A conversation with Victoria James about her eye-opening and inspiring memoir of perseverance, wine, and an insider's view of the restaurant industry.
One of our editors' picks for the best books of March, Victoria James' memoir Wine Girl takes the reader on a journey of discovery and perseverance, from a truck stop diner to vineyards in France, and wine cellars worth seven figures. An insider account of a glamorous industry riddled with abuses, Wine Girl is eye-opening, inspiring, and incredibly entertaining.
I really enjoyed reading James' story, her life has been fascinating and she's doing innovative work on a non-profit organization that I wanted to know more about. I was hoping to meet her for a chat and a glass of wine (she is also the author of Drink Pink: A Celebration of Rosé) in NYC but with everything going on that became a glass of rosé in front of my laptop in Seattle, as we exchanged questions and answers via email. It's not quite the same, but I did learn some interesting new tidbits about her experiences, including a funny anecdote that you won't find in the book:
Seira Wilson, Amazon Book Review: In Wine Girl you’re so open and honest about some really traumatic events in your life—have you had any regrets or was there anything you almost held back but didn’t?
Victoria James: It’s funny, when I was writing the book it was almost a sort of therapy for me, like writing in a diary. I felt that if it was out on paper it somehow wouldn’t be inside me anymore. Not necessarily the case, these things never leave you but expressing this pain, talking about it, actually does make it easier over time. Over the course of five years writing this book I went from these memories torturing me to finally being free, they lost their power.
For everyone the healing process is different but I don’t have any regrets. The reason I am publishing some of my stories instead of keeping them private is so they can help others. I want other young women, and men, to have hope. To know that these horrible things don’t have to define you.
Does the restaurant industry still give you a sense of belonging? Has that changed over the years as you’ve taken on different roles?
It’s changed and actually become much more meaningful. At first it just gave me a sense of belonging, a place that felt like a home. Then I found purpose in making others happy, hospitality in turn made me happy. Bringing joy to guests was what drove me for so many years, and it still does.
But now I have also found fulfillment in being a leader and mentoring others. Like Toni Morrison said, "When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game.” The responsibility of giving back is actually a weight I enjoy carrying. This is one of the reasons I co-founded Wine Empowered, a 501c3 non-profit that offers tuition-free wine classes to women and persons of color in the hospitality industry in an aim to diversify the upper ranks of leadership.
Can you bring us up to date with how Wine Empowered has evolved since you wrote about it in Wine Girl?
Yes, so Wine Empowered was founded along with Cynthia Cheng (one of the sommeliers who helped us open Cote who now runs all of our events) and Amy Zhou (our current General Manager and a partner at Cote). We opened up applications in December of 2019 and were shocked by the huge interest from the community. We realized that this was something that was way overdue.
From there, the prospective students had to submit referrals from industry mentors and go through a rigorous interview process. At the end we were left with a whip smart group of 23 students. We began our inaugural class with them in February 2020.
Just being in the room with these students--- all women and persons of color-- is uniquely inspiring. These are people that always felt like they were on the margins of the wine society, and finally they are being brought in. They are all incredibly curious and study an average of 5-10 hours a week for their classes, on top of their already demanding full-time restaurant jobs.
At the moment, we have temporarily postponed classes due to restrictions in place with the COVID-19 virus spreading, but when we welcome the students back (hopefully soon!) they will take their midterm, six more classes, then a final examination and graduation. We’ve received incredible support and sponsorship from The James Beard Foundation, the Court of Master Sommeliers, and wine distributors such as Skurnik, Kermit Lynch, Domenico Valentino, and Winebow plus food companies such as Murray’s Cheese and D’Artagnan.
You’ve visited so many wineries around the world – which of those experiences, or one you’ve had since writing Wine Girl, has been your favorite or most impactful?
One section that sadly had to be cut from the book due to length was the times I’ve spent with Lulu Peyraud in Bandol, Provence. She is this firecracker of a woman and is currently 102 years old, the matriarch of Domaine Tempier. She has seven children and believes that the secret to a long life is to follow this recipe daily: drink red wine at lunch (she gulps it like milk), swing on the swingset for exercise, and eats lots of garlic (her aioli often includes an entire head)! Chefs and writers from all over the world have come to learn from her, like Alice Waters from Chez Panisse and the late Richard Olney. She is the type of person that always wants to laugh and tell dirty jokes during a long Provençal feast.
When I first met her we were having one of these long lunches, her famous bouillabaisse with her Tempier rosé (I don’t think there is a better pink wine in the world), and she told us a story of a time she recently fell. She must have been 98 or 99 at this time. In her crackly, rustic French accent she said that she had fallen in the middle of the night on her bathroom floor and knew that no one would be around to check on her until the morning. She couldn’t move from the pain and would later find out she had broken her arm. Just hearing the story I started crying, but she chastised me saying she was too old for tears and instead spent the time cheering herself up. She started telling herself dirty jokes! For hours she laid there on the floor and when her daughter found her she thought she had gone mad she was laughing so hard. “But she has always been like this,” her daughter said, “when there is a bad situation, she is an optimist. I think that is why she will live forever.”
Lulu’s resilience and positive energy is contagious and I always left lunch with her feeling rejuvenated. In a world with so much negativity, her laughter hits you like a thunderbolt, and shakes you to see all that is good.
As a beverage director now, have you seen any changes in how distributors approach you compared to what you saw and wrote about during your years as a sommelier?
When you start voting with your dollars, purchasing wine from distributors, everyone looks at you differently. At Cote, with the volume of service we do and so many accolades, we hold a lot of buying power.
There have been persons who I’ve interacted with as a buyer who didn’t even remember me when I waited on them as a sommelier--- some of the things they said that if I repeated would make them turn red. I’m so thankful that I held the position of floor sommelier first and worked my way up. To be a fly on the wall gives you a good perspective for when you’re later in the center of that room.
You talk about what it takes to be a good sommelier, what are the hallmarks of a good restaurant guest?
It’s something we all learn as children, to simply follow the golden rule. Treat others as you want to be treated. When I really want to know who a person is I watch how they treat those who serve them.
What has been the response to your book from people you’ve worked with or others in the industry?
When I was working on the manuscript I gave sections to colleagues I had worked with to get their perspective on the events I detailed. They helped me tremendously in that I was able to get an accurate portrayal of what happened, a single person's memories aren’t always accurate. It also helped us work through a lot of what we went through. Especially with things that are difficult or unjust, you kind of tend to downplay their significance in your head. But when you see it written out it makes you rethink. Common feedback from people I worked with were things like, “I can’t believe we went through that,” or “it seems so long ago, and when I read it now I realize just how crazy it was.” Most women even looked back with regret saying things like “we should have just…” or “Why didn’t we just…” sort of thing.
When the book first came out in Canada my social media inboxes started piling up with messages from women who worked in restaurants. They all said a similar thing, that so much of what I wrote had also happened to them. Different places and times, but same story of abuse, exclusion, and humiliation. There are so many women suffering right now in restaurants and I hope this book brings them comfort and encouragement to speak up.
When you think back over all of your experiences, the people and the places in your restaurant life, what’s a moment that always makes you smile?
Always Franky from the diner. He was this guy who was barely five feet tall and could have been anywhere from 50 to 90, with a thick New York accent that made him say cawfee instead of coffee. He had a thick push broom moustache that hung over his mouth, just barely obscuring the few grey teeth he had left. Franky took me under his wing and showed me that hospitality could give one purpose. He taught me about his ‘the love cycle,’ how if I showed love to others I would feel love in return. Which works. Further, it forces you to find the good, the humanity, in those you might not necessarily like.
He always called me ‘dollface’ and would often sing while delivering food to guests. Just thinking about him always makes me smile because he brought so much happiness to others, including me.
What do you want readers to take away with them after reading Wine Girl?
I hope my story will give young women all over the world courage to share their stories, take charge of their lives, and empower others. Let’s stand together for social justice and create positive change. Wherever you are, don’t let anyone stop you from telling your truth.
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