In our Rising Stars series, seasoned beverage professionals spotlight five of the most outstanding up-and-comers in their city—and discuss the mark each is making on the drinks scene.
San Francisco has been a beverage trendsetter since the days of the Gold Rush, and from the invention of “steam beer” by Anchor Brewing in the late 1800s to the creation by the Buena Vista café of the iconic Irish coffee cocktail in 1952. In the decades since, the city’s drinks scene has evolved to include an eclectic array of cocktail lounges, breweries, dive bars, and farm-to-table restaurants with hyper-local beverage programs to match. Whether you’re a tech entrepreneur or an artist, there’s a comfortable bar stool waiting for you in San Francisco—and a top-notch beverage professional on hand to help you quench your thirst. Here are five of the city’s rising stars, nominated by San Francisco drinks industry leaders.
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Before joining Che Fico, Christopher Longoria spent four years as the bar director at 1760, and for five years before that as lead bartender at Aziza. Having spent so much of his time behind the bar, he quickly spotted a pro in Deanna “DiDi” Saiki at Bourbon & Branch. “She’s always positive and smiling, even when she’s getting crushed at work,” he says. “The last time I sat in front of her at the bar, I noticed a lot of graceful, confident movements, which translates to speed and efficiency. She’s very comfortable in her setting, which makes a guest quickly feel at ease, and she’s also a really talented bartender.”
A native of Milwaukee, Saiki began working in restaurants when she was 15. “I really wanted to make my own money, and I found this host position on the weekends behind my parents’ back,” she says. “That’s when my journey started and I realized that I really love people and I love taking care of them.” Saiki moved on from hosting to waiting tables and eventually found a creative outlet behind the bar. She relocated to San Francisco in 2015, and that spring she became a bartender at the iconic Bourbon & Branch speakeasy.
“My goal is to provide a fun, slightly educational experience, and to connect with each person,” says Saiki, noting that the bar’s reservations-only system allows her to take a little extra time with customers. “I like to show people that they can leave here feeling like they had a great time, but not [leave] blackout drunk. And maybe they will have found a new favorite drink.” Keeping alcohol consumption in check is something Saiki practices herself as one of the bartenders behind The Pin Project, which provides tools to help bar and restaurant workers refrain from drinking alcohol at work. While she still imbibes on her nights off, her consumption is much more mindful. “Before it was like, ‘Let’s drink three bottles of wine and take some shots, and maybe we’ll have a martini at the end of the night,’” she says. “Now I’ll enjoy a really good bottle of wine with friends.”
The Thoughtful Buyer
With more than 10 years of experience in the beverage sector, working with brands such as Junipero Gin, Veuve Clicquot, and Grand Marnier, Morgan Robbat knows her way around the drinks industry. In 2018, while judging the Nikka Perfect Serve Competition hosted by Hotaling & Co. (formerly Anchor Distilling), she got to know a remarkable fellow judge: Nat Harry. “I was very impressed by Nat’s passion for service and thoughtful approach to evaluating each bartender’s presentation,” says Robbat. “Nat’s integrity really shined through.”
Harry started out in the specialty coffee business, first as a barista and then as a roasting apprentice. Not feeling a strong connection to the craft, they turned to bartending. “After taking over the bar program at Revival Bar & Kitchen in Berkeley,” Harry says, “I was exposed to so many interesting spirits and their producers.” In 2015, Harry switched over to the retail side as a buyer for the store Cask, with a focus on small producers and family-owned brands. “I really want consumers to think about where their spirits come from,” they say. “I want them to consider how [the products are] made and what they’re made from.”
Harry encourages customers to ask questions, especially when buying spirits from countries that are struggling economically. “If someone’s getting a deal on tequila that seems too good to be true, there’s a strong possibility that the workers who made it aren’t getting a fair wage,” Harry says. “There aren’t many designations for fair trade and sustainability in the spirits world, so it really requires a lot of work on the consumers’ end, and the answers can often be convoluted. It’s my job to vet the products. I want our customers to walk in and trust our selection and our intentions.”
For more than a decade, Tonya Pitts has been known in San Francisco food and wine circles as the engaging sommelier at One Market. Before that, she ran the wine program at Mistral Restaurant & Bar in Redwood Shores, where she met Ryan Jasielum, an ambitious young server with a taste for wine. “[Jasielum] was always curious and hungry for knowledge,” says Pitts. “He would buy wine on his own, taste it, and study the region it came from. Then he would come back and ask me about the wine and the region, and we would discuss it.”
Jasielum, who was introduced to wine at Mistral, continued his education with Pitts’s help at One Market, where he worked as a server and bartender. After stints as a server at Boulevard and an assistant wine buyer at a retail shop in Woodside, he took charge of the wine program at Liholiho Yacht Club. “In all of my experience,” Jasielum says, “I have learned that choosing wine is an interpretive process. The menu is an expression of the chef, and the wine is chosen as an interpretive complement.”
When selecting wines for Liholiho’s Asian-influenced menu, “umami is the name of the game,” Jasielum says. “It is my task to offer exciting and interesting pairings that match or exceed the umami exuded by each dish.” While some might pair the restaurant’s fried lobster in fermented black bean chile sauce with Chardonnay, Jasielum likes to take diners in a more adventurous direction. “My perfect pairing [for the lobster],” he says, “is a Furmint-Hárslevelű—beautifully oxidative and absolutely layered with umami.”
As a Master Sommelier and the head of a school for wine professionals, David Glancy has seen more than his share of wine talent. Yet, he says, there’s something that sets Chris Gaither apart. “[Gaither] is my example of someone who has the hospitality gene,” says Glancy, who met Gaither while judging the gastronomic society Chaîne des Rôtisseurs’s Best Young Sommelier Competition in 2012. “He creates a real, personal connection with everyone he speaks with.”
Gaither worked his first restaurant job while attending college in Atlanta and began studying wine after his shifts waiting tables. Following a wine internship at The French Laundry in Napa Valley, Gaither moved to San Francisco to work as a sommelier at Spruce and went on to become the wine director at Restaurant Gary Danko.
Gaither’s goal in each position has been consistent: to deliver an unforgettable wine experience. “This can be done in many different ways,” he says, “but it usually involves an attitude of kindness and hospitality.”
Gaither opened Ungrafted, a restaurant and wine bar, with his wife, Rebecca Fineman, MS, in 2018, and he’s currently studying for the Master Sommelier exam. “Most people don’t care how passionate I am about Tuscany or how much I know about Champagne,” he says, “but they do know how I made them feel during their time in my care, at my restaurant.”
The Classic Experimenter
Credited with pioneering San Francisco’s brut IPA style, Kim Sturdavant spent seven years as the head brewer at Social Kitchen & Brewery before moving on to Woods Beer Co., and passing the baton to his Social brewing assistant, Sean Halpin, in April. “[Halpin] has a great palate and pays close attention to the nuances of hop aromas, texture, body, and balance,” Sturdavant says. “He’s very much in tune with the elegant side of beer making that sets apart the truly great brewers.”
Halpin had no particular career path in mind when he applied for a job as a busser and server at Social Kitchen—he was a beer-loving 21-year-old in need of a paycheck. Over post-shift beers with Social’s bartender, who sometimes doubled as a production assistant in the brewery, Halpin gained an entry-level knowledge of brewing and discovered that he wanted to know more. In 2015, after working his way up the front-of-house ranks, Halpin began helping Sturdavant in the brewery before his bartending shifts a few days a week. This turned into a full-time position as a brewing assistant. The two brewers worked side by side for three and a half years.
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“Since I’ve taken over duties as head brewer, I have free range to make anything I want, which is a huge luxury in this industry,” Halpin says. “Right now, I’m kind of playing around with ingredients I may not have used when Kim was in charge, so you could say I’m still exploring what I want my identity as a brewer to be.” While Halpin prefers to make classic beers with a modern twist, he also loves to experiment. “A few months back,” he says, “I brewed a kettle sour inspired by the Corpse Reviver #2 cocktail, so if people want weird beers, I can definitely get down. I’m constantly looking for inspiration in my craft, whether it be through other breweries, other beverages, or even cuisine.”
Tina Caputo is a writer based in Northern California who covers wine, beer, food, and travel. She was formerly the editor in chief of Vineyard & Winery Management magazine, and her work has appeared in Wine Enthusiast, Visit California, Sonoma magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle, and many other publications. She also produces the podcast Winemakers Drinking Beer.