The Rise of American Wine Pioneer Tonya Pitts

Victoria James
·13 min read
Courtesy Tonya Pitts
Courtesy Tonya Pitts

Long before master sommeliers were pop culture icons and the subject of TV series, Tonya Pitts was building wine programs with a sense of place and purpose. Throughout her 20-year career, she has been an advocate for featuring women and people of color on wine lists—even before that was a movement.

From the Midwest originally, Tonya’s fine art studies brought her to San Francisco. While she waited for her school semester to begin, she snagged a server job at the city’s legendary Zuni Café. Quickly she was entrenched in the joys of food and wine. Much to her family’s dismay she never did go back to school and instead became a sommelier. She is now the wine director of One Market Restaurant, a fine dining institution with decades of history, where she has built one of the city’s most impressive beverage programs.

Tonya is a Black woman in a world where white men historically hog the spotlight. Recently, over a Zoom call I listened to how she built her career and at what personal cost. She is a rare ebullient light during these challenging times and has a calm expertise acquired from years of honing her craft.

Are Great Sommeliers an Endangered Species?

Victoria: “Can you share with me the wines you’ve been drinking during the pandemic?”

Tonya: “Everyday drinking wines for me are usually dry whites that are aromatic. Champagne is more my water than anything else. I taste every day. I’m quarantining with my poor mother, she’s like ‘more wine?’ Oh girl, there’s wine everywhere. I’m sitting here at my kitchen counter and over a third of the space is packed with wine bottles. And then in the refrigerator there is more Champagne and white wine and rosé. I drink rosé all year round, it’s not just for warm weather. It pairs really well with a lot of different dishes and when it’s older, the nuances start to come out, which makes it completely different from something bright, fresh and tart.”

Victoria: “You’ve been in the industry for more than 20 years. Tell me about what brought you here and what keeps you in this world.”

Tonya: “It was not a bed of roses. I love what I do but it was a struggle. There were times I wanted to give up because it was lonely. There wasn’t anyone to talk to as a peer who looked like me. There weren’t even many women and women as allies. It’s been a wild ride. It’s also been great though, it really, really has.

Right after high school, I was fortunate enough to get a job working as a hostess at a French restaurant in St. Louis. My first job ever. It was with a female chef who had lived and worked in Provence, then came home to open her own restaurant. All her friends came to help her open. There was a family meal at the end of the night and always wine on the table. I couldn’t drink [legally] but I could swirl and smell. And it dawned on several at the table that I had a palate. They put everything in front of me, they were career restaurant people: chefs, bartenders, sommeliers. And it wasn’t until later in life that I realized just how lucky I was to have this as my first experience.

I then decided to leave St. Louis because I was going to university and was in a pre-law program. I had always done art and soon found myself spending more time though in the studio. The dean of the art department said perhaps I should switch gears. Meanwhile, I came to San Francisco for a long weekend and absolutely fell in love with the city. It was January, it was cold, foggy and misty. It felt like home. Not being a resident, I couldn’t go to school right away. So, I got a job in restaurants.”

Victoria: “You started in San Francisco as a server, working under chef Judy Rodgers at Zuni Café, a restaurant I personally love, and Chef Jeremiah Tower at Stars. Tell me about those experiences and what you learned.”

Tonya: “I did research. I went after Zuni Café. To show you how green I was, I went in on a Monday, a day they’re closed and do inventory. The door was open, so I walked in. Sylvie Laly, the wine director, was doing inventory. She was awesome. She talked to me for an hour and basically told me to come back the next day and what to wear.

Chef Judy Rodgers was fantastic. You realized when you walked in the door that you were there to learn in this really fantastic place surrounded by food and wine. And it all went hand and hand. It was really intricate. Line-ups were pretty long. Mondays were dedicated also to staff training. Everyone got to taste. Even the people in the kitchen, we were all there. There was food as well. It became ingrained in me that way.

I’ve always been an unassuming person. I’m there, I’m doing my work. I’m taking care of you. At the time, my roommate was working at Stars. Chef Jeremiah Tower came into Zuni all the time. ‘You know, they’ve seen you,’ my roommate said, ‘they really like you, they want you to come work at Stars.’ So, I did a stage for two days and really liked it. Both chefs shared me, for two years. I worked six, sometimes seven days a week.”

Victoria: “What was your journey from server to sommelier like?”

Tonya: “I met Loretta Keller working at Stars. When she opened her own restaurant, Bizou, I left to work with her. It was there that things shifted gears. It was a different time in food and wine, there were lots of female chefs as well, a camaraderie. Everyone was helping one another. And that’s not to say we don’t have that now, but it seemed very prevalent back then. And I think after years of seeing me on the floor and listening, Loretta said, ‘you know, you’re not supposed to be a captain, you’re supposed to be a sommelier.’

You don’t always think people are watching you. But they are. ‘You know the answers, you’re always tasting, reading, studying.’ Loretta took a chance on me. I had never run a wine program before but that’s how I got started. She gave me her program at Bizou.

I never went back to school. My family was not happy with my choice of not finishing my degree—all the money spent on private school. But my grandfather understood the role of a sommelier because he had been in Europe for WWII. But my grandmother is a different story, she has come around but has still not really warmed up to the idea.”

<div class="inline-image__credit">Courtesy Tonya Pitts</div>
Courtesy Tonya Pitts

Victoria: “Can you describe challenges you’ve faced as a Black woman in a field that is notoriously an old boys’ club?”

Tonya: “My first wine tasting, it was rough. This was in the late 1980s, early ’90s. Most of the women in that sphere were sales reps, not really sommeliers. I can clearly remember that they were all in their brightly colored suits in the middle of the room, talking. None of them were wandering around the tables to taste. But I was trying to work my way into the tables and was being ignored. It shouldn’t be about whether you know a person, just pour them a taste of wine. That’s when people’s prejudices really show, when they don’t know your background. But if you’re in the room you deserve to be there. Period. I shouldn’t have been questioned or ignored.

That’s a memory I’ve never gotten over. I don’t like to tell that story, but that story it’s true. But I’m still here and I’m not going anywhere.”

Victoria: “You’ve also seen so much change and development in your career. What are some things you are happy to see change and what are some things we still need to work on as an industry?”

Tonya: “I think because of where we are, there is a light being shined upon race relations, diversity and inclusivity. So, there’s that light. And then we are also thinking about how our industry will change because of what happened with Covid-19.

The art of hospitality can also be lost sometimes these days. I was having a conversation with someone about this recently—we’ve forgotten that we are here to be hospitable. People don’t have to come eat with us. Good food is good but if the service isn’t warm and welcoming, why go and give your money? Running a wine program and a restaurant, it’s just a lot of work to make that magic happen.

For me, I always feel like wherever I am, that’s my house. And you’re coming into my house and I’m the host and I’m having a party, and you’re going to have a fantastic time at my party. So much that you’re going to come back time and time again.”

Victoria: “I read in Haute Living that you wake up daily at 6 AM (very impressed) and that you work often until midnight. How do you find balance with such a demanding lifestyle?”

Tonya: “I’m a workaholic. I thrive on being busy and just getting things done and I’ve always been that way. It’s not unusual for me to burn the midnight oil, I was that way in high school and college as well. But self-care is important. Even the little things, I schedule out every two weeks [before Covid happened], a spa session. Whether it’s a facial or the biomat. I’ve also been doing a lot of baths and sound therapy. I start my day by walking to the water or surrounding myself with some sort of greenery. It sets my intention for the day.”

Victoria: “What is some advice you’d like to give young women and Black people entering this industry?”

Tonya: “My advice to young people, and people period, if you want to get into hospitality, if there is someone ask them to mentor you. Ask them questions. I can’t say that enough because within that, there is opportunity. They’ll invite you to tastings and bring you into that inner circle. I was able to taste so much wine just because I asked.”

Victoria: “I loved that last year you hosted your second annual Women in Wine month at One Market Restaurant. You said, ‘Women have a voice in food and wine, but it doesn’t get heard very often, because it’s a very male-dominated industry.’ Tell me more about this initiative and what you saw accomplished.”

Tonya: “I started that program wholeheartedly in 2013 and I’ve been doing it ever since. We have to support one another. If the wine is good and delicious, why shouldn’t someone have an opportunity to get in front of people? Same thing with Black winemakers as well. But for me, I don’t denote that on the list, I want the wines to stand up on their own merit.”

Victoria: “Do you want to give a shout-out to someone who has impacted your career in a positive way?”

Tonya: “Sylvie Laly, of course, from Zuni. Larry Stone also was a mentor. He took me under his wing, whenever there were events, I was his ‘wingman.’ And Loretta Keller. I saw Loretta a couple of years ago at one of the first women in wine events that several of us [female sommeliers] like Shelly Lindgren, had put together with chef Nancy Oakes, it was huge. It was a tasting menu and wines from female winemakers.

This was when I got an opportunity to tell Loretta thank you, because she took a chance on me, and she had faith in me, and I’m forever grateful. And, of course, there were tears. It’s not always an opportunity that happens. Particularly for a young Black woman, you just don’t really see Black people in our field anymore. Being from the Midwest you would see Blacks in hospitality working in restaurants. I can recall going on a trip back then to Chicago, and it was just glorious, you saw Black GMs and sommeliers and it was pretty spectacular. That was 20 years ago. In a sense, we’ve gone a little backwards. But if you don’t know that opportunity is there, and you don’t necessarily see someone that looks like you, you don’t know there’s a career path for you there.”

Victoria: “You’re also a mentor to many and help foster growth within the community. Can you share a story of the impact this has had on you?”

Tonya: “When I talk to younger people, or people shifting careers, and this isn’t even necessarily a gender or race thing, they just don’t realize they could have a career in hospitality. I’ve always been very encouraging of mentoring and giving advice, it’s very natural for me in that way. Also, within my program at One Market, there is lots of education, we taste every day.

I had an experience last year with a young man that had worked with me at several restaurants. He worked his way up, from server to bartender, and was really interested in wine. He then had an opportunity to go and sell wine retail and asked for my advice. I said, you know it would be a good experience for you, you could taste a lot more wine and educate your palate. I looked up and three years later he was running his own wine program at Liholiho Yacht Club. It made me so happy and so proud that he’d done that. And he came to see me [at One Market] and thanked me. Of course, it was the day that I decided to wear my cobalt-blue mascara, I kept saying, don’t cry Tonya. It’s stuff like that is why I keep doing what I do. The glint and the gleam in someone’s eyes when you open up a whole new world for them.”

Victoria: “So incredible. You’re always growing your own career and building up others. So what’s next for Tonya Pitts?”

Tonya: “There is so much more that I want to do. My future is fluid, evolving and my mind is always ready for a new challenge. I will always continue to mentor. Oh, I want to make wine, too. Maybe from Paso Robles, something high elevation, or Howell Mountain, the Willamette Valley. For our restaurant group, we have always had proprietary wines and I’ve helped with the blending process, like the sparkling with Iron Horse that we currently carry. It’s something I know I can do, offer my services and expertise to wineries.

Also, I want to write more. There was a time when I was doing a bit of writing, I’m getting comfortable with that again. At some point, I’m going to write a book about my life.”

Interview has been condensed and edited.

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