Following his nose

David McCluskey

Photo by Neesa Sonoquie

Sommelier and chef David McCluskey isn’t afraid to take risks. He spends his days at a local startup company and his free hours on his passion project, Spare Barrel. For the virtual winery, McCluskey buys wine that he falls in love with from wineries selling excess bulk product, which he then finesses to his liking and bottles for sale online. This particular angle of the wine business has its roots in France, where merchant-vintners such as McCluskey are known as wine négociants, and it is an affordable way to get started in an expensive and competitive wine market. Spare Barrel has been in business in Chico for about two years, with two releases available—a cabernet sauvignon that won a silver medal in the San Francisco Chronicle wine competition and a petit verdot. Visit the Spare Barrel website at for a peek at what McCluskey is up to and to get on an email list for future releases.

How did the idea for Spare Barrel come about?

I started this with the idea that instead of just drinking the same wine all the time I wanted to do something different. I would go find micro-lots of awesome stuff and bottle it myself—maybe it needs a little refining, a little filtering, a little blending or a few tweaks, but then maybe it’s not so boring and repetitious.

How do you choose your wines?

Primarily it’s what I can find that’s really good and perhaps a little unusual. … [M]y cab … is from Pine Mountain, which has some of the highest vineyards in the Sonoma area. It is super rocky there and kind of cool, so the wines have a different profile. They’ve got higher acid and a little bit more green in them because it’s harder to reach full ripeness. For me, it’s about where uniqueness and flavor intersect; that’s what I am looking for.

What are some of the challenges of running a virtual winery?

The way to get people to buy wine is to let them taste it, so that is my big challenge right now. I cannot physically show up at the farmers’ market and pour samples—for me, that’s illegal. The only real avenues for people in Chico to taste my wine prior to purchasing it are through a wine bar or restaurant that has bought my wine to sell or at a nonprofit event where I have donated the wine.

What makes Spare Barrel special?

I put wines in bottle that are good on many levels. They’re not going to have flaws, they’ll be good now but they’ll be good in 15 years, they’re going to be interesting and they’re going to be a good value. My reputation as a person, as a nose, and as a tongue is what you have to trust. I’m not going to sell you anything I wouldn’t drink myself, and I’ve got pretty high standards.