Cheers to Chris Gaither of Ungrafted, the 4th Black Master Somm in the World

That also makes Ungrafted the only restaurant in the world run by two master sommeliers.

Chris pouring white wine while leaning on the bar
Chris Gaither | Ungrafted 

On August 31, Chris Gaither of Ungrafted and GluGlu raised a glass of Champagne with the Court of Master Sommeliers, having earned the most prestigious title in the wine world. Earlier that day, he and wife and partner Rebecca Fineman left their wine bar, packed up their two girls, and flew to Portland, Oregon so he could sit for the final exam. Gaither had previously passed the theory and service portions, but it took seven years of studying and multiple attempts to pass the blind tasting, famously one of the most difficult tests in the world. “It feels good, like a big heavy weight is off of my shoulders,” Gaither says. “Like a 500-pound ball and chain.” Daughters Eddie and Joey got to jump in the photos and attend a fancy luncheon. This makes Gaither the fourth Black man in the world to hold the title of master sommelier, and he believes Ungrafted is the only restaurant in the world owned by two master sommeliers.

Gaither started working in restaurants as a student at Morehouse College in Atlanta, before landing a wine internship at the French Laundry in Napa, and pouring for Michelin-starred Spruce and Gary Danko. These weighty tests are how he met his wife: Gaither and Fineman met while sitting for the advanced sommelier exam in 2012. If you haven’t seen the documentary Somm, Gaither explains how the Court of Master Sommeliers is an organization with several tiers: intro, certified, advanced, and master somm, which range from taking a course for a couple of days, to tackling the equivalent of a doctorate degree, but with a much higher fail rate.

Famously, 90% of people fail the master sommelier exam, and few have passed on the first attempt, so Gaither is in good company in requiring a few tries. You also have to pass all three portions within three years, so at a certain point, he had to reset and repeat. “What was challenging was reminding myself that I could be successful, because I felt like I just kept failing,” he says. “But I wasn’t really giving myself a fair shot and truly preparing. To put it bluntly, I wasn’t preparing for the tasting exam.” To study, he did blind flights every week for years, and doubled down in the past six months. One heartwarming aspect is that Ungrafted does blind tastings for their regulars every week, who were drinking along and cheering on their favorite master somm candidate.

The Court of Master Sommeliers welcomed ten new members this year, a diverse class including two women and four people of color, according to Wine Business. That’s following fierce criticism of the organization in 2020, when it was called out for institutional racism, sparking a controversial debate over the use of the word “master,” as well as a sexual assault scandal. Since then, the court has expelled bad actors and formed a diversity committee. “It's a very diverse class, and I’m very happy to be part of it, and help to kick open the door, so to speak,” Gaither says. “Hopefully it’s sending a message that this profession is a valued one, and that there’s space in this industry for people of any background. Hopefully this will inspire a new generation of people in the field of hospitality and wine.”

While the wine elite remains overwhelmingly white and male, Gaither and Fineman are defying the odds in several extraordinary ways. Gaither is the fourth Black man in the world to pass the examination, according to several sources. Fineman was the 25th woman in the world to pass the examination in 2017. And Ungrafted is now the only restaurant in the world owned by two master sommeliers, so far as they know. And yet, “We take wine seriously, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously,” Gaither says. From the beginning, Ungrafted has been a family restaurant filled with a kids’ table, highchairs, and changing tables. “We want wine to be accessible to a lot more people … it’s not an exclusive experience.”

“It’s striking, because you would think that it would have to be a three-star-Michelin fine-dining restaurant that would be owned by wife-and-husband master sommeliers. But no! … Wine is supposed to bring people together.”  

In addition to studying for the exam of a lifetime, Gaither and Fineman were already not exactly having a chill year. Ungrafted welcomed a new chef, David Aviles from the late Acadia in Chicago, which held two Michelin stars. There’s never been a better time to swing through Ungrafted to taste the refreshed menu, starring grilled florentino cauliflower with cheddar pimento and salsa macha, pork belly carbonara, and celery root pavé. The couple also announced plans for their second wine bar GluGlu, slated to open this winter in Thrive City outside Chase Center. And in addition to expecting a second restaurant, they also had a second baby — Joey will turn one year old on Halloween.

How is Gaither holding up? Does he sleep at night? “I’m sleeping much better now!” he laughs, now that the exam is over. “This experience has taught me a lot of resilience.” He reflects on when he and Fineman first started dating. “I was the idiot that told her … ‘I want to become a master somm before I settle down,’” he says. “She said, ‘Oh that’s such a silly idea.’ And I’m happy that she didn’t pay me any mind. Because life does not stop.

“I’m happy that I did not hold off on any of the things that I wanted to accomplish in my life just for the exam.”

Ungrafted is open for indoor and outdoor dining in Dogpatch. GluGlu will be opening this winter in Mission Bay. And bottles of wine selected by two master sommeliers are available for pickup and delivery throughout the Bay Area through Pastel.