by: Meira Harel
Victoria James is the Director of Beverage and Partner at Michelin-starred Cote in NYC and Miami, and recently received for the second year in a row a James Beard nomination for "Outstanding Wine Program." She has worked in restaurants since she was thirteen. She fell in love with wine and when she was twenty-one became certified as a sommelier.
Victoria’s name has appeared on many notable lists: Forbes "30 Under 30," Food & Wine's "2018 Sommelier of the Year," Zagat’s “30 Under 30,” Wine Enthusiast’s “40 Under 40,” Wine & Spirits’ “Best New Sommeliers,” and The Back Label declared her “New York’s Youngest Sommelier.”
She is the author of DRINK PINK, A Celebration of Rosé (HarperCollins) and WINE GIRL, The Obstacles, Humiliations, and Triumphs of America's Youngest Sommelier (Ecco/HarperCollins). She also has contributed to Esquire, Cosmopolitan, Eater, and Bon Appétit. Along with Cote's General Manager (Amy Zhou) and HR Director (Cynthia Cheng), she founded WINE EMPOWERED, a non-profit that aims to diversify the hospitality industry by offering tuition-free wine classes to women and minorities.
Last month I had a pleasure of chatting with the brilliant Victoria James (via Zoom) about her journey in the wine world, women in wine and about creating a healthy culture for professionals in our industry.
It was her Sunday night, after she finished dinner service at her NYC restaurant ‘Cote’ (she was also 31 weeks pregnant at the time and due to have her first baby girl this month).
It was my Monday morning here in Adelaide Australia while my little one (Lenny, she’s 15 months old) is in my lap as she was unwell and couldn’t go to day-care that day.
Amazingly, It all felt perfectly natural and normal…
Reflecting back at that moment, where two women in wine, one’s a mother, the other is about to become a mother, in two different parts of the world, can connect, talk and know that they’re both part of the same global community and share the same passions has been a wonderful, lifting feeling. I really hope you’ll enjoy reading our conversation and hopefully you’ll take a few things to yourself from it.
Hi Victoria, I’m so thankful for that time you’ve made to chat with ‘Hashizra’s community! First, I’d love to know when did you realize that wine is your passion and that you'll make a career out of it? Was it always present while growing up or did it happen later on in life?
I didn't grow up around wine at all. We didn't come from a lot of money and things were quite tight when I was younger. It wasn't until I got into restaurants that I really got into wine. So, when I was a teenager I started working at a Greasy Spoon Diner.
From there I kind of graduated to bartending in college. I found this dusty old copy of ‘Wine for Dummies’ at the register, at the place where I was bartending and quickly realized I knew very little about wine. I think some sommeliers might have like an ah ha bottle of wine that got them into wine and they tasted and they said it was like the best thing ever and they have to do this, but for me it was really, you know, education, and reading which I love, that got me into wine, and I just loved all the stories behind the bottles and I realized that wine wasn't just alcohol it had presented centuries of tradition and people and these historic practices and it was just really fascinating to me.
I can really resonate with what you’re saying about that one bottle of wine not being the thing that made you fall into wine. For me it was connecting with the wine community and the people around me that made the first click. I've found so many people that I could talk to and feel like myself with and happy with so I knew I’m in the right place.
What excites you to see in wine lists and in your opinion, makes a good wine list?
A few things I think, first the wines have to be delicious on the list to pair well with the food and the cuisine. And they also I feel like, you know, as a sommelier or wine buyer it's your duty to curate this selection for the guests so that there's no bad bottle on the list. There's also the sense of adventure. And so, you know for me, at ‘Cote’, it's really important that our programs represent the sense of place, listing wines you know can do that. We also try and have a rare opportunity to vote with your dollars so we try and lift up marginalized groups and focus on wines that's produced in a responsible and respectable way for the earth so I think that it's not as simple as it was back in the day where you had to have wines from Burgundy and Bordeaux, it's so much more than that.
Absolutely! And is there anything you'd like to see more of on wine lists?
I think I'd like to see more opinions. I think people often get very safe and they put classic producers on there or maybe they'll put something on their wine list that they think is going to sell a lot or, you know, big names, and I would love to see more wine lists that are unique and individual and have character and they're not just sort of these cookie cutter wine lists.
Have you noticed many changes in wine lists since the pandemic started?
I know for example here in Australia a lot of lists in have gone much smaller. People have reduced their stocks, and choose to have a very focused program. Still amazing wine lists around, but the size has been a massive change here.
That's interesting. I mean, I think some people took the pandemic as an opportunity to bulk up on things rather than slow down but I think overall the pandemic did make people realize what's important and so, you know, we are starting to see more representation on wine list of marginalized group and female winemakers and people of colour, so I think that's great!
That’s brilliant to hear that from such a crazy global situation some great things have happened and that people shifted the way they think.
You've published your second book, ‘Wine Girl’ recently, It's very personal.
It's very thoughtful and inspiring. What are you hoping for people to take away from that book?
Well, in the epilogue I stated really what I wanted from the book and what I want is- I want it to inspire people from all over the world, men, women, to come forward and share their stories and use their voice, you know, to demand social justice and change regardless of the industry they're in. I mean I obviously saw an opportunity with the wine industry. But I think that using your voice as a powerful thing and using it for good, it’s one of the few things we can do in this world so that's what I hope happens with the book and those who read it.
Voice, it's a big thing! and I think it takes a lot of courage to manage to take that first step and I really hope people do get inspired to do so after reading your book.
How much awareness is there for diversity and quality in your community? Do you feel enough is being done to promote an advocate or equality in your community?
I think there's always more work to be done. I think we're just starting to have these conversations, and that's great, but it's just the tip of the iceberg, so it's a constant continued change and awareness that's necessary.
And, in your opinion, what responsibility do we have as women, to promote and help promote other women in our industry.
I think that whenever you are pushed towards the margins of a society, it’s your duty that when you do hold a position of power, finally, to reach down and lift someone else up. When you've fought so hard to get to this place, you know you need to give back to the community and so I think not just with women but for so many people. It's our job to lift everyone up.
Absolutely! So, what advice would you give to any woman who is at the beginning of her journey as wine professional?
Find a mentor, find someone you can trust to help you along the way. I think oftentimes people think that they have to go through this alone or build their career by themselves and that they have to be sort of self-made and there's something to that for sure, but I think there's much more power and strength in numbers and finding a community like you said, that really speaks to you and helps lift you up is really important.
I completely agree with that. I know I was fortunate to have many great mentors and you always need to search for more just to expand the way you think and what you're searching for.