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February 20, 2020
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The wine industry is a large and well-known one. Sommeliers from across the globe have shared their experiences and insights on what it takes to be a sommelier and their journey in the industry.
Meet Victoria James - wine prodigy, sommelier, wine author, and social media’s favorite woman in wine.
James sat with Editor of USA Wine Ratings and shared her journey in the world of wine and shared her tips for anyone looking to enter the wine industry.
I started working at a local greasy-spoon at age thirteen and from there fell in love with the culture of restaurants. I found that serving others, and bringing them joy, made me happy. Throughout college, I continued to waitress, then bartend. This is where I fell into the world of wine, and everything just clicked. I already had a passion for history, geography, travel, food, and people. The wine was just this missing link that tied them all together. Being a sommelier allows me to use wine as a tool in hospitality, and that's what I really love.
I've been very fortunate that a lot of people have helped me along the way. The owner of Cote, Simon Kim, was one of the first persons who ever believed in me and gave me a chance. He hired me as his Wine Director at Piora, his first restaurant, even though I had no experience before as a buyer. He took me from a sommelier and showed me how to successfully buy for a Michelin-starred restaurant by giving me the tools of sessions with our accountant and advice on how to treat those in the industry. Most importantly, he gave me support, trust, and kindness.
Also, I've had a lot of fantastic female mentors--- Rita Jammet who took me under her wing and sponsored me to become a Dame with the Les Dames d'Escoffier. She also has helped give me so many opportunities and always is a beacon of light and joy in sometimes a dark world. Aileen Robbins was one of the first to offer me an international trip via the recommendation of one of my other mentors, Marianne Fabre-Lanvin. Aileen and I remained friends over the years and she continued to support and encourage me throughout my career, often offering candid and hard advice I needed to hear. When I was working on my second book, a memoir that was very emotionally devastating to write, she helped me edit and spent hours working on the manuscript with me.
Marianne likewise became a friend in addition to someone I continue to look up to with her joie de vivre and ability to make everything feel limitless. My mentors are so important to me because not only have they all been brilliant and supportive but most importantly, they are good people that encourage me to continue to be the same.
Pre-Cote, I was working as a sommelier at two different restaurants—Aureole and Marea—and I met the owner of Cote, Simon Kim, at Piora in the West Village. As a sommelier, you're selling wine, but that's only part of the industry. If you really want to have power and if you want to vote with your dollars, you have to be a buyer. Take, for example, being a buyer at Bloomingdales—you are purchasing a product and managing inventory, figuring out what the trends are, doing customer research, et cetera. You're meeting with vendors, suppliers, distributors, and putting together a list of products. That is what being a wine director means. And now I have a multi-million dollar program, which is crazy. It's a lot of money, and that means a lot of buying power.
I wanted that power, and to delve more deeply into the industry, so Simon hired me as his wine director buying wine for Piora (his restaurant in the West Village) and then we opened up Cote together, along with a great team. Opening a restaurant is one of the most difficult things ever—not only is it difficult because it's time-consuming and incredibly emotional, but it's almost like opening a play. You have no idea how it will be received and you could easily lose millions of dollars. We were very lucky that our concept was well-received and we are doing well, but that was a big fear.
I am also an author, and as you can probably imagine writing is time-consuming. I try to do it in the early mornings, late at night, or on the weekends. You just have to carve out time for it, and that applies to anyone who wants to do something in addition to their day job. For example, with my second book, "Wine Girl: The Obstacles, Humiliations, and Triumphs of America's Youngest Sommelier" (Out March 2020 by Ecco), I calculated how long it would take to write over the course of five years, which meant that it would take about two hours a day of work, so I would wake up two hours earlier. It just is what it is, and the other secret is sometimes giving up your social life.
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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 of 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 meaningful connections. 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.
The wine world is starting to change, but there still aren't enough women or minorities in positions of power. There is deeply ingrained sexism. Platforms are still given to the old boys club.
The best piece of advice I can give is a famous quote I try and live by, "The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others."
The biggest trend that has risen is "natural wine." I've only been in the business for around a decade so I am sure I will see many more trends come and go. But the rise of natural wine is a big one. This is tricky because it can mean so many different things. There are some great natural wines and there are some horrible ones. I think right now we are starting to see this mature a bit, people are realizing that flaws are not flavors you want in wine.
This is ever-changing! My go to is always cru Beaujolais, slightly chilled, in a Picardie tumbler.
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