Don’t tell that to Jason McClain, a longtime area entrepreneur who started McClain Cellars. Now in its fifth year of operations and just three years removed from its first sale, his business is already a name to know among wine enthusiasts.
The up-and-coming winery based in Laguna Beach is rapidly growing its presence in the industry, with a new location in Santa Barbara County opening last year and other spots across Southern California in the works.
The ambitious plans are all in character for McClain, who runs one of the few Black-owned wineries in the region.
“I was made to do this. I have owned and sold 14 businesses, I have had a motivational speaking company, it all prepared me for this. McClain Cellars is the culmination of my existence on this planet.”
Man on a Mission
McLain’s motivational speaking background comes through when he describes his family-owned business.
He says he’s on a mission to live his dream and celebrate life, which as he notes is “the joy of this journey—doing what you want in the time you have left.”
The exec’s journey has been a circuitous one.
McClain had a successful career in technology and the dot-com world, a TV show on Amazon Prime called “Life and Change,” and several successful businesses.
He was always into wine, and he and his wife, Sofia, toyed with the idea of starting a winery while traveling the West Coast in an RV, sampling wines to determine the best place to launch a wine business.
In 2016, McClain had an opportunity to take his TV show into syndication and was getting offers to write books.
One day while pouring over a complicated contract, he realized he was no longer having fun. So, McClain took hold of his dream, turned down the TV contract, divested himself of other obligations, and made the decision to go into the wine business full time, buying a multi-acre spot in the Santa Ynez Valley to grow grapes.
In June 2018, he sold his first bottles of wine in a pop-up event at his home in Coto de Caza.
After a few more pop-up wine tastings, Tutto Fresco restaurant agreed to have him show his wines in their lobby.
Laguna Canyon Base
That October, McClain found what he described as “an ugly location in Laguna Beach,” just off Laguna Canyon Road. He signed a lease, invested $250,000 in renovations, and opened McClain Cellars in February 2019.
“That first year we had fantastic sales every month, we were growing, reviews were off the charts, and we planned to open a Buellton location, where we make our wines—on March 14, 2020,” McClain said.
The coronavirus shutdown postponed the Buellton opening; it eventually launched last June.
McClain has also signed an agreement to open a bistro and wine lounge in his hometown of Coto de Caza.
But that’s not all on the growth front. The company recently signed a lease for a tasting room in downtown Solvang, where other vintners have had success. McClain also plans to open a wine tasting venue inside a new Marriott Resort in Temecula that’s planned to open in early 2023.
After that, McClain is eyeing the Los Angeles and San Diego markets.
McClain Cellars makes all of their wines from grapes grown and sourced in the Santa Ynez Valley. After it is bottled and ready to sell, they bring all the wine to Orange County where it is released to the public.
“There is no winery like us in the OC,” McClain claims.
“We are legally referred to as a winery, but we do not make the wine in Orange County. We make it in Buellton, box it and move it to a temperature-controlled warehouse in Irvine. That’s where we keep everything.”
McClain Cellars makes a variety of different wines, with a total of around 4,000 cases per year—although that volume continues to grow thanks to a robust wine club that McClain says is growing “five or six times the average of what most wineries grow at. Our wines are really good, it’s a luxury experience. People want to be pampered, they want the best, so that is what we created. We are a young winery, but Wine Enthusiast Magazine just gave six of our wines scores of 90 to 92 each,” noted McClain with pride.
“I am so in love with what we do, I spend 60 to 80 hours a week working on the brand,” McClain added. “When someone comes to McClain Cellars and they leave, they have formed a significant emotional event and fallen in love with the wines. They know it’s OK to dream, they learn that today is awesome and the experience is great.”
Stories Behind Bottles
A great experience means more than just the taste of the wines, which are highly rated and sought after. There’s a story behind each bottle. McClain has named each wine varietal after a significant emotional event in his life, and the vibrant labels are either paintings by artists that McClain commissions or he buys the rights to existing paintings.
“I do the layout and write the content for every label, but for the paintings we start with the wines—what is the blend, what does that wine remind me of, what moment in life. Once I have a name and the taste, that gives me a hint for the painting.”
The wines themselves are as unique as the labels.
“The wines I make are the ones I like to drink,” McClain stated.
“Wineries usually focus on wines that will be the most sellable—cabernet, chardonnay. I like rich wine, fruit forward wines, wines that offer soft tannins, ageable wines, one I can drink one day or lay down. What quantifies those types of wines? How can I make a cabernet different? How can I give you a wine you cannot get anywhere else? I am making wines that give me a flavor profile that will be delightful in experience for a newbie, and something sophisticated that appeals to the discriminating palate, and I accomplish that by making blends. There are no wines like mine.”
In addition to sampling wines at his tasting rooms, McClain has his own line of gourmet flavored popcorn that is non-GMO, vegan, gluten-free, tree nut and peanut-free, dairy-free, and lactose-free. His McClain brand of olive oils are made with olives raised from trees on the same soils that his wines come from in the Santa Ynez Valley. You can also order cheese and charcuterie platters to go with your wine tasting experience.
McClain Cellars has gained enough notoriety that they are partnering with Alma Waterways on a seven-day wine cruise scheduled for later this year.
“It’s kind of an honor,” McClain said. “Wine tours are usually for those that are way more established than we are. To do it so soon after opening our tasting room is a big honor.”
“When I was in college, I studied English and Romantic literature,” McClain said. “There is one passage that I have always loved and is the cornerstone for the start of this journey. It’s a quote from Henry David Thoreau, and it’s become my mantra.”
Part of that Thoreau quote includes the passage “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life…I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.”
To further quote Thoreau: “If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”
Jason McClain is indeed living the life he has imagined.
McClain Cellars: 849 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach, (949) 590-9980, mcclaincellars.com