When beverage director and sommelier Victoria James first proposed her memoir to her agent, the world was a different place. #MeToo hadn’t yet happened, carving open a space for culture-wide conversation around misconduct and sexism in various workspaces.
“It was something I always wanted to write about, I just didn’t think for awhile that anyone really cared, to be honest,” says James a few days before the late March release of her book “Wine Girl.” “I think women’s stories are not often believed, and that was sort of ingrained in me.”
So James, who at 21 became America’s youngest sommelier working in New York’s fine-dining restaurant world, put the idea of sharing her own story on hold. She instead made her literary debut in 2017 with her illustrated wine guide, “Drink Pink: A Celebration of Rosé.”
“And then when the whole Mario Batali scandal happened in the restaurant world, my agent called me up and was like, ‘OK, I think they’re ready for your story.'”
The book takes readers through her tumultuous upbringing and first jobs in the service industry as a teenager — where she found a sort of refuge — before landing in New York during college, where she became fascinated with the wine industry while working at a theater district restaurant. She launched her career as a sommelier at the esteemed Aureole when she was 21.
Told chronologically, the book counters the adversity she’s faced in the hospitality industry throughout her time working in both diners and fine dining — from customers and bosses — with a hopeful approach. She credits her childhood and response to the negative events in her life for creating a unique skillset that has benefited her in other areas.
And despite the personal nature, there is a familiarity to her story.
“I think that for a lot of people in the wine and restaurant world, what I’ve written isn’t very shocking. I think the people who’ve been the most shocked are people who aren’t in restaurants,” she says. “Every single female in the restaurant world who I’ve had look at this, colleagues, they’ve all said, ‘yeah, been there, let me tell about what happened to me.’ So I think it’s great that it’s an opportunity — it gets people to talk about their own stories and that’s the whole point is to start this conversation.”
“I wanted anyone who reads this book to be able to read my narrative but think about how it applies to their life,” she adds. “The point is to talk about the broader culture.”
Of course, the book also underscores the many positive aspects of the hospitality industry — the camaraderie and joy of providing a positive experience for a guest. She introduces the many supportive people who have propped her up in the industry, too, including an early colleague who worked with her at a diner, her colleagues in the wine industry, and chef Simon Kim, with whom she helped open upscale Korean steakhouse Cote as beverage director.
Now in a position of power, James is also doing her part to pay it forward and create positive change in the industry. Last year, along with two other female sommeliers, she founded the nonprofit Wine Empowered to provide tuition-free wine classes for women and people of color in the hospitality industry, with the aim of creating an inclusive network.
“I hope my story will give young women and men all over the world the courage to share their stories and take charge of their lives and empower others,” she says. “I just think we need more people to stand up for what’s right.”
While the COVID-19 outbreak has mandated that Cote and all New York restaurants remain closed, many are still offering delivery and take out (including wine and cocktails), and promoting employee relief funds through gift card purchases and direct donations to support hourly staff. Visit saverestaurants.co to find out how chefs including Andrew Carmellini, Sam Kass, Tom Colicchio and more are banding together to support the broader industry and ask Congress for help.
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