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According to private sommelier Thatcher Baker-Briggs, “Wine is a living, natural thing. It’s always changing, so you’ll never have two of the same, not even in the same vineyard, same vintage.”
Kristine Keefe

The Unconventional Path of Private Sommelier Thatcher Baker-Briggs

The San Francisco wine expert began as a Canadian dishwasher, then worked his way up to a job picking bottles for the NBA

“The way I operate is to be dynamic. The old guard of the industry has its set ways of operating. But young collectors — they tend to dabble in a wider range of things,” says Thatcher Baker-Briggs. In August, the 29-year-old private sommelier was Zooming from Europe, Burgundy specifically, where he traveled this summer with his Canadian passport in pursuit of rare wines for his clients, which include boldfaced names in the NBA and tech industry.

In a normal year, Baker-Briggs says, wineries funnel much of their production to restaurants. But since the start of the pandemic, which has shuttered restaurants around the world, many of those bottles have instead gone directly to a new generation of collectors — the “millennials [who] are driving premium wine sales” throughout the COVID-19 crisis, reports Forbes. And it’s these young wine collectors who are the primary audience for Baker-Briggs’s year-old cellar refinement business, Thatcher’s Wine Consulting. “It’s really my job to help” these new aficionados “find focus and build a collection of ageable bottles,” he says.

Antonio Galloni, publisher of the leading wine journal Vinous, says that Baker-Briggs’s virtuosity is rare in such a young sommelier. “Thatcher has incredibly refined and cultured taste,” says Galloni. “He’s quite young, but also has a lot of knowledge but none of the arrogance that you often see in wine. It’s a quality that people are naturally drawn to.”

Baker-Briggs has a distinct approach to wine in part because his path to the cellar began in the kitchen at the age of 13, washing dishes at a French fine dining restaurant in his hometown of Windsor, Ontario. He eventually moved to the line, training as a chef at celebrated restaurants like San Francisco’s three-Michelin-starred Coi and the now-shuttered West in Vancouver. “My appreciation of wine took a bit of time,” he says. “As a cook, I was not focused on anything happening in the dining room.”

That changed at a private dinner Baker-Briggs was hired to helm in 2012. Unable to pick out the wines for the meal, he sought pairing advice from a sommelier at Coi. “Right then, I decided that there could never be another moment that didn’t know something,” says Baker-Briggs. “And even though there have been a million moments since that I haven’t known things, I’m always going to work really hard to learn as much as I can.”

What started as a quest to fill a gap in his knowledge eight years ago has since evolved into a simple appreciation of wine as “time in a bottle,” a notion lost on sommeliers more focused on wine theory than on wine tasting. “Wine is a living, natural thing. It’s always changing, so you’ll never have two of the same, not even in the same vineyard, same vintage,” he says. “A bottle is truly a singular experience. And as a sommelier, you can only really understand that if you go boots-on-the-ground. A sommelier can be the best taster in the world, but if they don’t have this kind of first-hand knowledge — if they can’t place the drink in its environment — then they’re just being theoretical.”

While theory is definitely part of the sommelier experience, it’s the reason Baker-Briggs opted not to pursue the title formerly known as “master sommelier” from the Court of Master Sommeliers, favoring an experiential and worldly education over the intensely bookish commitment to the diploma, after completing the sommelier certification from the court at the age of 22. As portrayed in the 2013 documentary Somm, the unshaven lifestyle of aspiring master sommeliers — buried by flashcards, neglecting their relationships, and living among days-old spit buckets — is proof of the rigor required.

In light of his disappointment in the master sommeliers who recently gave up their titles to denounce systemic racism in the Court — “I wish they would’ve stayed on to really effect change from the inside,” says Baker-Briggs — he’s determined to make a difference in his own way. “If I were preoccupied by feeling vulnerable because I’m a Black sommelier, I’d lose focus on the things that need to be achieved,” he says. “And while there needs to be a change in the culture of wine, as well as an injection of youth and excitement, there also needs to be more leadership. Focusing on that is far more important to me than feeling vulnerable.”

Wine Unify co-founder and Fantesca Estate & Winery director DLynn Proctor, whose life as an aspiring Black sommelier was portrayed in the semi-autobiographical Netflix movie Uncorked (he was also profiled in Somm), is even more direct about the lack of diversity in the wine industry: “Thirteen percent of the population in America is Black,” he says. “There should be a thousand more Thatchers in wine.”

Now that it’s possible to make acquisitions from the high-end restaurants that have been selling off their coveted inventory to survive pandemic closures, it’s Baker-Briggs’s job to use that knowledge to keep his clients from getting spoiled for choice. “We are seeing a lot of wines on the market that aren’t typically available,” Baker-Briggs says. “But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t build a collection of wines that you don’t feel bad about drinking on Tuesday with Chinese takeout.”

You can see that accessibility in how Baker-Briggs approaches the task of curating a home cellar, using game-night-style questions like “It’s 2 o’clock on a Monday afternoon, what are you going to pull the cork on?” (His day-drinking preference? Champagne, more specifically Paul Bara Special Club rosé grand cru, “a rosé to drink or age.”) Or, “You’re going to dinner with some discerning friends. What are you going to bring?” (His go-to BYOB: Emrich Schönleber Halenberg, a dry German riesling “that dances on your tongue” with notes of crushed rock and Meyer lemon.)

After a couple of months in Europe, the sommelier is now back in the Bay Area, with precious cases of very limited-edition Burgundian and German vintages in his possession. Off the top, he’ll stash away a few bottles for his private collection and make the rest available to stateside clients who can’t presently travel across the pond. But for Baker-Briggs, acquisition is only part of the fun — the real perks are in the pursuit. “It doesn’t take much to keep you chasing the perfect wine,” he says. “Just one good sip.”

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