Victoria James, 8.9.19
How many years have you been in the business? Tell me briefly about your background and your current position today.
I started in the restaurant industry when I was thirteen as a greasy-spoon diner waitress. Hospitality and the world of restaurants was something that I always loved—I loved serving people. Then when I was bartending in college, I discovered wine and found that it was a way to connect on an even deeper level with guests, especially on an intellectual level, and that just clicked. From there I took wine courses and became a cellar hand at Harry’s at Hanover square, then worked harvest in Sonoma. After that I turned 21 and knew I wanted to be a sommelier--- so I became one! I worked as a sommelier in Michelin-starred restaurants in NYC until I was 25, and then had the opportunity to become a buyer and vote with my dollars, and put together my own wine list. I became the Wine Director at Simon Kim’s Piora, and from there he opened up a new restaurant, Cote, where he made me a partner and also his beverage director. And here I am still today!
Did you have a particular “aha!” moment that propelled you into wine?
Things just sort of clicked when I realized that wine was a tool in hospitality, that I could use it to connect with others. That is what wine is--- a great connector.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
Making others happy. My guests and my team. Bringing joy to others through hospitality is what gives me purpose and inspires me to be a better professional.
Can you describe any prejudices you’ve experienced in this industry as a woman?
It’s hard to describe all of the obvious and less obvious prejudices that exist daily in this industry for women. There are too many to name. There are extremes that have happened to me---- sexual harassment, supervisor retaliation, and unkind words from guests.
But perhaps the most damaging are the less obvious, more mundane, prejudices. The sort where you don’t get invited to certain lunches or trips, noticing that instead it is a group of all white men. Or when a guest says, “oh a female sommelier! How great, I just met one of you the other day! Do you know ____?” And they name another female in the industry. Like we have some sort of secret society (maybe we should!) or more hurtful is that they are stating the fact that it is such a rarity to see us in the wild, we must all know one another.
How can we as women become aware of our prejudice and change our behavior?
By looking at the way we treat others. Not just fellow women but also men, and minorities, and people that don’t look like you. Are we going out of our way to make sure that everyone feels included? If you have a tasting group, are you making sure it is a healthy community that represents people from all backgrounds and ethnicities? Are we hiring women and minorities, and teaching our staff about the importance of diversity? If we are not making a conscience effort to make the industry a better place… then… what are we doing?
When it comes to wine, what benefits do you think we’ll see as a community by better supporting women?
When we go to the margins, those in the minority, and bring them in, the community as a whole is empowered. A diversity of viewpoints and voices makes for a stronger society. The most successful (and really the healthiest) businesses are those that lift up their women. We will start to see more women in positions of powers, as buyers, winemakers, importers, distributors--- truly impacting the market for the better.
What change do you hope to see in regards to women in the wine industry in the next five years?
True change, change that has longevity, only comes slowly. The industry will not be a an equal balance of men and women in the next five years. But hopefully in the next fifty years it will be. In the next five years the best thing we can all do is make the community as a whole more aware of the statistics--- who is really in charge--- and by building awareness we will build change.
What message do you have for women entering the wine profession?
For anyone starting their career in wine, just from a scholarly perspective, read and learn as much as possible. Not just wine, read a little bit on everything. Read novels. Read the newspaper. You have to be able to sell anything to anyone. That means knowing enough to be able to communicate with people from all walks of life and make that meaningful connection. If you have a ton of wine knowledge but don’t have that ‘bigger picture’ vision, you are missing the whole point.
Specific to the hospitality world, the biggest thing is to focus on making yourself happy first. Focus on what gives you purpose, and how you can bring joy to others because the hospitality world is about serving others. One of the biggest mistakes young sommeliers make is that they’re chasing some elusive certificate or pin or career goal, but those aren’t the people that are most successful—the most successful are those who are in this for the right reasons.
For women specifically, find an environment that’s healthy—in fact, come to Cote! Try to find healthy mentors and other women to help you, and try and mentor others. No matter what your level, mentor those around you. You’re never too young to start mentoring other women—women of all ages need support and that’s the only way to fight the patriarchy, to support other women and find peers who are in this with you.
What does equality in the wine industry look like to you?
Equal representation of women, minorities, and persons from different social, economic, and religious backgrounds. Wine is such a broad category and yet right now it seems to belong to only an elite club of boys--- wine should not be exclusive, just like music and art, everyone deserves to experience it.
What ways would you say you are contributing to equality in wine?
I think the most powerful tool a person has is their voice. This took me awhile to realize, but by using my voice, I hope to bring great social change in the industry. This means writing, of course. I hope that my next book, WINE GIRL, The Obstacles, Humiliations, and Triumph’s of America’s Youngest Sommelier (March 2020, Ecco books) will speak to a lot of women, all over the world, and empower them to use their own voice. I also have founded a non-profit, Wine Empowered, along with two other female sommeliers. This organization launches next year and will provide free wine classes to women and minorities in the industry.
What are some defining characteristics of a wonder woman of wine to you?
Empathy, love, and drive.
What other women of wine do you admire and why?
So many! We are fortunate to have an incredible group of strong women in the wine world. My mentors have been Rita Jammet, Aileen Robbins, and Marianne Fabre-Lanvin. Great friends and colleagues have also inspired me--- Jane Lopes, Laura Fiorvanti, Jordan Salcito, Ariel Arce, Annie Shi, Marissa A. Ross, and countless others. Of course, organizations such as this (and Rania!) are incredibly uplifting. The founders and board members of Wine Empowered-- Amy Zhou, Cynthia Cheng, Suzanne Walker, Patti Murphy, and Anjor. Most of all, the women on our team at Cote--- every sommelier, server, bartender, server assistant, host, reservationist, polisher, and manager--- I admire infinitely.
That’s the great thing about empowering women, it leads to so many more women raising one another up. And now, I can’t even think of all the great females in our business off the top of my head, isn’t that a great thing?