Images Courtesy of LELIYG and Jacquelyn Potter
Tonya Pitts, the sommelier and wine director at One Market in San Francisco, fell in love with wine because of history. “There’s history behind food, there’s history behind a bottle of wine [and] there’s history with how you serve things,” she says. “And it’s all its history, and it’s a story. All of it.”
But Pitts’s successful 30-year career in the wine industry, fueled in part by her love of history, was not without hurdles. She faced unique challenges by virtue of being a person of color, and she’s not alone. Now, Pitts and others are crafting a new narrative around what it means to be a Black wine professional—and creating a new future in the process.
Black Winemaking in America
To appreciate the role Black individuals play in the modern wine landscape, one must first understand their role in the past. The Black community, in particular, has a complex history when it comes to winemaking. Though written records show that Black communities had a close connection to winemaking in the Western tradition, early circumstances left them without the opportunity to freely pursue these passions.
No truer was this than in colonial America. Enslaved Africans toiled in early vineyards, providing a bulk of free labor. In A History of Wine in America, author Thomas Pinney shares the telling 1850s account of a Southern wine enthusiast, who states, “with all the facilities we possess in the South, with our soil, climate and more particularly, our slaves, nothing can prevent ours from becoming the greatest wine country that ever was.”
Unsurprisingly, systemic barriers effectively limited many Black Americans’ ability to join the wine world. Most notably, the American Homestead Act of 1862 gave cheap land to white recipients only. Even though the act was repealed in 1976, it continued to cast a long shadow. Statistics from 2002 show that white people owned 98% of private U.S. agricultural land.
Indeed, the contributions of Black people to wine remained largely unrecorded for decades until 1940, when John June Lewis, Sr. founded Woburn Winery, the first Black-owned winery recorded in history. In 1995, David, Deneen and Coral Brown established their wine-making business at Brown Estate, which became the first Black-owned winery in Napa. Later, Iris Rideau founded Rideau Vineyards in 1997, the first Black-woman-owned winery in America.
While progress moved quite slowly for decades, it seems to have picked up speed since the turn of the last century. The Association of African American Vintners (AAAV) was founded in 2002 by Ernie Bates, Vance Sharp and Mac McDonald. Between 2019 and 2020, AAAV had a 500% increase in membership. Today the organization counts over 50 Black-owned vineyards, cellars and wineries in their membership. But there remains much work to be done: As of 2020, less than 1% of winemakers are Black, with approximately just 70 Black-owned wineries across America.
The Hurdles of a Black Wine Professional
Modern Black sommeliers and winemakers have made great strides to change the narrative and move the story of Black wine forward. At the start of Pitts career three decades ago, there was significantly lower Black representation in the wine industry compared to today. She recounts the mentorship of a Black sommelier who helped to expose her to wine and hone her skills.
“It was made easier because I had mentors, I had people that were there to guide me and believe in me and cheer me on,” explains Pitts. Not everyone is so lucky. Today, she aims to lend that same support to other Black winemakers in the industry. “I don’t want someone to have to go through what I went through, which was that feeling of isolation, even within being in a room full of people”.
Pitts believes Black wine professionals working today can chart their own paths. “Ten years ago, we probably wouldn’t have been able to say that,” she says.
But despite progress, major challenges still persist for Black individuals in the industry, like access to capital. Nearly half of white-owned businesses received bank loans in the last half of 2019, but less than a quarter of Black-owned businesses received funding.
“I think what holds us back within certain aspects is access to the funds, to the land, to the resources, the grapes, access to opportunity,” explains Pitts.