A sommelier’s tale of making it in the toxic world of fine dining.
Aged thirteen, Victoria James started her first job in a diner in New Jersey.
Aged nineteen, Victoria was serving sugary Cosmopolitans in a restaurant off Broadway.
Aged twenty-one, Victoria was named the US’s youngest sommelier, working in Michelin-starred restaurants, serving the finest wines to pair with spectacular foods.
The groping patrons she learned to handle, but behind the scenes, the world of high dining was a mess of fractious relationships and unacknowledged abuse. It would take hitting rock-bottom for Victoria to find her way back to the industry she adores.
Wine Girl is the memoir of a young woman breaking free from her traumatic childhood. It’s the story of overcoming the notoriously corrosive restaurant industry, and of the restorative power of a glass of wine with friends.
Victoria James first began working in the food industry at the age of 13. From there, she worked her way through various roles at all manner of establishments, eventually securing a position at a Michelin-starred restaurant. It’s a fascinating journey, and I enjoyed seeing her progress from that first part-time role, gradually building up her experience. Along the way, she meets people who inspire her and who help to shape her career, coaching this young woman and passing on their own wisdom. She does, unfortunately, also experience more than her fair share of terrible bosses and those who seek who take advantage of a young woman – something that I’ve discovered through this book is all too common in the food / fine-dining industry. Wine Girl is a deeply personal account that charts the highs and lows of this young woman’s career to date.
Throughout this book, I came to love Victoria’s resilience and determination to follow her dreams, despite those who tell her that her aspirations will never be more than that. She has been through so much to get to her current position, and there are parts of that journey that make for particularly unpleasant reading. Throughout, she rises above everything that is thrown at her and shows such determination that I couldn’t help but admire her. Victoria’s tale is one of hard work and elbow grease, and occasionally gritting her teeth, but it is incredibly inspiring, and shows that anyone can achieve their goals.
Humility is a hard thing to accept at a young age when you want to prove your worth. Staying quiet, speaking only when I should, and calmly trying to learn from my mistakes were the best things I ever did for my career – that and trying to work harder than everyone else around me.
As well as documenting her own career and personal life, Victoria also sheds light on the toxicity that permeates the restaurant industry. From the patrons with wandering hands to the staff and bosses who feel that they can take advantage of others, it’s clear that the food industry is rife with sexism. I love that since the opening of Cote, where Victoria is a part-owner as well as beverage director and sommelier, she has tried to help others feel empowered, advocating change and encouraging both equality and diversity in a “pale, male, and stale” industry, setting herself as a role model for others. It’s fantastic to see her sharing her experience in this way and helping others with similar dreams to achieve them without having to put with some of the more negative aspects that she herself faced. She’s a bold and courageous woman, and an inspiration to all.
Wine Girl is available now in hardback and digital formats. Many thanks to the Grace Vincent and the publisher, Fleet, for the review copy.