Christie Dufault, 36, gravitated to wine at an early age. Growing up in the Berkshires in western Massachusetts she tried outstanding French and Italian wines from the cellars of her father and uncle. At 16, she spent six months studying in France, and visited some of the country's great viticultural regions. That love for France and its wines took deeper root during seven summers based in Burgundy, leading tours for Butterfield & Robinson, a firm that organizes luxury walking and biking trips.
In 1995 she started working as a sommelier at the Adams-Mark Hotel in Philadelphia, and then moved to Phoenix to direct the wine program at Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence winner Vincent Guerithault on Camelback. Dufault arrived in San Francisco in 2000 to help open Bacar, another Best of Award winner, and then became wine director at Restaurant Gary Danko, which won a Wine Spectator Grand Award during her tenure. Last November she started at Quince and has focused on finding wines that complement chef Michael Tusk's eclectic cuisine, which draws inspiration from northern Italy, France and California.
Wine Spectator: What was your first job in the wine business?
Christie Dufault: As a student at Simmons College in Boston I went to work at Marty's [Liquors], stocking shelves and dusting bottles. A couple of people brought me into the tastings and I learned so much. I quickly decided that I loved food and wine and wanted to create a career doing that and started taking wine classes … I remember telling some of the wine guys at Marty's that I wanted to be a sommelier and they kind of laughed because I was so young, and female. They said, "Good luck."
WS: That motivated you?
CD: Well, they knew I needed to learn a lot more about wine. I persevered because I wanted to get a job as a sommelier. It took over a year of sending out résumés, reading Wine Spectator every day, reading classifieds, contacting the Culinary Institute of America to see if they knew of any positions.
WS: Why did you come to San Francisco?
CD: I felt it was the best move [after four years in Phoenix], personally and professionally, to come to the Bay area. I'd already been visiting San Francisco and Napa for about five years, so I was ready. I knew Raj Parr [now the wine director at Michael Mina], Eugenio Jardim [the wine director at Jardinière] and Debbie Zacareas [cofounder of Bacar], so I had a base of sommelier friends. A bunch of winemakers were already my friends.
WS: How had you met those sommeliers?
CD: I met most of them at the Masters of Food and Wine [in Carmel, Calif.]. I went there in 1998 and 1999. Also in 1999 I went to Chile. At the Masters in '99 I said to Eugenio, Raj and [Aqua sommelier] William Sherer that I was looking for a job in San Francisco and they said I should talk to Debbie, who was opening up Bacar.
WS: After working at Bacar and Gary Danko, which both have large cellars, what drew you to Quince, which has a much smaller wine program?
CD: I really like building wine lists. I like developing and growing wine programs, and not just for the sake of it being big but to grow it in a balanced way that fits with the restaurant and the desires of the clientele. A capable sommelier can manage a big cellar and be a smart wine buyer, but the part of the job that I most enjoy is growing and developing the program.
WS: When you started at Quince, there were 350 selections on the wine list. Now there are more than 600. What have you added?
CD: We've really grown the Italian selection and now have wines from 12 different regions. There's significantly more Burgundy, particularly Chablis and a more diverse assortment of reds. We've added a number of California Pinot Noirs because there are so many outstanding new producers. And there's more Champagne.
WS: What general advice can you give about pairing food and wine?
CD: My basic advice, that I tell people all the time, is don't let the wine overpower the food. Don't pick a wine that is so ripe, powerful and tannic that it's overwhelming. Pick something, red or white, that is balanced and has enough acidity to cleanse the palate. It gets you ready for that next bite. It harmonizes.
WS: What are your favorite food-and-wine pairings at Quince?
CD: I'd say I have two, for the agnolotti dal plin and the ravioli di ricotta. Both posed a challenge because of their richness. The agnolotti is filled with a mixture of veal, rabbit, pork and escarole served with a sage brown butter sauce. You hear that and think red, but it's magic with white Burgundy. The ravioli has ricotta and egg and is beautiful with Pinot Noir.
WS: How do you promote value at Quince?
CD: That's a tough question because value is relative. I think that for me as the wine buyer and for [Quince owners] Michael and Lindsay Tusk, we want to have a diverse list. We want everyone to drink wine with our food. So if you want to spend $25 on a bottle or $2,500, we'll have something for everyone.
WS: Do you cellar wine?
CD: Yes, my husband and I have about 10 cases at home and another 25 cases for aging at an off-site cellar. It's about 85 percent French, Burgundy and Bordeaux mostly. But my husband is also a huge Italian fan, and we've bought a lot of California wines, too.
WS: If you could only drink wine from one wine region for the rest of your life, what would it be?
CD: Just one?! Well, I'd have one foot in Burgundy and one foot in Champagne. Those are kind of the same … OK, maybe not.