“Running restaurants together, we can provide a good environment for our daughters to grow up as we can spend more time with them as a family,” says Chris Gaither. His wife and business partner Rebecca Fineman agrees that despite the daily challenges of balancing a business with raising a young family, it offers freedom and flexibility to work according to her own schedule, and be with the kids as much as possible.
The couple are speaking to me from Ungrafted, the low-key, neighborhood restaurant and bottle shop they founded in San Francisco in 2018. In June they opened a second venue GluGlu, a wine bar serving delicious food at the Thrive City complex in Mission Bay. Both happen to have top-flight wine programs, which isn’t surprising as Rebecca and Chris are qualified Master Sommeliers. Plus, between them, they have cut their teeth at Bay Area’s finest – from The French Laundry and Spruce to Michael Mina, Gary Danko and Ame.
Rebecca and Chris came to a life in wine quite by chance, and they met quite by chance too – through wine. Originally from Bronxville in Westchester County, New York, Rebecca pursued a liberal arts education in music and anthropology. She got her first taste for hospitality in her twenties, while subsidizing a meager salary in publishing with restaurant work. And she happened to be extremely good at it, rising rapidly within the ranks to wine director. “I loved learning about food and wine, and I loved sharing what I had learned with new people,” she recalls. “For a long while this was not something I considered to be a serious career choice, and it took a few years for me to shift gears and start setting long-term goals.”
At the advice of a mentor, she gained a sommelier certification and within five months became an Advanced Sommelier with the Court of Master Sommeliers, Americas. Then in 2017, she was to become the 25th female Master Sommelier in the US. Their first daughter Edith Louisa accompanied her to the ceremony.
Meanwhile the Atlanta-raised Chris worked part-time in restaurants to make his way through Morehouse College. And even though he immediately took to the culture of hospitality, his eye was on teaching Spanish, which proved to be challenging. “Coming right out of college, and trying to teach high school, that was a bad idea,” he admits, with a laugh.
Chris was now convinced of a career in hospitality and applied for a wine internship at The French Laundry. “It was life changing, and within a month of being in Napa I went back home, packed everything into my beat-up Honda and moved out to California.” He worked at the celebrated restaurant for a year after his internship, experiencing the cutting-edge of food and hospitality – a time he describes as “intense, high-pressure and swarming with talent.”
Single with little in the form of a social life, Napa was beginning to feel isolated. “Atlanta is one of the most metropolitan cities in the South with a population that is almost 50 percent Black, so yes Napa was a culture shock,” he says candidly. “I didn’t have a community there.” It prompted a move to San Francisco to work first as a sommelier at Spruce, then as wine director at Gary Danko.