As a partner at prestigious New York City restaurant Cote, Victoria James is quite well-versed in the restaurant and wine industries. Serving as Cote’s beverage director, she recently received a James Beard nomination for the restaurant’s wine program.
Working in restaurants since she was 13, James fell in love with wine and became a certified sommelier when she was 21. She has worked at some of the most prestigious restaurants in New York City and her name has appeared on many notable lists like Forbes “30 Under 30,” Food & Wine’s “2018 Sommelier of the Year,” Zagat’s “30 Under 30,” and Wine Enthusiast’s “40 Under 40.” She is the author of “Drink Pink: A Celebration of Rosé” (HarperCollins) and the upcoming book “Wine Girl” (March 2020, Ecco/HarperCollins).
Along with Cote’s General Manager Amy Zhou and Events Director Cynthia Cheng, she has also founded Wine Empowered, a nonprofit organization that aims to diversify the hospitality industry by offering free wine classes to women and minorities.
AWT columnist Julia Gamolina sat down with James to find out more about her work and her advice for aspiring sommeliers.
Julia Gamolina: What was the first thing to spark your interest in all things wine?
Victoria James: I’ve worked in the restaurant industry since I was thirteen. Hospitality and the world of restaurants was something that I always loved—I loved serving people and I loved food. Then I was bartending in college while studying psychology, but to be honest with you, I was more interested in partying than I was in studying. None of my classes quite spoke to me, but hospitality continued to appeal, especially interacting with people. At that age, I was, and I think everyone is, looking for purpose and something that gives you purpose and meaning in this world. For me, there was always an immediate joy that came with making people happy through service, through hospitality.
When I found wine, I found a way to connect on an even deeper level with guests, especially on an intellectual level, and that just clicked. I started to learn a little bit about it, and then more and more, and soon I was going down a rabbit hole and became pretty obsessed, eventually deferring college for a semester to take a wine course. A wine course is really intensive—you are studying constantly because there is an immense amount of information to absorb. I spent all my time doing that, and then one course became two courses, and eventually, I decided to go all in and not return to college.
What was it about wine?
Wine is a cool thing that can combine so many interests—obviously history and geography, but also taste and people.
How did you become a sommelier?
After taking these wine courses, I got a job at Harry’s on Hanover Square which is in the Wall Street Area and has this crazy amazing $8 million closet of wine consisting of four stories of enormous cellars that date back to the ‘60s. I was constantly surrounded by wine there because, in addition to being a bartender, I was also a cellar rat and helped reorganize the entire cellar.
From there I worked a grape harvest in California, learning all the nitty-gritty details of how wine is actually made, the good and the bad. From there, I turned 21 and decided that I wanted to become a sommelier. By that point, I had wanted to be a sommelier for a while, but it almost seemed too impossible.
I was too young, too poor, and too female [laughs]. At the time, I was also working at a place where the people in charge were quite frankly very misogynistic and not conducive to helping me pursue a sommelier track. I was in an abusive world. So I sent my resume to a bunch of other places and was hired as a sommelier eventually. It involved a lot, but it was a good lesson in not listening to those who told me I wouldn’t be a sommelier. I was probably very underqualified to be a somm when I first started, but I was willing to work 100 hours a week and not complain, so that helped me along.
Since a lot of our readers are not quite wine experts, could you explain what a sommelier is?
A sommelier is a fancy word for a servant. As a wine servant, you specialize in wines and you help explain to your guests about the wines they can have and order. Some people’s definition of a sommelier is a lot broader—someone can just work in wine, period, but I think that the true definition is that you serve wine to guests. For example, I am now a Partner and Beverage Director at Cote, but I still consider myself a sommelier since I’m still serving wine to guests on the floor.
Tell me about founding Cote, and what you did before.
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 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.
Tell me about your role at Cote.
As beverage director, I basically handle everything liquid in the restaurant—water, spirits, beer, juice, tea, coffee, and, of course, wine. But, in addition to that, because I’m in a leadership role, there’s nothing that doesn’t fall under my jurisdiction—I clean bathrooms, I check coats, I take reservations. Usually, the first half of my day is focused on beverage directing—from the early morning to the early afternoon I’m essentially ordering and overseeing all of the liquid for the restaurant. Then, in the second half of my day, I am a sommelier and leader. We have a great team of four sommeliers here at Cote, and I help them sell wine on the floor to our guests and make people happy. This is the fun part of the day. Sure, curating a wine list is intellectually fascinating and brings me great pride, but all of my joy comes from serving others. This means finding the perfect pairing for a guest (in their budget!) and empowering my team to feel great. The shifts here are long. We open for dinner at 5 pm and our kitchen closes around midnight. So our team will definitely go home tired. Working in restaurants is a hard, blue-collar job, even if it seems glamorous. But my hope is that although their bodies might be tired at the end of a long day, their minds are engaged, and they are empowered. I want the whole Cote team—from the glass polishers to the barbacks to the sommeliers—to know that they have purpose and are important. Because they are.
As a leader and a manager, I can’t just swoop in and sell all of the wine. I am kind of like the hype person. I walk around, jazz up the sommeliers so that they are excited to sell wine, and make guests happy. I walk over to guests and pour them frosé, make people laugh, and help clear tables. When you get to the top of the leadership totem pole, you need to constantly interact with all levels to stay relevant.
So although my days begin in the early morning and tick into the late night, I go to bed feeling energized. I love what I do, and dream of more ideas for the next day.
In addition to your role at Cote, you write a lot—you wrote “Drink Pink” recently—and, in general, are in the media often. As someone who integrates a lot of writing into my life in addition to my job, I’d love to know how you make time for all this.
As you know well, writing is so 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 Triumphs, Obstacles, and Humiliations 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.
Yes, unfortunately, that is a big part of it. Where are you in your career today?
Today, Cote is crushing it, and we’re looking to expand the brand to other cities. I’m working on more writing and my new book is out early next year. The third big thing I’m working on (with two other women at Cote) is launching a non-profit (Wine Empowered) which is free education to women and minorities in the hospitality industry. Diversity isn’t going to magically happen in restaurants, we need programs that champion for it.
There is this barrier in the wine industry, this initial barrier, which is not only financial. When I was going to wine classes, I was the only woman in the room, it was just not a healthy or conducive growing environment. I’m sure it’s the same in architecture, or finance, or tech—it’s not just the prohibitively expensive education, it’s also the environment. People literally don’t feel safe to grow in these classes. As a woman, you are constantly sexualized and belittled, and that’s me as a white woman. There are so many people who have it way worse because of their skin color, sexual orientation, or religion. That’s why I wanted to expand the program beyond those who identify as women. I wanted those who felt like outsiders and underdogs to get ahead. Stay tuned for the official launch later this year.
Yes, talk to me about the boys’ club aspect of your industry. What did you do to get past it?
I didn’t really get past it, the boys’ clubs still exist, I just don’t go to them and instead have made my own sort of all-inclusive club. The boys’ clubs are actually more prevalent than ever, which is sad. Just the other day, I was talking to someone in the wine industry that was putting together a luncheon for the top buyers in the city. They showed me the list of who they’re inviting, and I just said, “You do realize you’re inviting fifteen white men. Is this on purpose?”
What did they say?
They said, “Oh no, these are just my buddies.” I was like, “This is literally the definition of the old boys’ club.” I listed at least 10 other people they could have invited, who were women or minorities, and they were just like, “I’m all for diversity, but I don’t know these people.” Well duh, it takes work! You can’t just lay back and expect change. Their response was basically that they’re not trying to be racist or sexist, and that this is the way it’s always been.
So when people say, “Oh, the wine industry is changing, we see so many more female sommeliers,” some aspect of that is true, but it’s this less overt sexism that is still so prevalent and people don’t realize it. It’s really sad. And although there might be more women selling wine, there are still few places where women can build their careers, places that will support them if they want to start a family. Worse, there are few women and minorities at the top as buyers, managers, directors, and owners.
What we then have to do as women in the industry, is to build our own clubs that are more inclusive. Eventually, I truly believe that we will outweigh the boys’ clubs and someday they will become extinct. The more women and minorities that start and run these new initiatives, the better the community will be for everyone.
What have been the biggest challenges in your career?
A lot of them have been the sexism, misogyny, and abuse that I talked about. To give more context, not only was I a woman in this industry, I grew up in this industry. Coming of age as a girl in the wine industry is particularly difficult—it’s like you have a red X on you because with youth comes a lot of naïveté.
I’d say the biggest challenge has been learning to trust myself and to have confidence – I was insecure for so long because I always questioned, and people around me always questioned, my decisions and my knowledge. You’re constantly being compared to a group of ‘pale, stale, male’ people. Finding my own security and confidence, and also finding mentors and peers that would support me took a long time.
On the flip side, what have been the biggest highlights?
For me, the biggest highlight is bringing joy to people every day. Being able to build a healthy community and to mentor other young women has also been a blast. At Cote, we now have almost 100 employees, and I have to say, it is actually a healthy work environment. This is something the whole management team works on daily. It doesn’t just happen, we all put in a ton of effort and ask ourselves, “How can we make this better?” We also listen to feedback from our team.
I’ve worked in places that are destructive with very negative energy. One of my biggest joys and highlights is to live in such a healthy space and to also create it for others, and I think our guests feel this.
In general, what is your mission? What’s the impact you’d like to have?
My goal is to help diversify the industry and give voices and platforms to people who have previously not had them. There was an article that came out recently where someone in the majority was speaking on behalf of someone in the minority, and nothing makes me more upset than that. A white man speaking for women everywhere. I mean, wow, it was really bad. And the worst part is that the article was written by a woman—so she’s giving him the platform. I think that’s another point, some people don’t even realize what they’re doing because these things are so deeply ingrained.
So that’s my focus—diversify, give platforms to people who have not recently had them, and I truly believe that this will lead to a happier, healthier, restaurant industry.
What advice do you have for anyone just starting their career, but also more specifically, for young women starting their careers?
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 on 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 that meaningful connection. 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.”