Victoria James, America's youngest sommelier, says the wine world needs a culture shift
James says an 'almost fetishization of cruelty' still persists in the hospitality industry's culture
As Victoria James made her way up the restaurant industry ranks, she believed that the "better" the restaurant, the "better" she would be treated.
James, who became America's youngest sommelier at the age of 21, already had her fair share of challenges as a woman in a male-dominated industry.
"The wine world, especially — it's an old boys' club. And it takes generations sometimes for things like that to change," said James, beverage director and partner at Cote, a Korean steak house in New York City.
It was in high-end — even Michelin-starred restaurants — that James was given the moniker "Wine Girl," which she says customers would use to undermine her credibility.
Her experiences, the good and bad, are chronicled in a new memoir, Wine Girl: The Obstacles, Humiliations and Triumphs of a Young Sommelier.
The title, she told The Current's Matt Galloway, is an attempt to reclaim the "derogatory" nickname.
Though James' love for hospitality was stymied by her negative and traumatic experiences in the industry, she says it was wine that turned things around.
"I, actually, truly love the experience when you pour a taste of wine for a guest," she said. "It's a really beautiful process and one which I really love to honour."
'Just as bad as ever'
James quickly learned, "there's so much pressure" working in Michelin-starred restaurants.
"You're on an international platform and stage and all eyes are on you, and there's millions of dollars that are being poured into these restaurants…. As a result, I think sometimes those at the top lose sight of their employees' humanity."
"It seemed almost like this interesting dichotomy where the better the restaurant, the worse the environment."
Though the industry has faced somewhat of a reckoning following #MeToo and calls from high-profile chefs to upend a cutthroat culture, James says little has changed.
"I think that there's more fear now, people are maybe worried they'll get caught. But I think it's just as bad as ever," she said.
She recalls walking into a greasy spoon diner as a 13-year-old, looking for her first job, but feeling uncomfortable by the experience.
"I remember the owner and ... I think it's something young women learn right away: a way people look at you," James told Galloway.
"It was one of those looks that instantly makes a woman feel uncomfortable."
To take a job at 13 is hardly common. For James, it was a much needed "escape" from the challenges she faced at home as her father struggled with addiction.
"It was a place where you could hide in plain sight. And I found that by delivering service to people, it actually brought me a lot of fulfilment," she said.
As she worked her way through, at first, the greasy spoon, then later more upscale restaurants, she says that fulfilment helped her navigate her personal challenges.
She found family among the cooks and cleaners, helping them with their end-of-night cleaning tasks.
It wasn't glamorous, and in Wine Girl, she recalls one moment where a rat trap — complete with a dead rodent — came her way.
"I don't know why, but maybe it's also training for my home life. Whenever there's a difficult situation, you have a choice: You can run from it screaming or you can face it head on," she said.
'Makes people feel safe'
James says an "almost fetishization of cruelty" still persists in the hospitality industry's culture.
But it didn't "toughen" her up. Instead, it made her "realize that it's something I never want to do to my own staff."
As founder and director of Wine Empowered, a non-profit that seeks to "inspire professional growth" of women and people of colour in the hospitality industry, James is "aiming to change the industry."
"I have a lot of friends that are now starting to hire more female sommeliers."
She says at Korean steakhouse Cote, at which she is a partner, there is a zero tolerance policy for any kind of sexual harassment or discrimination.
"The effect we've seen is it makes people feel safe, it makes them feel heard."
"When you listen to people, when you listen to women and believe their stories, they feel empowered to take hold of their careers.
Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Howard Goldenthal.