, it was happening, and I saw that. Up until that point, I had kept running into brick walls career-wise.
I don't know if I'll be in the wine industry forever, but for now, I'm walking my path and it feels really good. I'm not really worried about where I'll be in five years. My feet are on my path and that's good enough.
SB: At what point did you realize that diversity and inclusion are not really a part of this whole industry?
BM: I had always wondered why so few people in the Black community were involved in wine. When you look at the fact that less than 1% of Black people own vineyard land, you realize how significant the problem is. That doesn't exist in a vacuum. There are real systemic underpinnings in agriculture and the wine industry for why things are the way they are.
Enough hasn't been done in the wine industry, it should be an ongoing battle which is completely parallel to the battle within an agricultural space. Diversity is everything in an agricultural space - trees, vines, grasses, all the microbial life that invites richness of culture in an ecosystem exists in a social context in the exact same way. If we have any desire to win in the environmental arena, we need to win in the social context, and vice versa.
What's fascinating is, if you look at the people who were farming with respect to the land, you would see the indigenous people - the people ripped from their lands and enslaved. These people innately had a respect for the land, they understood companion planting, polyculture and working within natural laws. It's the colonial mindset that created the farming system that is equally colonial. I don't think there's any line between climate change and racial climate change. It's the same thing. So, to fight for one and not the other is not a multipronged attack.
SB: Are you still looking to start your own vineyard?
BM: I've been looking at land - really damaged land where big timber has destroyed an ecosystem - to restore. It is very difficult to deal with these big forces here, and certainly COVID slowed everything down as well. But, I'm not stressing about it. For now, I'm living in a cabin with a really good community of friends, and I’m open to where the signs take me next.
Click here to explore the wines at Viticole Wine Club.
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