I will be honest – what first attracted me to the news of the US publication of “WINE girl” by Victoria James was the fact that she was the youngest ever female sommelier in 2012. As someone who has a deep appreciation for wine, vineyards, vigneron, terroir and sommeliers, I was most intrigued, as there are still few female sommeliers working in restaurants. Luckily that is starting to change, in part thanks to Victoria, her story & the NGO ‘Wine Empowered’ that she founded.
Victoria was planning to come to the UK to introduce her memoire to the British readers in April & I was hoping to meet her in person, but the rapid spread of Covid-19 has swiftly changed the plans. Instead of travelling the world on the promotional tour, Victoria, alongside her partners & colleagues is adjusting to life during pandemic, temporarily turning the restaurant Cote NYC, where she is also a beverages director, into a delivery business. Lately I have been letting my mind wonder towards Victoria’s Instagram account, looking at steaks, Korean omelettes, cocktails & wine that the team delivers to New Yorkers. When you start reading the book that’s not something that you would expect Victoria to do – in some ways she was lucky to survive all the trials & tribulations that life kept on bestowing on her from her childhood to the beginnings of her career.
Victoria was born into a jixtapositioned family – her father’s mother an orphaned cotton picker, her mother – an Italian Contessa. No matter the nobility, Victoria’s mother didn’t managed to assert her authority and when Victoria and her siblings were still very young, her father simply drove the children away, with their mother running after the car, trying to catch the hand of one of her daughters. Victoria’s.
Focussing her efforts & love on her younger siblings, a sister & a brother, Victoria at times survived on pickle juice and started waitressing at diners aged 13. She gravitated towards people who might have looked gruff, but took time to help her learn the ropes, with Victoria eagerly taking advice onboard.
“You don’t get to choose your guests…, Franky began, “some are sons o’bitches, pompous assholes, dirtbags, swindlers, pervy bustards, drunken buffoons, jealous bitches….you don’t have to like them as people, but find something to like, something to talk about. Got it, doll face?”“WINE Girl”
As Victoria got a little older, she counted pennies to put towards her sister’s education, learnt on the job & rose through the ranks. She learnt to keep her head down and do her job better & better, while presenting a “pulled together” front, supposedly blaze towards raging sexism from male customers & harsh criticism coupled with disdain from junior staff, as well as senior one too, with female ‘leaders’ often being the worst psychological abusers.
“To be a good sommelier one has to have a bit of a natural talent &a lot of learnt skill. The best sommeliers care about the details and have a never-ending curiosity”Victoria James
To many the career of the sommelier is all about glitz & glamour, trips to vineyards & leisurely drinking of rare wine vintages in the sunshine or at gluttonous banquets. But as Victoria tackled exams & tests in order to improve her knowledge & experience as a sommelier, she also learnt that for her ‘focus more on work than perk’ prevailed. She shares her experiences of almost inhuman exhaustion, yet every page of the book breathes love for what she does & people that supported her endeavours & helped her to get where she is today, while calling out those that wronged her & the others, trying to squash the human & professional spirit.
“In a 12hr (although it was usually longer) shift at Marea (note: Michelin-stared restaurant where Victoria worked at), I would walk well over twenty thousand steps. In comparison, the average American walks around three to five thousand steps a day.Victoria James, “WINE GIRL”
While reading this book I veered between sorrow for the emotional & physical wreckage that Victoria suffered over the years & immense pride for someone who I haven’t even met in person. Nowadays lots of people contribute to very personal discussions publicly, some for personal gain. With Victoria it’s impossible not to feel her sincerity from afar, simply sharing her story, while not asking the reader to pity her. She just talks about her journey thus far, while figuratively looking at the face of the reader, simply saying: here I am, this is my journey and i am just proud & grateful that I am standing & holding my head high. There is vulnerability & strength, gratitude & curiosity from someone incredibly accomplished, yet humble.
“I grew up in a household of manipulation & neglect, left to fend for myself. From this, I found independence but also became too reliant on it. For many years, I thought of myself as an island and let no one else in. Then I was raped, assaulted, and abused. I was sucked into a cult like wine school. I let peers and guests bully me. I thought that being a young woman was a weakness, and I grew increasingly insecure.”Victoria James, “WINE GIRL”
What also makes this book stand out for me is the passion – for people that one loves, for the team, for the work that is part of the person in the best sense & for the individuals that help create extraordinary wines & drinks around the world & hold hospitality industry on their shoulders. And forgiveness & ability to make amends for the things done wrong by others in the past – after all, life is a journey and we have a chance to evolve & change, rather than stay set in our ways. It is a book about despair & hope, hard graft & passion, abuse of power & love – harnessing life lessons that are timelessly relevant – then, now & I am sure, in the future. I, for one, know that I will be diving into Victoria’s book again & again.
“WINE GIRL” by Victoria James, pp.316, £16.99 published by Little Brown UK