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Interview with Tonya Pitts
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Interview with Tonya Pitts

On the last day of their American Tour, the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux lands in San Francisco. Meeting with Tonya Pitts, sommelier and inspirational woman who promotes diversity and inclusion in the wine industry.

Hello Tonya, nice meeting you. Could you tell us more about you ?

I’m Tonya Pitts, wine director and sommelier at One Market restaurant in San Francisco. I have been a sommelier and restaurant professional for many decades now. But to be honest, 30 years ago, I had no idea that I would end up being a sommelier !

"One day, I stood up and started smelling and talking about what I was getting out of the glass, how it made me feel."

How did your journey in the wine world begin?

My first interaction with wine was in St. Louis, Missouri. I was working in a French restaurant as a student. The wine list included Bordeaux, American, Australian and Italian wines. At the time, I didn't drink, but I would stay at the table after service and listen to the chefs and other older professionals talk about food and wine. One day, I stood up and started smelling and talking about what I was getting out of the glass, how it made me feel. Many around the table realized I had a palate, and I began to feed it. But my real journey began when I moved to California and started working in restaurants.

Being a black sommelier was not an easy thing when you began in the industry?

Having done this for a very long time, you don't see many people of color. It wasn't easy 30 years ago, because there weren't many women either! That's why, when I have the opportunity to help people of color enter the industry, I always try to do my best. Lately, things are changing and the industry is becoming more welcoming, aware and inclusive, which is great. We now see all kinds of people (from the LGBTQ community, the black community, Latinos, Asians, Filipinos) working as sommeliers.

Which part played Bordeaux in your wine education?

These were the first wines I ever tasted! When I was young, I worked in a very nice restaurant run by very generous people. When I was 21, we had a meal and they opened a bottle of Mouton Rothschild 1976. That's the first bottle I remember. I was very excited because the first sip was mind-blowing. Since then Bordeaux has a really special place in my heart. My heart sings when I drink and taste Bordeaux.

"I'd probably say vintages from the 60s, 70s and 80s. I love 1976, it's actually one of my favorite vintages, and not just because of nostalgia."

What are your favorite vintages?

For me, the older the better! I'd probably say vintages from the 60s, 70s and 80s. I love 1976, it's actually one of my favorite vintages, and not just because of nostalgia. I was very lucky to taste this vintage very early on and to keep going.

Is there a special moment that you will always remember involving Bordeaux Grands Crus ?

One of my fondest memories is of the late Denis Malbec. He was a dear friend and whenever he hosted an event or dinner at his home, he always shared vintages, usually magnums of Château Latour. One day, we were in his backyard in Napa at a party where he was inviting all his clients and friends to dinner. Late in the evening, he called up this 1976 magnum and told me : "it's for you, Tonya!"

"I like to have a glass of wine and reflect on life, and Bordeaux wines are perfect for this, quite esoteric and thought provoking."

What bottle of Bordeaux would you open for a special occasion?

Sometimes I like to have a glass of wine and reflect on life, and Bordeaux wines are perfect for this, quite esoteric and thought provoking. So I'd probably open a bottle of Pomerol or Saint-Emilion. The vintage would probably be 1982. In 82, you still have this really strong, dominant presence in the wine, the life of the wine is really very long. There's this black fruit, there are still tertiary notes and mushrooms, but there's also this sweetness on the palate.

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