Victoria James knows Wine Girl won’t be an easy read for everyone, but that’s partly why she wrote it. “I was telling my publisher, ‘I feel like this should come with a trigger warning on it,’” she says. “It’s not easy for a lot of women and I get that. But it’s stuff we need to talk about.”
The memoir follows James from a difficult childhood to a career in a toxic restaurant industry, becoming the country’s youngest sommelier at a Michelin-starred restaurant at age 21. But while that journey includes hurdles casual followers of the wine world will be familiar with — intense studying, high-pressure exams, and cutthroat competitions — the book is really about the darker side of an industry rampant with misogyny and abuse, and how James found her way to a place where she finally felt she could make it better.
Eater spoke to James, now the wine director and a partner at New York City restaurant Cote, about working her way up in wine and getting it all down on paper. Wine Girl is available to order from bookstores now.
Eater: The book describes some truly terrible behavior in the wine and restaurant industry, and you use aliases for both people and the wine school where you took classes. What was your approach to thinking about aliases versus naming names?
Victoria James: When I first wrote the manuscript all the names were the same. I presented it to the publisher, and then the lawyers looked over it and they were like, “Yeah, we’re going to change that.” So unfortunately, this is just the way the laws are right now, and until they change to protect women, this is how it has to be. The people I talk about in this book are not public people, they’re not Mario Batali, so that’s a different kind of protected class that you can’t say these things about.
I had colleagues and family members read through it and say, “This is true, I was there.” But even with that, it’s still not enough. And that’s what’s so frustrating for so many women everywhere. I hope if we share more of our stories, the culture can change and people can start to, I don’t know, believe women? Is that crazy? Everything that’s in the book is everything I can say legally, on record, with people from all corners of the industry backing me up saying this happened. Imagine all the things I didn’t write. That’s the scariest part, and that’s what so many women go through.
Do you think there are unique challenges to being a young woman in wine, or are the problems you describe symptomatic of fine dining more generally?
I can only speak to my own experiences, but the whole reason there’s such a focus on age in the book is not to say, “Oh, look at me, I was so young.” It’s not about that. It’s really about creating a narrative that so many young people can relate to. Everyone knows what it was like when they first started in a job and they were young and insecure and at the bottom of the totem pole having to fight their way into an industry. But what I think made my experience particularly challenging was trying to prove myself, while also facing this abuse and sexism and these toxic cultures which, from speaking with my friends and colleagues, are pretty synonymous with fine dining everywhere but especially in New York. It’s not one restaurant that’s the problem, it’s the culture.
As you detail in the book, you started working in restaurants as a teenager. What changes have you seen in the culture since then?
It’s been almost 10 years since I became a somm, and I don’t know if it’s changed that much. I’m in a different position right now, so I have the opportunity to finally change things and that’s the whole goal with [my nonprofit] Wine Empowered. Fourteen percent of wine buyers in New York are women. That’s crazy. We have to monitor the statistics more; we have to talk about things more. The goal is that by writing this book, sommeliers will read it 20 years from now and say, “This doesn’t happen anymore.” But we have to talk about it first to get there.
In the book you describe sexual assault. What was that process like for you?
It’s funny, when you’re writing a book, it doesn’t feel like you’re doing this big confession. And then your agent looks at it and is a little weird and awkward, and your husband looks at it, your sister, and then the publisher, and it’s a little uncomfortable. Then it sells and you’re like, “Oh fuck. People are going to read about this.”
It didn’t really hit me for three years, until I was recording the audiobook and I had to read it and I was crying and running to the restroom to puke. Only now do I realize the weight of it. This happens to so many women, and there’s this shame and humiliation which I still feel all the time. But I hope that by speaking on it, it will give more women the courage to do so and slowly erase the stigma. If you’re stabbed in the street of course you go to the hospital and of course you report it and no one is saying you were asking to be stabbed. But for some reason that doesn’t exist around rape. So I think I felt this burden to share my story. Hopefully it encourages other women to come forward as well and we can change the culture.
And beyond the assaults, Wine Girl is full of stories about experiencing and overcoming misogyny in restaurants and in the wine world.
When I first pitched this idea, agent was like, “No. No one’s going to read this. It’s just not going to sell.” And then the Me Too movement happened in the restaurant industry and she was like, “Maybe now is the time.”
It’s interesting that now people will listen to these stories. When I wrote the book, it was actually more intense and the publisher was like, “This is too much, we need to cut some of these scenes.” And I was like, “That’s the point.” I want people to understand the gravity of this, and if it’s happened to me I know it’s happened to so many other women. I fought to keep a lot of parts in it because I thought they were important. It’s worse than what I wrote.
I hope that when people read it, they see their female sommelier or female server [and] understand the resilience they have to have just to be in this business and to serve 300 guests every night — and probably half of them are sexualizing them or belittling them — and what that takes day in and day out. It steals a part of you. If you don’t have a healthy culture, of course women won’t ever hold positions of power. They’ll burn out and feel terrible. It’s not a good feeling.
What impression of the wine world and fine dining do you want people to take away from this?
Hospitality can take away just as much as it can give. But what healed me in the end was also the restorative properties of hospitality. It can be a really wonderful and beautiful thing. Good wine and good food and good people really can be restorative and wonderful, but there are these other things we need to talk about. Hopefully it brings up new conversations, but hopefully it also makes people fall in love with the world of wine. That would be really great too.
Is there anything else you want people to know about the book?
Obviously the title is Wine Girl, and it’s a reclamation of a name I was called, but I hope that not just young women read it. I’d told my husband a lot of these difficult things about my life, but it’s more visceral and raw when you read these emotions on the page, and I think a lot of men could gain a lot to get inside of women’s brains like that and see what they go through. After my husband read it he was like, “Phew, that was difficult but I’m really glad,” because he had no idea that’s how I felt. I hope a lot of guys read it as well, especially in the industry. We need male allies.