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When Chris Gaither enrolled in Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, the original plan was to become an educator. Gaither openly embraced this idea and even went as far as to teach in a classroom. Though spending weekdays with youth who mistook him as a peer was rewarding, ultimately, he knew this career wouldn’t fill his cup in the long term.
Instead, the part-time restaurant gigs that Gaither initially took on to afford tuition would offer the experiences to open his mind and palate to a new world. Unbeknownst to Gaither, this newfound curiosity for the hospitality grind would lead the Morehouse alum, who graduated in 2005, to become the fourth Black Master Sommelier in the world.
From Wine Coolers to Cabernet
Gaither had few wine experiences before entering the restaurant field while in college. His parents were drinkers of the occasional wine cooler. So when the hospitality professional had to taste, describe and sell his first cabernet, he was excited about the challenge. Plus, becoming engulfed in the world’s beloved grape posed a refreshing break from his typical academic routine and surroundings.
While reminiscing on his college days, the teacher-turned-waiter shares, “I began to gravitate towards all the different walks of life at the restaurant. Especially their stories of traveling compared to my college friends who mainly talked about what exams they were studying for,” says the Georgia native.
The then-new wine enthusiast began to venture into new territories in the kitchen, and with growth came expectations from mentors and peers for Gaither to deepen his relationship with grape varietals. After a mentor told Gaither he needed to get on top of the wine game, he shares, “I took the advice to heart and began studying. I even bought Karen MacNeil’s Wine Bible.” Raised in the South, the idea of becoming worldly and knowledgeable about wine fascinated him.
But, as many aspiring sommeliers will share, it takes more than reading a book to prepare for the exceptionally challenging exams. And that preparation is amplified for those hoping to receive the coveted title of master sommelier. To become a master sommelier, candidates must pass the first three levels: introductory sommelier, certified sommelier and advanced sommelier. The overall process is comparable to earning a doctorate.
In 2009, after years of working in the food industry, Gaither embarked on his journey to complete all four exams. This required endless dedication to persevere through studying and preparing for the tests. Nevertheless, Gaither began to see the light at the end of the tunnel when he aced the Advanced Sommelier Exam in 2012 on the first try.
Attempting a Sommelier’s Most Difficult Test
With years of dedication to kitchens, all while studying and passing the challenging exams, Gaither continued to push the boundaries further by pursuing his master’s sommelier certification. This arduous journey would begin after becoming an advanced sommelier and go on for what would feel like a lifetime.
“A passing score of 75% is required in each part… The theory exam is a prerequisite before attempting the other two parts. Candidates must pass all parts of the exam by the third attempt; if not, they must start over. This is one of the most challenging exams in the world, with a very low pass rate,” shares Gaither.
The test is more complex than the other exams because it involves three different stages. The first part involves “answering over 100 questions” about all beverages, not just wine, shares the sommelier. Then, to continue, examinees are tested on their ability to run a “wine program as well as a mock restaurant service,” Gaither elaborates. Lastly, there is a timed wine tasting where candidates must quickly decipher wine qualities.
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Earning a Prestigious Title While Unearthing Humility
While studying grape varieties, Gaither found that to understand wine, he needed more opportunities to experience it. So the aspiring master sommelier landed a wine internship at the world-renowned restaurant French Laundry in Yountville, California, after previously working at the now-closed Restaurant Eugene in Atlanta. “I didn’t realize how expensive it was to live in California. I ended up living on sandwich meat and ramen,” he notes. With the internship being unpaid, it was a risk. However, Gaither says, “This option was cheaper than me spending $15,000 for a wine course.”
Taking the risk paid off as Gaither received priceless learnings, which landed him the opportunity to move to San Francisco to be a sommelier at Spruce, and from there, he went on to be the wine director at Restaurant Gary Danko. Simultaneously while navigating the demanding industry settings, the wine enthusiast was still engulfed in studies to pass all the required exams to become a master sommelier.
With studying, Gaither found community in like-minded sommeliers. This newfound wine family kept him grounded during the strenuous times when it felt like he couldn’t recognize himself.
“I was miserable. I was not that fun to be around. I was a little bit of a jerk. So when I learned to let all of that go and just have fun and explore other interests, it allowed me to return to wine with a fresh look,” shares Gaither.
Taking a break from the intensity of studying meant exploring hobbies, which many wine professionals know can be challenging. It also meant prioritizing quality time with his family, including his wife, Rebecca Fineman, who he met in 2012 at a wine exam. Fineman earned her master sommelier credentials in 2017, breaking records as the 25th woman in the United States to do so.
Taking necessary breaks reminded the couple that wine would be the epicenter of their culinary journeys. So, they decided to open their first restaurant, Ungrafted, a community-centered wine bar and restaurant, in December 2018. As new restaurateurs, the couple also served as parents to a 2-year-old baby girl when Ungrafted opened.
“It wasn’t an easy process. We had to give away a bunch of money for a babysitter to manage the same shift together. We were trying to open a restaurant in one of the most expensive cities in the world,” shares Gaither.
Despite these difficulties, the couple earned their chops in the industry by this time, making their restaurant opening an exciting one for curious eaters, oenophiles and industry professionals. Even with their restaurant’s rising exposure and success, the dream of becoming a master sommelier was still present for Gaither.
Following a Legacy of Black Master Sommeliers
While this journey was heart-wrenching for the sommelier, what kept him going was his intrinsic desire to finish and, more importantly, show that another Black person could achieve such recognition in an industry not known for diversity at this level. “I wanted to show the world another Black person could pass this exam… it just takes preparation and passion.”
The first Black person to become a master sommelier was Thomas Price, who earned the coveted title in 2012—followed by Carlton McCoy in 2013 and Vincent Morrow in 2019. While it is no secret that the exam is difficult, there are still meaningful conversations to be had about the lack of representation of Black professionals acknowledged by the Court of Master Sommeliers. The Court of Master Sommeliers, Americas, is aware of this and released a pledge to be anti-racist.
Remaining Dedicated to the Master Sommelier Exam
Between running a restaurant and raising two young girls, the girl-dad was still prioritizing finishing his conquest of passing the master sommelier exam ten years later from when he started.
After a rigorous adventure of homing in on the most mind-boggling exam parts, Gaither finally received his master sommelier credentials last year in 2022. “I did not pass on my first try. It took me seven attempts to pass the exam. For me, the most challenging part was the tasting exam. I had never passed it,” shares Gaither. However, embarking on this passage allowed the master sommelier to become the fourth Black person in the world to do so.
“Not everyone is willing to really put themselves in difficult situations. The exams are very challenging. To prepare, it takes a long commitment and discipline to focus. It’s sort of a metaphor for life that if you live your life fully, you will not have any regrets. If you give your all to something, dig down and try your best in the end, regardless of whether you’re successful or not, you’ll hopefully feel some satisfaction.”
As tenacious and exciting of a path that Gaither is already on, it’s only the beginning of his story. The master sommelier is slated to open his second restaurant with his wife-partner in the coming months. GluGlu is cleverly named after the thirst-quenching sound people make when drinking. The eatery and wine bar to be located in Thrive City at San Francisco’s Chase Center will offer dishes crafted by a Michelin star team and a worldly beverage program.
To stay updated on Chris Gaither’s journey, visit www.ungraftedsf.com, and follow the restaurant on social media (Instagram and Facebook). To stay updated on GluGlu, visit www.gluglusf.com, and follow the team on social media (Instagram and Facebook).