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Sommelier Talk: Lessons in Wine at the Greenbrier, Historic 'America's Resort'

Brian McClure, a former history teacher, preserves the past and focuses on the future as beverage director at the 18th-century Alleghenies resort
Photo by: Mike Wyatt/Greenbrier Photography
From the classroom to the wine cellar, Brian McClure makes education a priority.

Lexi Williams
Posted: June 30, 2017

The majestic Greenbrier has more than earned its self-appointed moniker "America's Resort," providing a luxurious getaway since its founding in 1778 on the mineral springs up in the West Virginia Alleghenies. Through the centuries, the property has played host to countless famous faces, including 26 U.S. presidents, international royalty and stars of the silver screen. The history of the grand neoclassical edifice is fascinating: It housed a military headquarters during the Civil War (for both sides); in the 1940s, it served as a U.S. Army hospital; and from the 1950s until 1992, it hid a top-secret emergency bomb shelter for Congress. Today, the Greenbrier is known for its golf and tennis facilities, decor by socialite Dorothy Draper, and world-class dining options, including the Best of Award of Excellence–winning Main Dining Room.

The Greenbrier
The Greenbrier's guest list includes Martin Van Buren, Dolley Madison, Debbie Reynolds and George W. Bush.

Brian McClure, the resort's beverage director, has an interesting history of his own. He worked his way up in restaurants starting at age 15, and by the time he was entering graduate school, he had fallen in love with wine. But McClure, 46, was devoted to education, and for a decade, wine remained a hobby as he taught history, fittingly, at prestigious prep schools in Connecticut and New Hampshire. In 2010, he decided it was time for a change, and his first foray back into hospitality was at Lake Placid Lodge, where he helped Artisans restaurant win a Best of Award of Excellence. In 2013, a recruiter at Greenbrier recognized McClure's teaching would be an asset in leading the 250-strong waitstaff. But before visiting, "I really didn't know if I wanted to go from New York to West Virginia," says McClure. "But I was just blown away. It's like going to Yankee Stadium for the first time. It's a monument." He's been there ever since. Editorial assistant Lexi Williams spoke with McClure about his stewardship of a legacy, and how he plans to take the Greenbrier's wine program into the future.

Wine Spectator: The Greenbrier is almost as old as America itself. What's it like managing a beverage program at a place with such history?
Brian McClure: I would say in terms of the gravitas of the institution, it strikes you at times. We'll see menus that go back to the '50s, '40s, '30s, which was really one of the heydays of the Greenbrier. When you get to the '50s and '60s, that's when it became known for having the Bing Crosbys and the Frank Sinatras and so forth. Richard Nixon was here, and he liked to drink Château Margaux, but I have no evidence that he drank Château Margaux at the Greenbrier. John Kennedy was here.

We try to pay homage to some of these menus; I have some historic wines—I have a 1940 Broadbent Sercial Madeira, for instance.

WS: Do you think your teaching background influences your work at the Greenbrier?
BM: All the time. There are wine tastings, mixology classes. I feel like what I used to do as a teacher has given me a lot of comfort in terms of presenting and being a public speaker. I'll give tastings at the Greenbrier that are 50, 75, 100 people at a time, depending on the time of year.

The other place that it comes through is in the training of the staff. I just did a training yesterday for a young staff, and a lot of them haven't opened a bottle of wine; some of them haven't even tried wine before. I actually had to spend time showing how you cut the foil off a bottle. When I do a training, I come in with a curriculum that I created, and that comes straight from my background as a teacher.

WS: How do you balance the resort's long history of hospitality with your efforts to create a modern wine experience?
BM: One thing I always discuss with [the sommeliers] is that at the end of the day, you want the guest to have a phenomenal experience, and if that phenomenal experience is going to be achieved through them drinking what's familiar, then by all means, give them what they want.

In the Forum, our Italian restaurant, that's probably where we try to push the envelope the most. We'll pour a Falanghina, we'll pour a Fiano. Obviously we'll have our Chianti and we'll have our Pinot Grigio, but then I can say to the sommelier, "Hey, why don't we pour a Grechetto, or get a little Nerello Mascalese going in there." If you have a well-presented BTG program, and you're writing wine descriptions, it creates a conversation.

[But] some people are totally brand loyal. I just had a group in—they were here for four days, and I think they drank two cases of Caymus. I'm dead serious; I had to get an emergency delivery of it yesterday because they just drank me out of it. [But] for the future, I'm thinking in terms of making this one of the premier beverage programs in the country.

WS: How do you plan to do that?
BM: What we're doing right now, we have more sommeliers, we've broadened our selection, we're a Best of Award of Excellence winner. We've got the breadth, but now I'm looking for more depth. For instance, I just worked to get a whole vertical of Dal Forno Amarone in here for the first time. I just brought in 26 different labels of Bordeaux over the past two months, going back to the 2000 Palmer; I've got the 2012 Lafite—talk about an investment.

One thing that we've been working on is building a new wine center, which I'm very excited about. It's going to be a brand-new wine cellar underground, and adjacent to it is going to be a wine tasting room. The designs are all done, and it may have been unveiled by now if not for the flood last year. It's just a matter of when that happens. It's in the works.

What I'm trying to do at the Greenbrier is make it a wine destination. I know we're a golf destination, I know we're a culinary destination … I'm just trying to add another layer. I want to be one of the Grand Award–winning programs.

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