Chris and Kel Barkman have deep roots in hospitality. He’s a certified sommelier who worked in wine distribution for many years, and she studied at the California Culinary Academy and has been in charge of high-end events – and their combined talents come together at Uncorked Tahoe, a bar winery and boutique with four locations, one of which is one of the best restaurants in the area.
I met the friendly couple and their adorable son Jack in Truckee one weekday morning before opening time to discuss what makes their business successful.
The aesthetic of the place is friendly and inviting, serious but decidedly not stuffy, and I immediately recognized a few of my favorite imports on the shelves – a Cru Beaujolais and a Corsican classic that I’ve loved for years. These bottles signaled a simpatico palate to me, and I was interested in learning 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 being called Petra, an on-site Mediterranean restaurant that, like all of its locations, has a laid-back vibe with simple, serious food.
Chris says his background on the sales side helps him cut to the chase when it comes to choosing wines for stores, each featuring a somewhat different seasonal lineup. He’s not interested in wine reps who show up with random samples, knowing nothing about Uncorked’s model. Rather, he cultivates tastings based on his in-depth knowledge of both the wine industry and the palates of his clients. But more importantly, he invites staff members to participate in the tastings that will ultimately decide what makes the list. This is one of the many reasons the company has such a low staff turnover rate – staff are encouraged to participate in ongoing wine education and join the conversation about what quality looks like .
The three main qualities the Barkmans look for in every wine they present are balance, typicity (how well a wine represents its origin), and solid delivery for the price. From there, staff taste and discuss the wines in focused sessions where everyone, from novice to expert, has a voice. Let’s just say it’s not the typical model most stores have for making wine buying decisions, but it pays off in terms of employee buy-in, ownership, and pride in their work.
Kel says their management model is to never have to micro-manage staff, that a culture of mutual respect and accountability is needed. When a brusque customer arrived at the height of the pandemic and was asked by a manager not to move the furniture, the customer complained to Chris, and he sided with his employee, letting the client that she had acted in everyone’s interest in terms of safety. The employee said she “never felt so supported by a boss,” and that kind of story carries a lot of weight in a consumer-centric environment where, according to stereotypes, “the customer is always right. “. Standing with employees, trusting them to make the right decisions, has been essential to Uncorked Tahoe’s success during the toughest times.
Uncorked is also atypical in terms of what is on the shelves and offered by the glass at the bar. Chris says their three main importers are Kermit Lynch, Louis Dressner and Rosenthal Wine Merchant, all companies with rich stories and reputations to back them up. Don’t come here looking for the cult overripe Napa Cab. You’re much more likely to find a little-known low-alcohol chili red, classic champagne, or under-the-radar Chenin Blanc in the Loire Valley.
I went to Petra one evening for dinner and was delighted to find corn salad with feta cheese, homemade hummus and a beautifully prepared mahi mahi with caponata, which paired perfectly with an Austrian Riesling at the glass selected by Kel. Chef Matthew Turner’s cuisine has an elegant simplicity that blends well with the signature Barkman style.
It’s encouraging when good taste and good business collide, and Uncorked Tahoe is the kind of business I want to support, now more than ever. Be sure to stop by the next time you’re in Tahoe – for a glass of wine and a few bottles to take home.