By Jean Li Spencer
“Like art, music, and food, wine brings people together. It is a great connector and communicator.” Wine expert, author and restaurateur Victoria James can only speak to her own experiences. But as it turns out, her experiences as the youngest-ever sommelier are pretty universal.
The “wine girl,” as she was dubbed by sneering co-workers and indifferent clients in the food and beverage industry, has turned her tale of perseverance into a success story. She has transcended a childhood of poverty to become a figurehead in the hospitality industry and a voice in the abyss calling out for equity and change in a business that has, for so very long, belittled women. In a March 24th NPR interview, James recalls being invited over to clients’ homes for private wine tastings and then having them ask for the bottle of wine to be opened if she sat in a man’s lap. Miraculously, and through it all, she has not lost her love for wine. James has never minded going the extra mile to prove herself to other people. She catalogued all of these ugly moments into her memory bank, feeding a silent spring that would one day erupt and become a memoir.
In a pre-Weinstein, pre-Mario Batali world, if you had asked Victoria James what it was like being certified by the Court of Master Sommeliers at age 21, she might have told you that the wine industry was inundated– even smothered– by blatant, sharp-toothed sexism. Her story of glamour is invaded by leery men, abrasive (sometimes indifferent) bosses and toxic expectations.
“Unfortunately, there are few women that hold positions of power in the wine industry, and often we are pitted against each other,” she says. “However, I have been lucky enough to have a few female mentors that have taught me the power of kindness and of banding together.”
James often revisits her original dream of working in the culinary arts and compares it to the anti-woman culture she found festering there. After spending the income she made from working in high-end restaurants to pay for wine classes in her early twenties, that dehumanizing culture was a complete shock. It turns out that simply being a woman is a full-time job on its own. With a memoir from HarperCollins that came out this year titled Wine Girl: The Obstacles, Humiliations, and Triumphs of America’s Youngest Sommelier, and a position as partner and beverage director at New York’s Michelin-starred Korean restaurant, Cote, James has “made it” despite the tremendous stress and sexual assault. James no longer hopes for change to happen. She’s instigating it.
The #Metoo movement has helped dismantled the old boys’ clubs of yore, and yet, James says that the wine industry continues to be rife with condescension and injustices against women. Wine Girl took so long to get published because when James first pitched the idea to her agent, publishers worried her memoir about overcoming misogyny would not sell.
“It’s so ingrained in our patriarchy not to believe women. I was finishing the manuscript for this book when the Brett Kavanaugh hearing was taking place, and I stopped writing for four months,” she told SevenFiftyDaily. “I just completely lost all faith that the world wants to hear women’s stories.”
The process of releasing Wine Girl has been a five-year journey. She wrote the book on the weekends and early in the mornings while balancing long workdays in New York City. At Cote, where she was offered a place by owner Simon Kim, James has established an excellent wine list featuring bottles from Côte-d’Or, Beaujolais, Corsica, Southern France and Switzerland. (In 2018, the Michelin Guide noted the restaurant’s “particularly interesting wine list”.)
“I started this book before my first (Drink Pink) was published, and originally, it was a collection of notes and short stories.” Then in 2017, James and her agent realized that her writing could have potential, and she finished the manuscript within a year. The book was sent out to publishers. Now began the long, even indefinite, waiting game, thought James.
It took three days for Daniel Halpern from Ecco (HarperCollins) to express interest to pre-empt the book. “This means it doesn’t even go to auction; it’s taken off the market right away, and is a really big deal,” James reflects. “I had served him before at the restaurant, and we had become friendly, but I had no idea he would be interested in my little book.” Halpern is the legendary editor of authors in the highest echelon realm of celebrities like Patti Smith, Anthony Bourdain and Padma Lakshmi.
“I feel like this whole book was advice for my younger self and also those coming up in any society where they feel like they’re on the margins.” She hopes that her readers will see their female server or female sommelier in Wine Girl and feel compassion for the resilience that they must have to serve hundreds of guests every night– all with the backroom sexualization that happens without customers’ knowledge.
James is currently helping Cote open a new location in Miami. She is also a co-founder of Wine Empowered, a 501c3 non-profit that offers tuition-free wine education to women and BIPOC in the hospitality industry in an aim to diversify the upper ranks of leadership. “Of course, another book is also in the works,” she shares. Women like James, however few in number they may be, are recalibrating the social conscience of the wine world. Her advice to you in cultivating an indefatigable sense of self-worth? Speak up. “Your voice is the most powerful defense weapon you’ve always had.”