FAMILY FIRST

Husband-and-wife Master Sommeliers Chris Gaither and Rebecca Fineman strike the perfect work/life/wine balance at their welcoming neighborhood bar, Ungrafted in San Francisco, as Nargess Banks discovers

“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.

A GREAT RESULT

Rebecca and Chris met in 2012 at the Court of Master Sommeliers’ wine exam being held at Disneyland, California. They had just finished their exams and were waiting for their results. Chris was having a drink at the bar with friends when the bartender, upon seeing Rebecca’s certified sommelier pin, assumed she was with the group and directed her to their table.

“We hit it off straight away,” says Chris, and since Rebecca was planning a move to San Francisco, numbers were exchanged. She showed up unannounced at Spruce two weeks later asking for Chris who was off that day. “I told the maître de, ‘make sure she gets Champagne and has a great time’.” It was the start of a beautiful friendship. Six months later they were dating, and in 2015 they married.

Chris joined Rebecca at Sociale, a small Italian-influenced neighborhood restaurant with a different vibe to the high-pressure Spruce and Gary Danko. “These were formative times. We were working together on the floor, we had our evenings together, we were off on the same days. It was so nice and it was something that we were not used to. We knew then that we needed to do something together, and on our own,” says Chris. That was the lightbulb moment to open Ungrafted.

Soon a space in San Francisco’s creative Dogpatch area was leased and converted into a restaurant, with Ungrafted opening its doors in December 2018. From the start the duo envisaged it to be a place that welcomes anyone, somewhere you could just pop in for a glass, a bite and a chat. “We saw it as being accessible and friendly with great wines, not an overwhelming list, but something for everyone,” explains Chris. “It was satisfying to create a place that is family friendly and a real neighborhood restaurant and bottle shop.”

A year into opening, the pandemic put all public life on pause, but they kept the bottle shop running Tuesday through Saturday. “We enjoyed having a lot more of a work-life balance, and we knew that this was the one thing we were missing in our lives,” says Chris, who has continued with this approach since.

In 2022 Chris passed the Master Sommelier exam. Though clearly a gifted sommelier (his accolades include 2012 “Best New Sommeliers” from Wine and Spirits Magazine, 2013 “Top New Somm” from Guild of Sommeliers, 2013 Zagat “30 Under 30”) the reality of life and work had often gotten in the way of passing this final test. When he succeeded, Chris became among only a handful of African American Master Sommeliers.

From the top, Rebecca, Chris and their daughter, assistant wine director Dustin Toshiyuki teaching a class, the couples’ Master Sommelier pins, and a “leaderboard” of empty bottles signed by guests

Photography ©Zha Zha Liang

LIFE UNGRAFTED

The couple admit that running a business together with a young family certainly has its ups and downs. “We have to divide and conquer,” says Chris, with him acting as service director, and Rebecca general manager/wine director. “Yes there are challenges but the upside pays in volumes,” she interjects.

“I’m in charge of my own schedule and I can bring the baby with me to work, which I do every day,” says Rebecca. “There is no telling me where I have to be and when, and as long as my work gets done, I can do it at any time of the day. I cannot imagine working as a sommelier in someone else’s restaurant. Not with two children. I never want to be in that position again.”

The wines at Ungrafted are selected from all over the world, and with a big focus on Champagne and sparkling wine. “It’s our favorite drink. Plus sparkling wines can have a lot of complexity to them, and are great paired with the food,” explains Chris. The list includes more traditional Champagne producers as well as sparkling wines of the region that are more esoteric, with five bottles available by the glass.

Ungrafted also offers roughly 25 to 30 different still wines by the glass. Chris explains that it’s not so much about food and wine pairings but offering the opportunities to try lots of different wines. And to do this in a fun and informal fashion, the venue plays host to events with monthly wine classes, weekly wine tastings where guests get to taste three wines from the retail shop, and blind-tasting sessions which are proving a hit with customers. Says Chris, “To make things really fun I put my money where my mouth is, and blind taste the same flight, then post it on Instagram.”

Chris acknowledges that the world of wine is changing, even from when he started out. “But slowly, slowly,” he says. What Rebecca and Chris are doing, naturally and without pretense, is creating a space that is welcoming to all, an inclusive, relaxed family-friendly neighborhood joint where they can access amazing world wines and learn a lot from two experts. “We’re a Master Sommelier couple who take food and wine seriously but don’t take ourselves too seriously. And we are very much community-based in terms of igniting the passion for knowledge.” Speaking with Rebecca and Chris, it is evident this is exactly what motivates the two of them.

“You know we got into wine not only because we love wine but because we love people. That’s what drives everything,” says Chris. “At the end of the day, if you don’t connect with people, it’s hard to be successful in hospitality. That’s a big part of what we do.”

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