Uncorked Tahoe Is Both A Destination Wine Bar And A Business Model For The 21st Century

Chris and Kel Barkman have deep roots in hospitality. He is a certified sommelier who worked in wine distribution for many years, and she studied at the California Culinary Academy and was a high-end events manager — and their combined talents come together in Uncorked Tahoea wine bar and shop with four locations, one of which happens to be one of the best restaurants in the region.

I met the convivial couple, and their adorable son Jack, at the Truckee location one weekday morning before opening time to discuss what makes their business so successful.

The aesthetic of the place is friendly and inviting, serious but decidedly un-stuffy, and I immediately recognized a few of my favorite imports on the shelves — a Cru Beaujolais and a Corsican classic I have loved for years. These bottles signaled to me a sympathetic palate, and I was interested to learn more.

The couple’s flagship in Olympic Valley, founded in 2007, is still going strong, along with locations in downtown Truckee, Tahoe City, and Northstar Village, the latter of which goes by the name Petra, a spot-on Mediterranean restaurant that, like all its locations, has a casual vibe with simple, serious food.

Chris explains that his experience on the sales side helps him cut to the chase when choosing wines for the shops, each of which features a somewhat different seasonal lineup. He’s not interested in the wine reps who show up with random samples, not knowing anything about Uncorked’s model. Rather, he cultivates tastings based on his deep knowledge of both the wine industry and his customers’ palates. But even more importantly, he invites staff members to participate in the tastings that will ultimately decide what goes on the list. This is one of many reasons the company has such a low employee turnover rate — staff are encouraged to take part in ongoing wine education and to participate in the conversation about what quality looks like.

The three main qualities the Barkmans are looking for in each wine they feature are balance, typicity (how well a wine represents its origin), and a solid delivery for the price point. From there, staff taste and discuss the wines in focused sessions where everyone, from novice to expert, has a voice. Let’s just say this isn’t the typical model most shops have for making wine-buying decisions, but it pays off in employee buy-in and ownership of and pride in their work.

Kel says their model of management is not to ever have to micro-manage staff, that a culture of mutual respect and responsibility is necessary. When a brusque customer came in during the height of the pandemic and a manager asked her not to move the furniture around, the customer complained to Chris, and he took his employee’s side, letting the customer know that she had acted in everyone’s best interests in terms of safety. The employee reported that she “had never felt more supported by a boss,” and this kind of narrative holds a great deal of weight in a consumer-driven environment where, stereotypically, “the customer is always right.” Standing on the side of employees, trusting them to make the right decisions, has been critical to Uncorked Tahoe’s success during the most difficult of times.

Uncorked is also atypical when it comes to what’s on the shelves and offered by the glass at the bar. Chris says their three top importers are Kermit Lynch, Louis Dressner, and Rosenthal Wine Merchant, all companies with storied histories and the reputations to back them up. Don’t come here looking for the overripe cult Napa Cab. You’re much more likely to find a little-known low-alcohol red from Chile, a classic Champagne, or an under-the radar Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley.

I popped into Petra one night for dinner and was utterly delighted to find corn salad with feta, homemade hummus, and a beautifully prepared mahi mahi with caponata, which went perfectly with an Austrian Riesling by the glass selected by Kel. Chef Matthew Turner’s cooking has an elegant simplicity about it that merges well with the Barkmans’ signature style.

It’s heartening when good taste and good business come together, and Uncorked Tahoe is the kind of company I want to support, now more than ever. Make sure to stop in next time you’re in Tahoe — for a glass of wine and a few bottles to take home.

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