What made you want to pursue a career in wine?
Wow, that’s a good one! I’ve been doing this for a long time now, and I think my love of wine happened when I turned 21. I’d been smelling wine for years at a dinner table because I worked in a restaurant as a host in a French restaurant, and I couldn’t drink, so I would sit there and listen and smell wine during family meals. So the aha moment that I loved wine was when I turned 21, and I had my first Chateau Lafite, but the moment of this is what I’m supposed to be doing, that happened much later on in life. That was really propelled by Chef Loretta Keller, another female, and I really think that my inspiration in my career and mentorship has been both male and female, but it’s really been pushed by other women. “Hey, you can do this. You’re supposed to be doing this.” and that’s how that went. But it’s really all about the passion and the love of wine.
What is your favorite varietal and why?
There’s so many! It’s true! If I could have something every day, which I try to have every day, it would be Champagne. I love Champagne. Tiny bubbles make you happy. I try to have at least 1-2 glasses a day. Most people that know me know that I would much rather have a glass of Champagne over a cup of coffee or a cup of tea because it just wakes ups you, it shifts your mood, and it’s not like looking through life through rose-colored glasses, but everything is sparkly.
Tell me about your experience being a judge for the San Francisco International Wine Competition?
It’s a lot of fun, and I get to be really geeky and really nerdy, but I have to be mindful of my colleagues, you know? It’s great when you’re all vibing at the same time. You’re tasting wine, and you’re tasting the same things. Sometimes someone will get a note or an aroma that you’re not getting; it’s like, ah yeah that’s great, yeah that’s what that was. You’re in a quiet room, there’s no music going or anything like that, you’re just focused on what’s in front of you, and it’s a glass of wine; actually, several glasses of wine and you’re becoming one with the grape and one with what’s in front of you. It’s pretty amazing actually because you’re using everything. You’re using all of your senses when you’re doing it. Your using sight, taste, smell, and then immediately for me, I’m drawn into what I call my Rolodex, which is my sense memory, and then I’m just going. Then I’m writing my notes down, but of course, being mindful of the time. I’m also a supertaster. I can taste pretty quickly, as well.
You have been in the wine industry for more than 20 years, what keeps you in the wine world?
What keeps me in the wine world is the fact that I love wine, and I love learning. You know, you never stop learning with wine, and you’re always experiencing something new and different that’s tantalizing the power. Whether that’s a brand new bottling or a bottling that’s mature, it can be something that you’ve never ever tasted before. It could be an old favorite, but a different vintage of an old favorite or having that old favorite at a different phase of its wine life.
What advice would you give someone just starting out as a female sommelier?
I would tell them to find someone that they admired and look up to and to ask that person for help. For me, as I was starting out within all of this, I looked at people that I admired and that I respected their work ethic and asked for an introduction and asked for help. Nine times out of ten, if you ask someone for some advice, they’re going to be really willing and excited to do that because we all love talking about the things that we are passionate about. When someone is interested and really interested and cares then, we’re going to give that person that time. I think that’s why I do what I do as well because I’ve always had people around me that realized that I had a palate and were really supportive of that and offered that mentorship to me. If you have any questions, just reach out to me, give me a call or send me an email and I took advantage of that. When people offer that to you, they really mean it. They’re not just saying it to say it. So that’s my advice to young women coming up in the industry. There’s lots of help and support now. There are lots of organizations that are offering those services now, and there are a lot of women that are offering to help mentor young women that are coming into the industry that need that. It’s important.
If you weren’t in the wine industry, do you think you would have continued to do something with art?
I think I would have continued with art, but I’m still continuing with art. My art now is actually the plate and wine. I’m basically creating a picture or a portrait with both of those things. But you know, I started out as a Corporate Law major, and my plan was to work in the Fine Arts with Art Galleries, Museums, and Endowments. It was my way of keeping art in my life. So if I had not continued in wine, I probably would have gone back to law, and I would probably be a lawyer. But I’ll tell you, every lawyer that I’ve met, when I tell them that story they tell me that I made the right decision, they are like can we switch places? It’s funny; now it’s all combined in some fantastic way.
It sounds like Chef Loretta Keller had a big impact on your career; do you ever think if you never met her that you would be in the wine and food industry today?
I think I still would be, but I think that path would have been longer. It would not have happened as quickly. With the way that it happened with Loretta, Loretta said, this is what you are supposed to be doing and basically gave me the wine program. That’s how that worked. That was my start, that was my first gig, but you never know who’s looking at you and who’s watching you at all, because I was shocked and amazed. When I meet and talk to people that have been along this path with me from the very beginning when I arrived in San Francisco, they’re not surprised at all because they always knew that passion was there. That’s what I should have been doing anyway. It’s all building blocks, and it’s a foundation, and it’s learning, so here we are.
You have joined the board of the United Somm Foundation, what drew you to join the board and can you tell us a little bit more about it?
From the beginning, when Christy Normand and Master Sommelier, Chris Blanchard, started talking about the foundation, and they were creating a buzz about it online and saying they have this idea and that they knew that the Somm community and the restaurant community was in desperate need. We were experiencing something that we never had before. They came up with this idea of having the foundation, which basically offers grants and assistance to people that are in the restaurant industry, specifically that are Sommeliers and in the beverage community. So that could be a Sommelier or a wine director, someone that’s on the wine side of things as well, and it’s really, really amazing to hear how the organization has helped so many people, and it’s something that’s truly needed; relief.
Want to learn more? Tonya Pitts will be featured throughout the month of December 2020. Check out this week’s recommendations here!
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