Warning: Friendship with Chris Strieter may lead to unforeseen entrepreneurial activity. The 28-year-old San Francisco resident’s two successful business ventures were each born of camaraderie: He established highly regarded Senses Wines with his two lifelong friends, Myles Lawrence-Briggs and Max Thieriot (the actor currently starring in the television series Bates Motel), and his latest venture—Duchess restaurant in the Rockridge district of Oakland—was created on a lark with pal Caroline Conner, former assistant pastry chef at Nopa. The two first bonded over a shared appreciation of fine wines, and mused how they might someday open a wine shop. “How hard could it be?” they joked. Before they knew it, their idea had expanded to a full blown restaurant, and the hunt for building space and a chef began.
Strieter, a graduate of Harvey Mudd College with a masters in finance from Claremont McKenna, maintains his winery in the town in which he and his buddies grew up—Occidental, near the coast in west Sonoma County. He has known Lawrence-Briggs and Thieriot since pre-school. Each of their families still lives in Occidental. We recently caught Strieter greeting guests at Duchess, and asked him a few questions about his seemingly haute life:
We see your wine on the Duchess menu; where else might we find Senses?
It’s hard to find and the honest answer is to check our website for the best opportunity to grab some wine. Otherwise, we are featured throughout top California restaurants like the French Laundry, Farmhouse, Michael Mina, Plumed Horse, Providence, and Melisse in LA and then small, local wine shops like Noe Valley Wine Merchants, Dean & Deluca.
What made you, Myles, and Max decide to start a wine label, and when was your first vintage released?
There’s always a story and it depends on which one of us you ask but for me it goes back to a girl…although I grew up in wine country, I had nothing to do with grapes or wine as a kid besides riding dirt bikes in pastures next to vineyards. I dated a girl whose family owns a large wine company in Sonoma County and ended up working with them for a few years; that’s when I really fell in love with wine and realized it was business that I truly enjoyed. The idea of creating something from scratch and growing it, all while learning so much about the world and how things work, and then to share that excitement with other people and one day ideally pay your bills, was one of the best realizations I’ve ever had. It was that passion for hard-work and my love for people that got me hooked on the business and ultimately in food and beverage.
In 2010, Myles mentioned that the couple farming his vineyard were walking away from their lease and that got us thinking…what if we took some classes and learned what it took to grow grapes? That led to a more ‘serious’ conversation with his parents over many liters of beer and then us drafting a business plan.
Next thing you know we are catching up with Max during a break in his filming schedule and turns out that he has always wanted to make wine. Senses was created overnight as we combined resources and produced 112 cases in 2011. We were just 22 at the time. Our families own two premier vineyards in the Sonoma Coast, a very up-and-coming grape growing region, and we had little idea of what we were getting into. We sold-out immediately to friends, family and local restaurants, got some great scores and quickly realized that the business was very real. That’s when we partnered with Thomas Rivers Brown (celebrity winemaker and winemaker of the year in 2010) and expanded to other great vineyard sites owned by friends. We now produce more than 3,000 cases and sell a majority of it direct to a loyal mailing list and top restaurants throughout California and select other markets in the United States.
Photo Credit: Adam Decker
What varietals are you making, and what’s your favorite?
Pinot noir and Chardonnay. It’s funny, I’ve always been a Pinot noir fan and I still am a HUGE Pinot fan but wow, Chardonnay and acidic whites in general have seriously grown on me. My favorite is Terra de Promissio or Hillcrest Pinot, but that fun, everyday wine, would be our Sonoma Coast and Charles Heintz Chardonnay – they’re unbeatable.
Duchess appears to be a popular addition to the Rockridge dining scene. On what did you and Caroline model the restaurant?
The idea for Duchess was to create a California Pub with modern and fresh cuisine, but comfort driven and anything but pretentious. That’s why the food is so approachable. And it’s also why the menu has evolved so quickly as we learn more about the needs of the kitchen and community. The idea is perpetuated by the design. Nick and Colby of VerSacrum Design were given full-autonomy to craft a space that is warm and inviting, but elegant. We want visitors to discover something new every time they drop-by. You’ll find plenty of craft in the beverage program and a lot of smiles in the service staff. We wanted to create a place you can regularly visit for breakfast, lunch, dinner or a few drinks and feel comfortable and welcomed.
What made you pick Rockridge for your location?
There is a wonderful community here and the venue was a natural fit for Duchess. It’s always about the people, and the locals have been the best! We’re blessed with great foot traffic, a warm and inviting neighborhood, and very supportive business owners. Caroline’s sister, Alden, has also lived in Rockridge for many years so we already had the inside-scoop on College Ave. and how much people love to shop and eat.
What do you do in your spare time?
I love to hike and travel. I’m headed to the Bahamas soon for my first vacation since we started Duchess so that’s exciting. I have been reading way too much sci-fi and truly am convinced that I will leave this solar system one day.
What causes do you promote?
I’m a huge proponent of education and recently joined the Board of Governors for Harvey Mudd’s Alumni Association and look forward to giving back to that community and increasing the impact that my peers have on the world around us. One day I’d also love to get involved in government and help to positively impact the communities that have given me so much over the years. My mission truly is to make the world a better place and that drives everything I do.
What are your professional goals and where do you see yourself in the long term?
I’m hooked on entrepreneurship and helping others build businesses. It’s such a thrill and the ultimate challenge. Food and beverage is my start point but I look forward to building a scalable business that can help finance my dream to work in alternative energy and space. I would love to travel to other planets and explore the universe. It has been my dream since childhood. That requires a bit of hard-work but sign me up and know that I will do everything I can to overcome the challenge and learn everything I can in the process.