Santa Barbara's Perfectly Modern Wine Bar


The elements that make a wine shop a good wine shop evolve so fast it would make Charles Darwin's head spin, even before he consumed anything they sold. There's the old-timer shop, a mix of liquor and dusty wine and tequila sold in bottles shaped in everything from skulls to machine guns. There's a more recent iteration, full of inventory and people who can tell you about it, but it's sort of no-frills otherwise, and there's sadly no tasting.

And then there are places like Les Marchands Wine Bar & Merchant, which just celebrated its first anniversary in Santa Barbara's Funk Zone. Their anniversary is a good excuse to examine where we are now in the wine store evolution, as they seem to be at its peak. That starts with the shop's impeccable pedigree of partners Eric Railsback and Brian McClintic. Railsback has worked at Santa Barbara's Wine Cask, Silver Lake Wines, Osteria Mozza, and Gordon Ramsey in Los Angeles. McClintic has perhaps gone his partner one better (think about that for a moment), as he's achieved the level of Master Sommelier, and was even one of the subjects of the highly-regarded doc "Somm."

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It doesn't hurt Les Marchands is in a cool spot, in a just recently hip neighborhood (you have to watch those post-hip slumps). Lovingly restored from the old Castagnola fish market and processing plant (along with sister restaurant The Lark), it's all exposed brick and reclaimed and restored fixtures and plenty of twinkling light and mirror, both to catch the beauty in your glass and the possible beauty in the bar. You can drink there, or you can buy and take home. Or both.

The California wine store timeline has also moved to the point where you don't have to serve just California juice anymore. We're finally secure enough we can say, "Here's what's good by locals, and it's just as good as this," as we pour a Rhone syrah, say. Les Marchands doesn't mind celebrating the local scene, but they've got the long, global view firmly in place too. At their First Anniversary party, pouring pinks as it's still summer, even more so in Santa Barbara as it's August's last gasp, they offered wines from across the globe. And they even make that joke about the Austrian wine: yes it is pronounced Jäger, as in Jägermeister, because their audience remembers college. (And what a wonderful mineral quality that rosé had, nothing like your barely remembered Jäger shots of yore.)

But when they do serve local, they actually make some themselves -- what's more local than that? Railsback has formed Lieu Dit with Justin Willett (who also does Tyler Wines); Railsback and McClintic, along with Willet and Master Sommelier Dustin Wilson -- because you cant have too many people with crazy-discerning palates -- have also formed Vallin. Of course rosés from both were pouring for the anniversary (the Lieu Dit is even a rosé from pinot noir, a perfect pale pink that belies how much flavor it delivers).

Yes, to succeed you run a wine club, as any good shop's job is to curate taste. And speaking of taste, you make sure those wines can shine alongside good food pairings. Les Marchands' menu might be small, but brings just the right flavors for wine of all sorts. Plus they've got Weston Richards making that food for them, a chef best known for Santa Barbara's beloved pop-up, Spare Parts. Bring the people the food they want and they'll drink plenty of wine.

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