A Conversation With Sommelier Tonya Pitts On Wine/Food Pairing And Black History Month

Food & Drink

Tonya Pitts grew up in St. Louis, Missouri and remembers her grandmother and great-grandmother enjoying a glass of red Manischewitz wine with dinner each evening. Fast-forward to today where Tonya Pitts manages a 600-bottle wine list at the acclaimed One Market Restaurant in San Francisco, and was recently named ‘Sommelier of the Year’ by Wine Enthusiast’s 2022 Wine Stars Awards.

In a recent phone interview, Pitts shares some of her insights into the art of wine and food pairing. She also comments on the importance of Black History Month, and how coming together around the table to eat and drink with family and friends has always been an important part of African-American culture.

Wine and Food Pairing Philosophy

“For me, wine and food pairing is all about combining texture, weight and taste,” says Pitts. “I want the wine to be part of the dish – to meld with the dish – and not to take over the dish.”

She explains that fish, for example, can have many different textures, such as light and flaky or firmer and oily. Then the sauce that is used with the fish could be delicate, creamy, spicy, and have numerous tastes and nuances. And then the wine also can have different body weights, such as light, medium, viscous, with different acid levels, flavors, and alcohol levels.

“I think about all of these variables,” she explains, “when creating and wine and food pairing. I also like to try pairings with wines that are not the norm.”

Pitts has over 20 years of experience in creating magic with her wine and food pairings. Before taking the wine director position at One Market Restaurant in 2008, she worked for several other prestigious San Francisco Bay area restaurants, such as the Zuni Café, Bizou, and Mistral. She also passed the Court of Master Sommelier exam to become a Certified Sommelier. In her free time, Pitts serves as a mentor to others who want to enter the hospitality industry, judges for the San Francisco International Wine Competition, and is a speaker, writer, and wine/food consultant.

Seasonal Wine and Food Pairing Magic

“Our wine-by-the glass list is updated about every two months,” Pitt says, “so I try to create new pairing options based on the temperament of the season.”

For example, right now people are asking for alternatives to Pinot Noir to pair with pork, duck, and fish dishes. “I’m recommending lighter red Rhone’s (Grenache based) that are not super heavy and have a good fruit/acid balance. I also find that some of the older and more elegant Grand Reserva wines from Rioja (Tempranillo based) transfer to many dishes. I even have a Yorkville Highlands Petite Syrah from Mendocino County that is not as heavy, that I pair with some dishes.”

Pitts says that she focuses on what the customer asks for, and that if they want a big high-alcohol Cabernet Sauvignon, she recommends dishes that will go with it, but she also enjoys getting creative and thinking out of the box.

“One pairing that is delightful is blue corn tortilla chips with melted cheese paired with sparkling wine,” she states. “I’ve been using Iron Horse Reserve Blanc de Blanc that has a hint of a salty briny characteristic. The taste of this wine with the texture of the chips and salt is wonderful.”

Another favorite is pairing rosé wine with spicy Mexican dishes and salsa. “This past Fall” she reports, “I was pouring this rosé from Baja, Mexico by the glass, and paired it with grilled octopus with red chilis. It was a hit. People loved it. Rosé also goes very well with blistered Padron green chilis.”

When it comes to Southern cuisine, such as collard greens, cornbread, ribs, and sweet potatoes, Pitts seeks out higher acid wines that are grown in regions with limestone. “For collard greens,” she says, “I would pair it with Sancerre (Sauvignon Blanc), or another high acid white wine. For example, I was recently in Greece, and had a wine from the Attica region made with the Savatiano grape. It had the purest flintiest taste that it gave me goosebumps. It would be fantastic with collard greens.”

Thoughts on Celebrating Black History Month with Wine

As one of very few Black women sommeliers in the U.S., Pitts has clear opinions on how important it is to remember the heritage of Blacks in America. She has experienced people testing her knowledge of wine and food pairing, because she is both Black and a woman.

“We have to remember that beverage was a part of the table during slavery times,” she says, “but also with Black farmers where they owned land. People took what they had and made products with it – bathtub gin and fruit wine.”

Indeed, there are Black families from the American South who have been making all types of wine for generations, sometimes with the Muscadine grape, which is native to the South and creates delicious dry, semi-sweet, and sweet wines. However, like the history of other minority groups and women in early America, it was rarely officially documented.

“The aspect of wine that I really enjoy,” muses Pitts, ‘is the storytelling that happens around the table when you’re having wine and food. We have to remember that food and beverage help to create community and bring people together.”

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