Victoria James, WINE GIRL

Victoria James, WINE GIRL

Zibby Owens: Victoria James is the author of Wine Girl: The Obstacles, Humiliations, and Triumphs of America’s Youngest Sommelier. Victoria has worked in restaurants since she was thirteen and was certified as a sommelier when she was twenty-one. She was Food & Wine‘s Sommelier of the Year in 2018 and has appeared on both Forbes and Zagat’s “30 Under 30” lists. She’s worked at some of the most prestigious restaurants in New York City including Marea and Aureole. Currently, she’s a partner and beverage director at Cote, or maybe Coté, a Michelin-starred hotspot in the Flatiron District of New York City and is cofounder of Wine Empowered, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that aims to diversify the hospitality industry by offering tuition-free wine classes to women and minorities. She’s also the author of Drink Pink: A Celebration of Rosé, which Harper Design published in 2017.


Victoria James: Hi.

Zibby: How are you?

Victoria: Good. Hi, Zibby.

Zibby: Who is this? Wait, I know who this is because you thanked your husband for taking care of him. What’s this guy’s name?

Victoria: This is Rocco.

Zibby: Hi, Rocco. Look at you with the old-fashioned fire and the dog and the scones.

Victoria: We’re at a place Upstate just for this bit of quarantine to try and take deep breath from Manhattan.

Zibby: Yes, I understand that. Now one of my first things on my to-do list, if and when I ever get back to the city, is going to your restaurant.

Victoria: I’ll be there.

Zibby: I have so many questions and things I want to talk to you about regarding the book. I just want to start — obviously, the restaurant industry has been hit so hard by COVID-19. I wanted to just get your point of view on that because I haven’t talked to that many people in the restaurant industry. How are you coping? What are your general thoughts? Sorry to put you on the spot here.

Victoria: No, not at all. First and foremost, it’s really important, if anyone watching is able to do so, to please support their local restaurants that are doing delivery or takeout right now. In addition, you can buy gift cards. I know a lot of restaurants have started a GoFundMe for their staff they had to furlough or lay off for the time being. At our restaurant, which is Cote Korean Steakhouse in New York City, we are a skeleton crew now. We’re doing takeout and delivery. It’s very intense. We do this in order to be able to send a weekly stipend to the staff members we had to lay off and to be able to keep them afloat during these times. It’s definitely not what we imagined our restaurant would look like. All the booths and tables that used to host all these fabulous guests are now filled with takeout containers and such. No complainants. We are so grateful that we’re beyond surviving. It’s really wonderful. Not a lot of our friends have that opportunity.

Zibby: Wow. I just never envisioned a world in which every restaurant would simultaneously close. It’s really unthinkable. Somebody must have written a book imagining this because everybody has their own fears about — I have to go find that book, but I haven’t yet.

Victoria: It makes one also realize how important restaurants are to our community and culture. They’re a place we go to celebrate special events, to feel restored, to have that sense of kinship and friendship. Without it, it’s not the same.

Zibby: It’s not. You’re absolutely right. It’s very sad. Okay, so your book was so good. I just emailed you. I was like, oh, my gosh. I even emailed your agent. I was like, oh, my gosh, this book is so good. I’ve had it since it first came out. I got it through It’s been sitting here. Now I feel terrible I haven’t read it yet. It was on my list all along. I’m so glad I got the chance to finally read it because it’s really one of recent favorites. Can you tell everybody how you decided to write this memoir and basically the journey that you describe in it, what it’s about?

Victoria: The book is my coming-of-age story starting in — hi, Allison. That’s my agent who’s amazing. Allison can attest — I first met Allison probably around five years ago. I said, “I have this idea to write this book about my coming-of-age story in the wine world.” At the time, it wasn’t quite right. The Me Too movement hadn’t happened yet. I continued to work on the book. It chronicles my journey from thirteen-year-old greasy-spoon diner waitress to bartender and then working and falling in love with wine, but feeling as if I was too young, for sure, I was nineteen; definitely too poor, I didn’t come from a lot of money; and the wrong gender also for this wine world. I really loved what wine symbolized. Of course, any profession in which you can drink for a living sounded very appealing to a nineteen-year-old. More so than that, it’s combined all of these things I love, this sense of community, serving others, restaurants, travel, history. When I became twenty-one, I took my sommelier exam and became certified and also was working as a sommelier at a Michelin-starred restaurant here in New York.

I thought if I kept working in better places that the environment would become better, but I just found that it seemed almost the fancier the restaurant, the more toxic the culture. For a while, I was writing just as my own sort of therapy to work through a lot of the sexism and misogyny I faced. Then after a while, it was like, I think that maybe this could be a book. There’s a difference between writing for yourself and putting all of your embarrassing moments out there. What really inspired me to do so was that I became a leader, a partner at Cote, this restaurant. I saw how many young women looked up to me for guidance and to be this role model. I realized that I was one of the few women in wine that was in a position to write this book because unfortunately, a lot of women in wine and restaurants still face a lot of pushback. They don’t have the luxury of writing a book like this because they need to get a job. I figured if I didn’t write it, who would? It’s not just my story. It’s so many women’s stories. It’s a narrative I think a lot of women, anyone who’s ever worked in a restaurant or public service, can definitely relate to.

Zibby: I just want to read one quote, which of course now I’m not going to be able to find. It described why — okay, I can’t find that quote. Let me start this again. Wait, hold on. It was so good. It was essentially about why you found yourself as a sommelier. It combined your mother and your father’s background. Your mother came from a background, she was a countess and came from this very storied, traditional, cream-of-the-crop type family. Your father came from poverty. You felt like being a sommelier was like being a glorified servant. In that way, it married both of their experiences. I just wanted you to comment on being the product of those two very different people. Of course, your book goes into what happens with both of your parents along the way. I just wanted you to speak to that quote for a minute.

Victoria: Absolutely. It’s interesting because I think that a sommelier’s essentially a high-brow servant, but it was my background of blue collar meets blue blood combined — I think maybe that’s the quote.

Zibby: That was the quote. That was it.

Victoria: That gave me empathy for both positions. My grandmother on my mother’s side was a contessa. She always grew up telling me that one social class does not define one’s character. I think that working in these fancy restaurants, a lot of people can become intimidated by all of these celebrities and politicians and kings and such that you wait on, but that doesn’t make them who they are. By having that in my family, it gave me that background and that experience and also empathy. Then my father’s mother was also fabulous. She was a cotton picker in Tennessee. She didn’t even own a pair of shoes until she was twelve. These two women, even though they came from such different backgrounds, were just really lovely people. By having a foot in both of their worlds, I think allowed me to be, eventually, a better sommelier.

Zibby: Wow. You write a lot about your mother in this book, and your father as well. You write about her depression and the effects of having a mother who was basically nonfunctional and how that affected you and your siblings. Your mother said of those times, I’m going to quote, “The depression had marched across my brain to the point that weep and sleep and weep and sleep was the way I spent my days alone in the bedroom behind closed doors.” Then you as the child had to basically take care of yourself eating Saltines and trying to feed your siblings. What was that like for you?

Victoria: It was certainly not easy. This was probably one of the first things I wrote. It was an evolution of a lot of short stories I had written as a child and old diary entries. It was something I hadn’t thought about for a while. I think whenever you go through any sort of trauma or painful experience, you, in order to survive, maybe don’t think about it for quite some time. When I was writing this book, going to my storage unit and digging through these old diaries, it really brought up a lot of this pain that was so visceral and that I felt so strongly as a child. Also, it gave me a sort of resilience. Mental illness is a very difficult thing to see as a child. Again, I think it gave me a better perspective on the suffering and pain it can cause, not only to the persons involved, like myself and my siblings, but also the person experiencing it. My mom was extremely helpful with this book. It wasn’t easy for her to read. A lot of parts were very difficult. She really felt that it was very important to talk about these things, and postpartum depression. If we don’t talk about these things as women, they become something you should be ashamed of, and I don’t think we should be. It was actually a very healthy experience to work through.

Zibby: I noticed in your acknowledgements how you thanked her for providing so much source material for you, and court documents. I was thinking, wow, what would that have been like for your mom to have go back and relive some of those? What she must have felt having to see what happened from a different vantage point. Just part of the intensity of the story. Moving on, the scene when you — I can’t even smile while we talk about it because this is such an upsetting, disturbing scene, and the first of many upsetting, disturbing scenes that you write about so poignantly and beautifully and honestly, about the sexual abuse and how he followed you home. I don’t know if you’re even comfortable talking about this or if you do this in all your book things. Just let him give you a ride home and ends up raping you. It’s awful. I’m so sorry that that happened to you at such a young age. How do you feel even about talking about it? Have you made peace with this in some way? Is this book another way to do that? Then all the ones that followed, I was just thinking, oh, my gosh, I have to hug this girl. I cannot believe what you have been through.

Victoria: It’s still not easy to talk about, but I think that unfortunately, these things are very common. One in three women in North America throughout their lifetime, at some point, is raped. That’s just the reality. It does get easier to talk about for me personally with writing these experiences. It is just really important that society does something about this. Especially in restaurants, we put our women in these positions where they are very vulnerable. We want them to be the cute cocktail waitresses or hosts, bartender, sommeliers in my case, but we don’t do anything to protect them. It was really important to me that when I finally had a position of power and my own place in a restaurant, to do so. This is one of the reasons at Cote that we established a zero-tolerance policy for any sort of harassment or sexual assault from within the restaurant, colleagues, but also customers because I think that’s a big issue. I was really sick of growing up in these restaurants, diners, and fine dining places where the customer’s always right. The customer’s not already right, especially when it comes to assault and harassment. If we do not protect our women, they cannot build their careers in restaurants and in wine. If we don’t have a diversified industry, that means less innovation that can occur. That means less ideas, less growth. The wine world is still an old boys club. Unless that changes soon and we don’t have more women and minorities in positions of power, I just don’t think it will be or continue to be safe, honestly, and a place where a lot of innovative can occur.

Zibby: It’s amazing that you took your experience and turned into something that can help so many other people. The book details some of the many situations in which people really took advantage of you. Locked cellars, it was one thing after another. You just got through it. You had so much grit and resilience. It’s really an inspiring story that not only could you get through it and continue your upward trajectory professionally, but you chronicled it and now have written a beautiful book about it and started this nonprofit. What can you not do? This is really impressive. How does it feel now to have this book out there? How does it feel? It’s really personal. How does it feel that have it out there?

Victoria: It’s interesting because the book came out during this pandemic and in quarantine. I don’t think it has really snuck in yet. I’ve gotten so many wonderful letters and a couple opportunities like this with you, Zibby, where I can chat with people. Unfortunately, my book tour had to get canceled and things. When you don’t see people face to face, it just doesn’t feel very real still. The most important thing I’ve wanted out of this book was I wanted women to not feel alone in any industry. Right after the book came out, that very week I received over, now close to six hundred emails from women all around the world saying, this was your story, but it’s so similar to my own narrative. I really hope that together we can band together for social justice and actually change things. The fact that this book has brought so many women comfort was the whole point. That is more important to me than anything else.

Zibby: Are you going to do something like a Facebook group? How are you going to keep this community together of all these emailing women? You need to start some sort of collective something, right?

Victoria: Yeah. I think that Wine Empowered, our nonprofit, is what I’m really passionate about. It bands together not only women, but also minorities. The reason for that being is that it’s founded with two other female sommeliers who are both from China originally. They felt also on the margins of the wine world. The community I want to create is one that’s inclusive where everyone feels heard and listened to. I think that’s my little group. I always welcome whoever’s watching or anyone that wants to, please send me a message. When this is all over, we can do some events together.

Zibby: I didn’t mean to imply that you should start an exclusive group. I hope that’s not how you took that.

Victoria: No, no, no.

Zibby: You go start a really — . Anyway, no. Wow, that’s really impressive. Also, just going back to mental illness, the experience you had with your older brother and how your father essentially sent him away and he had to get through that and how the mantra you keep repeating to yourself is just getting through it based on how he internalized his own experience was also just so beyond powerful. What is your relationship with him like now?

Victoria: Tim’s amazing. He’s an incredible human being. I’m so grateful that I have him in my life and also my little sister, Lara, to get me through all these times because I couldn’t have done it alone. Tim’s mantra was kind of, what’s two years? You can do anything for two years and put your head down and get to a much better place far away. That was my mantra. Just get through it. Just survive. So many survivors of trauma or difficult experiences, that’s kind of all they have. It wasn’t until later that my brother said that wasn’t his only realization. It was also that, for better or for worse, some part of him was lost when he was forced to go into the institution. The person that came out is not the same. We do also have to accept the fact that these experiences change us and work on embracing that change and channeling it for the good.

Zibby: I had that quote dogeared too. Now I can’t find any of my quotes. I loved that quote that he said, that some of you is left behind. I feel like this is so true of so many traumas. This hearkens back to the victims of the Holocaust and all these other situations where you get through it, but what form do you come out of it in? What is lost? What is there? It’s super, super powerful.

Victoria: He’s incredible.

Zibby: Then all of this stuff was going on in your own family. Then your ability to forgive, it’s just amazing. Now that this book is out there and you’re surviving pandemic promotion, what’s next for you? You’re so young and you’ve already done so much and made your way through it. I feel like you can do anything you want. What are you some of your blue-sky dreams or hopes? Are you just getting through the next phase of life and seeing what happens?

Victoria: I’m sure for so many people watching as well, this quarantine’s been great for a reflection. With the restaurant, we’re opening a Miami property this fall and continuing to open up more Cotes, but also growing the nonprofit, Wine Empowered, and really empowering more women and minorities to feel included in the hospitality world and help mentor them. Those are my two biggest goals right now. Then the third one right now, also during quarantine I’ve been working on a lot, is a third book, a novel. That’s the next blue sky.

Zibby: Wow. That’s great. I know we’re almost out of time. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Victoria: I don’t know. I think everyone’s journey is so different. Everyone writes differently. I think that you should write what makes you happy and what brings you joy. For me, what brings me joy is writing something that will resonate with other people and empower them to take hold of their own lives. Write what brings you joy.

Zibby: That’s great. Thank you so much for coming on. Thank you for Wine Girl. Thank you for just opening up all your deepest, darkest secrets so that we can all feel your pain and be inspired to change the environments that created some of the things that were done to you in the past. It’s really important and such a good book. You’re such a good writer. I’m really excited for your novel. Keep it up.

Victoria: Thank you, Zibby.

Zibby: Appreciate your time. Thanks. Buh-bye.

Victoria James, WINE GIRL