Uplifting Marginalized Voices: A Live Chat with Tonya Pitts

The sommelier talks about her discovery of wine, the mentors who encouraged her and her efforts to bring more diversity to the industry

Uplifting Marginalized Voices: A Live Chat with Tonya Pitts
Tonya Pitts explored law and art before realizing wine was her true passion. (Courtesy of One Market Restaurant)
Sep 2, 2020

As wine director at San Francisco's One Market Restaurant, Tonya Pitts has a platform to show customers wines that she believes are both amazing and important. She sometimes uses it to promote winemakers who haven’t yet been given the spotlight, specifically women and people of color.

Pitts knows how important it is help others through recognition and encouragement. She credits the mentors who noticed her talents for her own rise in wine. In the latest episode of Straight Talk with Wine Spectator, executive editor Thomas Matthews spoke with Pitts about her discovery of wine, her approach to creating a dynamic wine list, and becoming a mentor for other BIPOC professionals looking to forge a career in the wine industry.

Growing up in the Midwest, Pitts was working in restaurants while attending law school when she realized that she had a gift for wine. She remembers "sitting at a table having family meal, there was wine on the table and I would swirl and smell and listen to everyone else, and then start talking about what I was smelling." It was her coworkers who started to push her to consider pursuing wine.

Around that time, Pitts decided to leave school and move to San Francisco to pursue a career in art. "My family was not happy when I decided that I did not want to [study law] any longer," she recalled. Her move to San Francisco led to another restaurant job, this time at Zuni Café with chef Judy Rogers, followed by a stint at Stars. While at Stars, Pitts met chef Loretta Keller, who would go on to open Bizou.

Following Keller to the new restaurant, Pitts was working as a captain when Keller noticed Pitts' talent with wine. "I was always really interested in wine, had a great palate, and I was the one that people would come to with questions," said Pitts. Eventually Keller approached Pitts about becoming the wine director. Despite her initial reservations, Pitts took on the job at Keller's insistence. "She said, 'You can do this, this is what you're supposed to be doing. You're not supposed to be a captain. You're supposed to be a sommelier,'" Pitts recalls. "And that's how that started. I had so many people that took me under their wing and helped with mentorship, with tasting."

Pitts has also dedicated her work to creating more diversity within the wine industry and mentoring others as she had been mentored. Early on, she remembers being not just the only person of color in the room but also often the only woman. And she found the traditional modes of wine education to be inaccessible. "At the time that I was coming up in the restaurant industry, there weren't any Black people. I wasn't seeing any other Black people," Pitts said.

For the past eight years, Pitts has run the wine program at Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence winner One Market Restaurant, a fine-dining destination in San Francisco. She has made a point to highlight winemakers she believes have been marginalized in the wine industry. With 600 selections, Pitts makes sure women winemakers and winemakers of color have a spot on the wine list.

"On the list, it is not listed as male [or] female. It's not listed about color or anything like that," she said. "I want the wines to stand up on their own and speak for themselves. As sommeliers, we are storytellers. So when you are talking about a wine, that's part of the story. But that story always comes up, and it has to because it's important. It's one of the reasons that the wines are there. Also because of who made the wines and what the wines taste like."

In addition to amplifying these voices, Pitts highlights the importance of promoting diversity within the wine industry. "Most people don't know that there's a lot to be done within our industry. It's not just being a waiter, or a captain, or being a cook or a chef," she argued. "There's also being a sommelier or wine director. There's making wine, there's being a viticulturist. There's being on the business side of wine as well. So there's all these opportunities for people of color, for BIPOC people. I think that if you have never been exposed and encouraged, you don't know."

To help combat that lack of exposure, Pitts has mentored those she has worked with and has partnered with organizations like Wine Unify, which encourages young people of color interested in the wine industry with programs focused on funding, mentoring and education. "It's basically giving a voice to those that want to get within the industry and work in wine. Because all of the mentors that are there are from various backgrounds and we've all just banded together and are doing the work," said Pitts.

Despite the many challenges she has faced throughout her career, including a global pandemic that has upended the restaurant industry, Pitts is hopeful for the future. "I'm an optimist," she said. "The more we rally and organize, the more everything is going to get done. That's what we have to do, and that's what's being done. It's on all fronts with all people. It's really incredible."

Watch the full episode with Pitts on Wine Spectator’s IGTV channel, and tune in to catch Straight Talk with Wine Spectator, Tuesdays and Thursdays. On September 3, at 3 p.m. ET, associate tasting coordinator Aleks Zecevic will chat with South African vintner Eben Sadie.

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