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How a master sommelier couple built a wine bar with a diverse following

There’s no shortage of bars and restaurants with impressive wine lists in the culinary mecca of San Francisco. Deciding where to sip a glass of cabernet often comes down to the vibe, finding an environment where you find yourself inspired, or perhaps just feel comfortable. Especially if you’re a woman or person of color.

The $63.7bn US fine wine industry still is dominated by white males. And if you’re not a white male, finding a place where the person pouring wine takes your opinions seriously can be incredibly challenging.

From the moment you step into Ungrafted, a wine-focused restaurant in the Dogpatch neighborhood of San Francisco, it’s evident you’re not at a run-of-the-mill culinary hotspot. That’s thanks to owners Rebecca Fineman and Christopher Gaither, a master sommelier couple whose joint résumé includes leadership roles at Bay Area fine dining icons Michael Mina, Gary Danko, Ame and Spruce. In 2018, the husband-and-wife team created a relaxed space with a top-flight wine list featuring names like Krug, Agrapart, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and Anne Gros, served by an informed and warm all-sommelier staff.

Gaither, who is Black and always dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, is usually the one who greets guests. Fineman often has their one-year-old daughter, Josephine, nestled in a baby carrier as she oversees operations. The popular weekly blind tastings, a kids’ dining area and wine club selections custom-tailored to each member attract a diverse and loyal following.

Shaped by the couple’s experiences, Ungrafted has found success appealing to audiences that the fine wine industry traditionally has overlooked. Although women make 80% of home wine purchasing decisions, and Black wine lovers are strong consumers of sweet and sparkling wines, these groups are both ignored in the marketing of “serious” red wines.

The couple is expanding the idea of what successful wine entrepreneurs look like with Ungrafted and GluGlu, their soon-to-open Mission Bay wine and snacks bar. Their down-to-earth approach evokes couple Dorothy J Gaiter and John Brecher, who championed the wine lifestyle narrative in the columns they wrote for the Wall Street Journal from 1998 to 2009.

Gaither and Fineman’s shared love of wine and daily routines are inextricable. In addition to Josephine, their six-year-old, Edith, is often to be found at the restaurant. “We’re firm believers that you don’t have to stop your life because you have kids,” says Fineman. “The pandemic made us realize we don’t need to be open seven days a week and be open at crazy hours. We have to offer quality to people and do it in a genuine way.”

How did you two meet?

CG: We met at the 2012 advanced sommelier exam as we waited for our results at the ESPN Zone at Disneyland. We hit it off and became quick friends chatting about other stuff not related to wine. I was living in San Francisco, and she was in the process of moving to San Francisco. We became good friends after she moved and later started dating.

What niche did you want Ungrafted to fill?

RF: Some fine dining feels like it’s only a special occasion, once a year. We wanted people to come to us on their way to pick up kids, or to have a glass of wine or dinner with a friend, and for special occasions. We wanted to see people regularly.

CG: We’ve always aspired to serve amazing food. We’re a full-service restaurant and our chef, David Avillez, came from Chicago from Acadia, a two-star Michelin [rated restaurant]. It’s very seasonal and changes often. It’s Chef David’s menu and he’s creative and very thoughtful. We run it like a neighborhood restaurant.

How do you signal that Ungrafted is different?

CG: I can’t help but be the face of the place. How many restaurants are owned by a Black sommelier, but also a person who’s there on the floor nightly serving guests? There are not that many. Just that alone helps to drive it home that we are different and we are about diversity.

We are also very family-friendly, in a lot of small details. We have a changing table in the bathroom with enough space for a family to fit in. We have a kids’ table in the retail area, with a chalkboard table they can color on and crayons. We have a setup with enough space where we can seat people with a high chair.

RF: There were a few Yelp reviews from the early days saying, “The gal behind the bar really knew her stuff.” Chris and I are both pretty humble people, so we almost never tell people we’re master sommeliers. I think it’s important to make people feel like you’re equals and you’re not talking down to them. Sometimes starting with the title will make people feel inferior. People discover that on their own.

How did your experiences inform Ungrafted?

RF: Chris and I both have our experiences being minorities in this industry. I’ve been invited and disinvited on several wine trips, even on local things, because I need to take my baby along. Our staff was almost all women originally, and they would see wine reps come in and walk right past me and go up to Chris or one of the other men who work here and ask to speak to the wine director.

Motherhood is another level of difficulty on my side, more than his since it’s my body that needs to be available to the baby at all times. After I passed, another male master sommelier said, “I had a baby when I passed the master sommelier exam.” And then I had to say: “You have a wife.”

For many wine professionals, becoming a master sommelier means retiring from working on the floor with customers. Why do you still do it?

CG: I’ve been in this business for almost 20 years. I love it, and I have a passion, not just for wine but for people. Being able to deliver an experience to people makes me happy ecstatically when they have a great time in our care. Any time you come into this establishment, you’re going to have warmth.

Becoming a master sommelier, running a business and parenting can all take their toll on relationships. What’s your antidote?

CG: We enjoy each other’s time outside of wine. That makes us feel like true individuals. Like she loves classical music. I’m a big fan of music from other parts of the world. I love Brazilian funk like Ed Motta, Tim Maia and Elis Regina. That’s helped us to keep some type of balance in the process of both being very intent on passing the master sommelier exam. That’s why we’re still married.

What’s your biggest challenge?

RF: We have no family nearby. The babysitters we had on our list before the pandemic have moved away or into other careers, and I don’t have the energy to interview people. I bring my baby everywhere. The kids – Josephine, age one, and Edith, age six – are here all the time. The guests know and love them.

Sometimes I wish we had help. I wish Chris and I could go out for dinner. I wish I could go for a run. This is where we are right now. Life is more stressful, but it’s beautiful.