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There is no more elite club in the wine industry than that of master sommeliers. With a three-part exam that includes theory, blind tasting and service, the degree is the equivalent of a Ph.D. in wine. There are just 256 master sommeliers worldwide, as designated by the Court of Master Sommeliers, and only 26 of them are women.
Rebecca Fineman of San Francisco was the 25th woman to join this exclusive group when she passed the master-level exam in 2017. (She believes herself to be only the second Jewish woman to hold the title.) The following year, she and her husband, Chris Gaither, opened Ungrafted, their wine-focused restaurant in San Francisco’s Dogpatch.
Gaither is breaking barriers of his own. He is an advanced sommelier and hopes to pass the remaining sections of the test this fall. When he does, he will be the third African American master sommelier in the world.
Fineman, 39, grew up in Westchester County, New York. She was born to a Jewish father and Italian Catholic mother. Her father was secular, but it was important to him that his children be Jewish, so Fineman and her two brothers were converted to Judaism as babies.
“I always felt that Judaism was really important to me,” Fineman said.
While attending Pomona College, she spent her junior year abroad in Haifa to study archaeology. “I loved being there. My roommates were Druze and Arab.”
Her father’s passing after college made her feel even more connected to her Jewish heritage. “It was integral to who he was, even though he wasn’t very religious, and that made me proud to carry on his name and religious lineage.”
She has a toddler daughter now, who also carries the Fineman name. “I wanted her to know that she was given something that she has to carry on,” she said. “I want her to feel proud of it, and this is my way of showing her.”
Fineman began working in restaurants while she was pursuing a career in publishing in Manhattan and found she needed to supplement her income to pay the bills. Over time, she noticed that she was slogging through her day job while looking forward to her evening restaurant shifts. And her appreciation for restaurants grew from there.
“It’s such a special thing, to go out to a restaurant or to other people’s houses and sit at the table,” she said. “I want to provide that and give people a space to create memories and have time together and take time away from the minutiae of their lives.”
She worked her way from hostess to server, but when she was told she couldn’t sit in on wine tastings, she decided to move on. She began working at a restaurant where her interest in wine was encouraged and found she was a quick study; she soon learned the characteristics of every wine on the menu.
After a few years, she moved to Hawaii and was considering graduate school (she’d spent a year in Korea after college on a Fulbright scholarship). But then she got a job at another restaurant, this time as director of its wine program. As she excelled more and more in the position, the desire to attend grad school soon fell away. She instead turned her academic focus to wine and joined a group of professionals who were studying for their advanced and master-level sommelier exams. That made Fineman want to do the same thing.
“They were meeting around 7:30 a.m. on Wednesdays,” she said. “The early start time was one way to weed out those who weren’t serious. I’d get most of my answers wrong. Sometimes I didn’t even understand the questions. But every week someone said, ‘you can come back next week if you want.’ This went on for nine months.”
Fineman and Gaither met in Anaheim, where both had traveled to take and then wait for their advanced exam results in 2012, as is protocol. Coincidentally, at the time she had been planning to move to San Francisco, where Gaither happened to live. Once in S.F., she worked as a sommelier at Gary Danko; positions at three other restaurants followed. They married in 2015 and had their daughter in 2016. She passed her master exam in 2017, and they opened the restaurant in 2018.
Given that the couple share a love of Champagne, Ungrafted features many varieties of bubbly, but the restaurant’s wine selection, of course, is much wider. She and Gaither are trying to strike the right balance, said Fineman, “to provide a place for people who like classic wine and want to spend money, and for those who just want something relevant and exciting and not as expensive.”