"People are still shocked when they see a female sommelier"
Interview by Lindsey Tramuta
Victoria James, the bestselling author of Wine Girl and the youngest American to become a sommelier in the US at age 21, is on a mission to make the wine industry more inclusive. Key to that path? Education, mentorship and access to both.
You’ve effectively grown up in restaurants. How has the industry changed since your teenage years waiting tables, and in the decade since you’ve been a sommelier?
Seventeen years ago, there weren’t a lot of women represented overall. Today, women are there but there aren’t enough of them in positions of power, such as running restaurants, overseeing wine buying, or occupying roles in wine importing and distribution. As an example, only 14 per cent of the wine buyers in New York City are women. That must change.
In your book, Wine Girl, you speak about the industry biases against women and the enduring boys’-club environment. How were you able to overcome these hurdles in your career?
I think it’s about perception. Part of doing something meaningful and important is that it is going to be scary. I think that makes any opportunity worth it. I did get discouraged, don’t get me wrong; it’s a really tough industry. But I think I knew what I could bring to the table and I knew when I was smelling wines that I was just as good as the person next to me. If they couldn’t see it, I was intent on showing them. Since I was a kid, I’ve believed in my own intuition and grew up trusting in myself. So I don’t think I overcame the biases – people are still shocked when they see a female sommelier – but they simply don’t matter as much any more.
Were there women who have been instrumental in your path, perhaps as mentors?
Rita Jammet, the prominent wine consultant and La Caravelle Champagne founder, has always been a mentor to me. She’s truly a fairy godmother of the restaurant industry. And Marianne Fabre-Lanvin, founder of communications agency MFL & Co, is incredible; she has supported me in my career from the beginning. We met when she was still working for Sud de France Développement, a Manhattan agency working for the Languedoc-Roussillon region, and I was a competitor in the sommelier competitions she organised. The competitions were quite intimidating, and a woman had never won before. It was just me in a room with a bunch of men in suits… And Marianne! I was 21 years old, and ended up winning.
You talk a lot about needing to create a system that is uplifting and inclusive to all women. How do you work to be that ally?
First, through the organisation I co-founded, Wine Empowered. It was born from my experience as well as the experience of my co-founders, Cynthia Cheng and Amy Zhou, who certainly didn’t see people who looked like them working in wine. We each struggled to find our foothold in the industry and unfortunately found ourselves faced with abuse and discrimination. If you don’t fit into a little box the industry has set up as the standard, you are marginalised and have a hard time establishing a career. Wine Empowered is our way of creating a safe space where women and people of colour can learn and build their careers within hospitality and wine education. Classes are usually very expensive, which is why we offer them for free. Our goal is to diversify the upper ranks of leadership.
Outside of Wine Empowered, I run the beverage programme for both Cote restaurants, in Miami and New York, and always try to mentor someone. That’s the lesson to everyone here: you can always mentor someone, be there for someone, whether you’re a server or a director. For me, it’s important that our restaurants offer a strong possibility for growth.
There are several reasons women are reluctant to get into wine, including an aura of elitism. How do you work to help women free themselves of these obstacles?
Education is important, but it’s not the be-all and end-all. Where things get lost is in the details and I try to remind both men and women of this. Essentially, wine producers are farmers. They grow a product. All the pomp and circumstance around wine is created by man but it can be ignored. At its heart, wine, the agricultural product, is about bringing people together. It’s something we should be in awe of, but it doesn’t have to evoke elitism and snobbery. That does a disservice to something that should be enjoyed by everyone.
What reminders do you offer for those looking to break into the industry?
First, that you can learn a lot about a person by the way they treat those that serve them. Common decency and respect should be foundational. Second, giving a voice to those who haven’t had a voice before is very powerful. I’ve tried to do this with my book – and I hope those stories will serve as a wake-up call.