America’s ‘Wine Girl,’ Victoria James, holds nothing back in upcoming memoir on her industry experiences
Victoria James is a millennial superstar, accomplishing more by age 29 than most people twice her age: certified sommelier at 21 years old, named to Forbes and Zagat’s “30 Under 30” lists, Food & Wine’s 2018 “Sommelier of the Year,” currently beverage director and partner at New York’s Cote restaurant, nominated by James Beard Foundation for outstanding wine program and a gifted writer about to publish her second book in March.
You may think her meteoric rise to the top has insulated her from the daily indignities and larger abuses of power uncovered in the restaurant industry when the #metoo movement was born. Unfortunately, you’d be wrong.
It’s all spelled out in the title of her upcoming memoir, Wine Girl: The Obstacles, Humiliations, and Triumphs of America’s Youngest Sommelier (Ecco, March 2020). The “groping patrons, bosses who abused their role and status, and the toxic patriarchy of the restaurant world” are described in detail. But James’ powerful connection to hospitality’s mission of joy in service runs as a richly satisfying counterpoint throughout her story, ultimately inspiring her phenomenal success.
James is quick to credit the many mentors, both male and female, who guided her along the way. Chief among them is Cote owner Simon Kim, who in 2015 hired a then very inexperienced James to be wine director at his first restaurant, Piora.
“He was one of the first people who believed in me,” James says, “and he showed me how to successfully buy wine for a Michelin-starred restaurant.”
There were many women mentors who took her under their wings, offering her opportunities to travel, sponsoring her to become a “dame” with Les Dames d’Escoffier, and lending support as she relived some of her most disturbing memories when writing Wine Girl.
“They are all good people who encourage me to continue to be the same and never lose sight of why we’re in hospitality: to give back to the world around us,” says James. “I try and live by Gandhi’s words: ‘The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.’”
Her leadership at Cote reflects the strong commitment she’s made to the young women sommeliers working for her, setting an example for the industry with a zero-tolerance harassment policy.
“If warranted, the team member is instantly removed from the situation so no further damage can occur and management can assess the situation,” she explains. “The goal is to protect our team members and remind those who dine with us that this is our workplace.”
She believes #metoo has not gone far enough, “not until there is equal representation of women and [people of color] in positions of power.” The launch of her passion project, Wine Empowered, is intended to help make that happen by equipping all women as well as people of color with a tuition-free wine education, opening the doors to professional growth.
“Now is the chance to make a difference and build a better, healthier industry,” she says. “Find healthy mentors and no matter what your level, mentor those around you. You’re never too young to start mentoring other women.”