WWC23 – Chris Gaither, by Rebecca Fineman

Chris Gaither with his daughter

We have been absolutely delighted with the 134 submissions to our 2023 wine writing competition (WWC23). Following a preliminary round of judging, we have selected those that we are particularly proud to publish here, unedited, throughout July and August. To kick things off, in this entry Master Sommelier Rebecca Fineman writes movingly about her husband and fellow Master Sommelier Chris Gaither. See this guide to our competition.

Rebecca Fineman writes Rebecca is currently the Wine Director and Managing Partner at Ungrafted and GluGlu, both in San Francisco, which she runs with her husband, Chris Gaither. Rebecca is a Master Sommelier with the Court of Master Sommeliers and is the 25th woman in the USA to attain the coveted title. 

We met at Disneyland, but it’s not the meet-cute you are imagining. We did not meet standing in an endless line for a ride or checking into a hotel. Instead, we met with drinks in hand at the ESPN Zone. He was seated with a larger group, a sea of suits, each with a small pin on the lapel. I was dressed in the same way, and I was nonplussed to see them all there. My stress was already high, and I didn’t want to do anything to add to it. There was an empty seat next to him, and I preemptively told him I didn’t want to talk about the exam. He agreed and we started to talk about everything, everything, that is, except for wine.  

This was 2012, and it was a time that the Court of Master Sommeliers-Americas used to hold the annual Advanced Exam at the Disneyland Hotel. For both of us, it was our first attempt taking the exam, and we each passed it that day.  

He was already living and working in San Francisco, and I was planning to move there in the next two weeks, having already made the decision to trade the warmth of Hawaii for the cold and fog of the Bay Area. The next steps came naturally, but not without a lot of work. We became friends, I joined his tasting group. We started dating. We ran wine programs at the top restaurants in the city, exercised together, studied together, fought about wine, and drank wine. We asked each other for advice and resented each other for our individual successes. We learned to be better people, more supportive of one another. We got engaged. I passed the theory portion of the MS exam. We got married and had a child. We continued to trudge along with the MS exam, which I passed with a young baby in my arms. He was unable to pass the exam in three attempts, got reset and spent more time with his tasting group than he did his family (or at least that is how it felt to me). We opened a restaurant together. We had multiple miscarriages. We drank wine, we talked, we cried, and we laughed. 

Then Covid hit, and we watched as our regulars and staff lived their lives in the safety of their homes while we were fully exposed. My memory of that time is clouded with worry—for our health, our daughter’s health and our business. We had no choice but to trust each other. Our restaurant survived, our family survived, and we built it all back better. We had a second successful pregnancy. He finally passed the MS exam. And, we just opened our second business. 

The past 11 years have been the most difficult and the most rewarding time in each of our lives. Together we have accomplished so much, things we would not have been able to accomplish on our own. We still fight, but we also laugh. We still cry, but now we do it together. If we can manage to arrange the schedule so that we have a night off together, we pop open a bottle of wine, usually champagne and usually a tete de cuvee. We sip, we talk, and we say how lucky we are to have built everything that we have built. 

Chris is without a doubt my favorite wine person. He was the one who convinced me that wine is a legitimate career choice, one that I should not be ashamed of. I had walked away from a life in academia, and I had a lot of people whispering in my ear, asking when I was going to get my life back on track. I couldn’t explain why I had ended up here. As soon as I started working in a restaurant I loved it, and I was good at it. Wine was a way for me to combine all my interests—music, math, anthropology, history, geology, and I really loved sharing that information with others. But it was not a career that my friends and family understood. Chris listened and told me to be proud of my successes. And he promised there would be more. He was right.  

I make decisions for a living, but it is not without a lot of deliberation. I fear having to make these decisions and waste far too much time wondering what might have been had I made a different one. Chris is the opposite. He delights in having me make the decisions and then has no trouble keeping his sights set straight ahead. I have many doubts, and he has none. it’s worked well for us, and it brings us closer. 

I can tell you all about Chris’s favorite wines or his favorite restaurants, but that’s not who he is. Chris is the hardest working person I have ever met. He complains only to me and puts a smile on his face for everyone else. I see him at his worst and even then, he’s still able to make me laugh. 

Chris has made an impact on the lives of many aspiring sommeliers in San Francisco, but I know him better. I see him struggle, I see the things he is bad at, I see him learn to be a better dad, mentor, manager, business partner. This hard work is how we grow. The Chris that other people see is one dimensional. He is full of energy and positivity. That is not my Chris. My Chris is more complex, as people are. He infuriates me and frustrates me, but he’s there every day, acting goofy, just to make us laugh. This is my favorite wine person. He is not invincible. He will spend his whole life making mistakes, but that is okay because he will be the first to forgive ours. 

It's an added bonus that he happens to like champagne as much as I do.

The photo is the author's own.