Family Tree

The Bobby Stuckey Effect

In the past 13 years, Boulder’s Frasca Food & Wine has become the epicenter of great wine service. Here, a look at how one person has helped shape America’s professional wine culture

Bobby Stuckey
Photo courtesy of Frasca Food and Wine.

That Boulder, Colorado, with its enthusiastic yogis and collegiate snowboarders, would become a mecca for those wanting to learn from a wine service guru seems a little odd. But for the past 13 years, Bobby Stuckey has made it so at his restaurant Frasca Food & Wine.  

Frasca stood out for a number of reasons from the beginning. First, Stuckey and his business partner, chef Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson, who met while working at The French Laundry (Stuckey was wine director; Mackinnon-Patterson was in the kitchen), chose the wines and culinary tradition of Italy’s Friuli region as the foundation for the restaurant. Historically, farmer-winemakers would put a branch (frasca in Italian) outside their homes, and indication to passersby that they were open, serving dinners in their homes—the OG family restaurant. Friuli winemaker Valter Scarbolo has carried forth this custom with his laidback La Frasca restaurant and it made a huge impression on Stuckey and Mackinnon-Patterson. There, everyone was welcome, well fed, at ease. The two did everything they could to embody this in Boulder. The wine list, with hundreds of selections, primarily from Italy, was unparalleled, offering bottles few were familiar with, at a range of prices that made trying accessible. Today the program remains rooted in Italy, but has a much wider international scope; it’s one of the most impressive lists in the country, with more than 1100 selections representing over 200 grape varieties and just the right amount of history and information laced throughout.

But what’s made Frasca a powerful magnet for many in the wine and restaurant realm is Bobby Stuckey — and the way he does what he does. What might be surprising to many is that he’s pretty much always there. He does travel for various speaking engagements and to promote his wine brand, Scarpetta, but when he’s in Boulder, he’s working the floor at Frasca, jacket on, shoes shined, six days a week—every day but Sunday.

“I just am addicted to being on the floor,” Stuckey says. “I really don’t understand when I hear that fellow Master Sommeliers have gotten their diploma so that they could get off the floor. I work in a completely different universe.”  

Ask anyone who’s worked with Stuckey about what it is that makes him such an icon, and the conversation will unquestionably begin with a sentence or story that has to do with the way in which Stuckey represents the pinnacle of hospitality. Hospitality and Stuckey are inextricably linked. Yes, he’s a Master Sommelier (and has been since 2004). Yes, he owns a number of successful restaurants. Yes, he’s a marathon runner. Yes, he’s tireless and uncontested when it comes to positivity. He’s even exceptionally well dressed, but he will always credit his wife, Danette, for that.

Bobby Stuckey pouring wine
Photo courtesy of Julie Vanenoever.

Stuckey espouses a distinct form of service, one that many would argue has fallen by the wayside. In fact, he’ll argue that himself. “The United States has improved so much culinarily in the last 20 years, and I think we really jettisoned the front of the house. We kind of stalled out in the last 10 years. One thing is that there are very few veteran people on the floor anymore. So with more restaurants, this means there are fewer veterans working with young people. I don’t think people would have talked about Frasca the way they do now 15 or 20 years ago, because you could have gone to so many different restaurants to get that. There are just fewer people nowadays that have that métier that people can go work with.” Three of the four people on the wine team at Frasca, including Stuckey, have worked there for more than a decade.

His personal résumé shows a particular pedigree, one that includes five years as wine director at Aspen’s Little Nell, four years as wine director at The French Laundry in Napa, where he won a James Beard Award for Outstanding Wine Service, among other honors. He has repeatedly been recognized for the exceptional wine program and wine service at Frasca, earning the same James Beard Award a second time, in 2013. Stuckey names two colleagues from his time at Little Nell, Eric Calderon and Connie Thornburg, as having been his mentors in the business. Mentorship is something he takes seriously.

These days, while wine is clearly a priority for Stuckey, the day-to-day management of a wine program isn’t—his team is in charge of that, which means that his time in the restaurant is spent talking with and catering to guests. It’s where he’s at his best. During preservice every night, the entire team goes through the guest list and talks about the likes and dislikes of each person who will be sitting for dinner, making notes about previous visits and planning the entire evening.

Historically, some of the brightest talents to emerge from the Bobby Stuckey family tree landed at Frasca by happenstance more than with intention. Dustin Wilson found out about Frasca from a woman at a Verizon store on his first day living in Colorado—and went over and asked for a job. Grant Reynolds was a student at the University of Colorado Boulder and started volunteering at Frasca shortly after his 21st birthday, in order to get a foot in. Stuckey has an almost military philosophy when it comes to training his staff—everyone is expected to rise through the ranks. Reynolds started as an expediter, then became a busboy, then a waiter, then a bartender, until he finally achieved the coveted role of sommelier. The only person who has circumvented this ladder (something she admits to having some deepset guilt about) is Carlin Karr. Stuckey met her in San Francisco, where she was working at Sons & Daughters, at a moment when he needed to quickly add a sommelier to his staff. She was the right fit at the right moment. Now she is the wine director for Frasca’s restaurant group, which includes Frasca, Pizzeria Locale, and the forthcoming Tavernetta.

Today the odds that someone who cares about wine or who pays attention to restaurants will just stumble across Frasca isn’t all that likely. People around the country are making moves to be able to work there. This summer alone, Frasca’s wine team hosted nine stages from outside Colorado for a few days each, giving them a glimpse into daily life of the restaurant. Last year the wine director of Shaya, one of the best regarded restaurants in New Orleans, left his job to stage with Stuckey.  “He’s glass-polishing and food-running right now at Frasca,” Stuckey says. “He says, ‘I’m going to give up my wine director role. I want to kind of reset myself because I can’t get this [in New Orleans].’ So I think what happens is that once people come into our orbit, they get those tools and then they go out and they can make an impact.”

But what is this truth that all these people are clamoring to acquire? Why is a Stuckey mentorship so valuable in today’s hospitality world?

Part of the pull is access to the remarkable wine list and the chance to learn about wine not only from Stuckey but from Frasca sommelier Matthew Mather and wine director Karr. The place has become a hub for those who want to pursue the Master Sommelier diploma. Because the staff is relatively small, it’s not unusual for waitstaff and even expediters to be studying for the credential. There’s also the fact that after more than 20 years in the industry, Stuckey has befriended numerous winemakers, many of whom make a stop at Frasca every time they’re in the States.

The ethos that surrounds wine at Frasca also makes it unique. “Bob’s thing is, ‘What do you love? What do you love to drink?’” says Mather. “And then you listen, and then you think about it, and you hopefully take [your guest] somewhere that shows that you were listening to them and you evaluated what they said. Hopefully, if you’re creative and love wine, that leads to a relationship, a relationship built on trust, because you can take them to new places once you listen. And once you get off to a great, honest start, you can maintain it. It affords really exciting possibilities.”

It’s hard to believe that simply by spending time in Stuckey’s presence, people could just pick up on this vibe, but there’s an innate warmth in the people that he surrounds himself with that disposes them to it.

Stuckey is fiercely loyal to his people, a loyalty they return. When he opened Frasca, he brought on as general manager Rose Votta, whom he’d met while running the wine program at Little Nell. She still has that role. Nate Ready, whom Stuckey had hired while working at The French Laundry, was Frasca’s opening wine director. Mather has been with Stuckey since day one. Even Karr, the relative new girl, has been at Frasca for five years. He still sees Bryan Dayton, a former Frasca beverage director (and the current owner of Acorn in Denver) every week. There’s not a lot of turnover in the restaurant, which means that it’s difficult for new people to join. And while Stuckey’s been lucky to have so many stick around, he sees that it’s necessary to help members of his team move on to keep growing. “I really encourage people to fly the nest and go do their own thing. And I try to not only encourage it but help with it,” he says. When Reynolds wanted to move to New York, Stuckey made introductions that enabled Reynolds to work harvest in Burgundy at Dujac and to stage at Noma. He also connected Reynolds with his current business partners.

Next month, Stuckey and his partners will open a new restaurant, Tavernetta, in Denver. The place will largely be run by current Frasca staff members, many of whom have worked there for a very long time. “It’s really exciting,” says Stuckey, “because it’s letting some people that have been really patient with Frasca have their chance. They waited it out for a year and a half to do this project so that they could go run it. For young people, to wait a year and a half for a promotion is really hard, especially when they deserve the promotion but there’s no venue for them, so I can’t wait to see this. It’s just going to be really fun to be able to work with them, as they have their own interpretation of our company.”

The people below are significant members of the Bobby Stuckey wine family tree. Here’s where they are now and a little of what they learned from Frasca that they continue to put in practice today:

Nate Ready, MS, owner and winemaker of Hiyu Wine Farm, Hood River, Oregon

Role at Frasca: Wine director, 2004-2006

“The big thing is [that] Bobby’s not dogmatic about wine; he is super open to all sorts of different ways of looking at it and understanding it. It’s always about creating a connection between the person who made it and the person who’s drinking it. I think that’s a really wonderful place to come from because wine can be kind of polarizing or exclusive: ‘This is the way it is! This is the right way!’ And he’s absolutely not from that way of looking at things. He’s way more interested in seeing the whole scope and trying to understand where everyone is coming from and then trying to connect people. It’s a really beautiful way of looking at the whole thing.”

Matthew Mather, sommelier at Frasca Food & Wine, Boulder, Colorado

Role at Frasca: Server and sommelier, 2004-present

“Wine service at Frasca is the antithesis of stuffiness. That’s something that Bob and I concurred on early on. I always wanted to be the exact opposite of the stuffy old, sort of patronizing, dismissive somm. I hated that. I wanted to be able to know the details. I wanted to be able to know exactly what I was talking about. We don’t bullshit; I don’t make stuff up. But I wanted to be able to deliver that in a really accessible, fluid, funny–I mean, I use humor a lot. I let ’em talk about things. I use weird analogies. I like to use colorful language. Those are things that we’ve all done. You know, we wear suits now and we have for a while, but there’s a casual, accessible, warm element that’s very much a throughline for me from day one.”

Dustin Wilson, MS, cofounder of Verve Wine, NYC

Role at Frasca: Expediter, back waiter, server, sommelier, 2005-2008

“One of my most impactful moments at Frasca was when we were finished up with service one night and I was actually in the back, scrubbing the kitchen floor; I was helping the chefs clean the kitchen. And Bobby comes back in with a bottle of Trimbach Clos Ste. Hune Riesling, a wine I had never heard of. He described it as the DRC of Riesling. And he just wanted to share it with us and tell us a story about the vineyard and who made it and why it’s so good. We all took a break in the kitchen to taste this wine with him, and he led us through it. And I always thought that was a super-cool moment.”

Grant Reynolds, partner in Delicious Hospitality Group, NYC (Charlie Bird, Pasquale Jones)

Role at Frasca: Expediter, busboy, waiter, bartender, sommelier, 2009-2012

“When you talk about sommeliers and the wine industry and all, I think for me, the thing that anchors it all together is the restaurant. It’s less about how splashy the wine list is or how amazing the food is or whatever, but really how all of those things live together—and having wine is a great and important part of that. I get a lot of inspiration from Bobby’s devotion to working in restaurants and continuing to work on the floor and interact with guests. It’s not explicitly about wine but it’s about service and being hospitable and taking care of people in a way that’s much more holistic, rather than just speaking to them about all the facts you know about a single bottle. Because ultimately, there’s only a very small population that’s actually interested in how much you know about any particular thing.”

Erica O’Neal, wine director at Italienne, NYC

Role at Frasca: Reservationist, reservations manager, junior sommelier, 2011-2013

“The biggest thing about Bobby is [that] he’s very loyal, and it’s not just to people around him—it’s to his guests. Every single guest counts. And I know that sounds obvious, but if someone walked in the door at 10:29, we were open. If a guest was upset, I’ve seen him run out the door with what we called a Slim Jim [a grissini with prosciutto wrapped around it] and his business card, yelling to a guest to come back because they were upset that they couldn’t sit down or something. Anyone who waited more than 10 or 15 minutes for their reservation, we would give them a glass of Friulano and some Slim Jims. Every single guest counts. And you know, there would be long days where we would be frustrated: ’Oh, we have this reservation that hasn’t come in in an hour and a half, and it’s 10:30 and we’re going to wait for them?’ And he’d say, ‘Absolutely we’re gonna wait for them, they could be driving up from Denver, you have no idea!’ I think about that a lot, especially in New York because everyone’s always busy and on the move and you have no idea what’s happened in someone’s day when they come to the restaurant.” 

Carlin Karr, wine director at Frasca Food & Wine Group, Boulder and Denver, Colorado

Role at Frasca: Sommelier and wine director, 2012-present

“One critical thing that Bobby does that I think puts guests so at ease is he takes away the mysticism of the pricing of the wine list initially and in such a great, comforting way. The most uncomfortable part of the guest experience is this huge wine list that’s super expensive, and you can see people sweating it out, like, ‘Oh my god, I don’t want this guy in a suit to come sell me some $400 bottle of wine in front of my date when I actually want to spend 80 bucks.’ Bobby asks all the right questions. But then he says, ‘What do you really want to spend tonight? What’s your ideal price range?’ But he says it in the least sleazy, most comfortable way, and people really love it. It just makes people so comfortable and it’s so not what most sommeliers do.”

Megan Krigbaum is a freelance writer, editor at large for SevenFifty Daily, and contributing editor for PUNCH. She is also the editor of the forthcoming Essential Cocktail Book from Ten Speed Press.