SF man says perseverance, tenacity pushed him to become 1 of just 4 Black sommeliers in the world

ByKumasi Aaron and Jason Beal Localish logo
Monday, March 13, 2023
Meet the man who became 1 of just 4 Black sommeliers in the world
Master sommelier Chris Gaither is sharing his love for wine, a desire for more diversity in the industry, and a determination to never give up.

SAN FRANCISCO -- Do you think you have what it takes to be a master sommelier? You'd have to be pretty good at blind wine tasting. Only about 5% of the people who take the exam pass it.

And Chris Gaither is one of them.

"It's something that came with a lot of perseverance and a lot of tenacity," Gaither says.

Seeing Gaither in Ungrafted, the San Francisco wine bar he co-owns, it's hard to imagine he didn't know too much about wine until college, when he got a job at a restaurant where he needed to. And he liked it.

"Eventually, I became one of the people at the restaurant that knew about all the producers," Gaither remembers. "I would have my coworkers asking me, 'Hey, what does this one taste like? What does that one taste like? Can you talk to my table over here about this one coming from Campania? What is that Taurasi?'" Chris recalls.

He decided to pursue wine as a career, moving from Georgia to California for a coveted internship at The French Laundry.

"From the moment I got here, I was invested," Gaither says. "And then coming to San Francisco, and becoming a part of the wine community in San Francisco. I really, really enjoyed it and haven't looked back."

Gaither set his sights on becoming a master sommelier, a person who specializes in all aspects of wine service and wine and food pairing. He passed the advanced sommelier exam on the first try, and also met Rebecca Fineman, the woman who would become his wife.

"We met when we were waiting for results at the advanced exam," Fineman says. "Which, at the time, was being held at Disneyland."

The two ended up getting married, opening Ungrafted and becoming parents, all while trying to become master sommeliers. Rebecca passed the exam in three tries, but Gaither kept coming up short.

"It was really, really difficult," Gaither recalls. "She did most of the work. And I'm truly grateful for it. But she also motivated me. She said, 'you know, you can do this.'"

"I think what I said was, 'you have to do this,'" Fineman says.

Master sommelier diploma has four stages that culminate in a three-part exam that covers theory, service, and tasting.

Gaither says, "You have to taste six wines, blind, not knowing what they are. And you have to describe them in no uncertain detail. And you have to get most of them correct in terms of what you're calling them. And you have to do that in 25 minutes."

While Gaither has it down now, that part took him seven tries to pass. And in 2022, 10 years after starting his process, Gaither became a master sommelier.

"The first feeling was just relief," Gaither says. "I finally did it done. It's over."

Now Gaither, being one of only four Black master sommeliers in the world, is reflecting on his experience in the wine industry.

"I've been either the only or maybe one of a handful of Black people at every restaurant I've worked at in my whole career," Gaither says. "And yes, every place I've talked to I felt 'Oh, wow. Okay. All right.' Something in me just wanted to keep going."

Now every Thursday, Chris does blind tastings at Ungrafted for fun, sharing them online with his followers, and inviting others to try in person as a part of the restaurant's wine society and club.

A welcome to the world of wine, for those who might not always feel it.

"I'm hoping that this shows people that it can be done," Gaither says. "And then, this motivates and encourages other people that look like us to do it."

In addition to Ungrafted, Chris Gaither and his wife are also opening another wine bar at Thrive City at Chase Center called GluGlu. It's set to open this summer.

For more information, visit here.